Mayor of Asheville presents state of the city at area business meeting
The homelessness crisis is at the forefront of the city’s problems, says Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, speaking to a group of area business owners as the city council heads into the season budgetary.
Manheimer presented the state of the city of Asheville at a Council of Independent Business Owners issues meeting on March 4, and although the city’s main issue has changed several times during his mandate, she said that right now they were seeing a “spike” in homelessness.
Exacerbated by the pandemic and exacerbated by calls for more affordable housing, emergency shelter and compassionate treatment, the community has repeatedly called on the city to address the crisis.
“We’re working very hard to try to solve this crisis in so many different ways,” Manheimer said of Asheville’s homeless population, which hovered around 527 at the January 2021 count.
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While not necessarily a peak in population, Manheimer said “the visibility of our homeless population has increased significantly.”
Manheimer presented topics such as a fully funded police department, a response to encampment policy changes and a new housing and apartment building model – a look at the past year, taking into account what is to come.
Between the Homeward Bound Days Inn project and California-based developers coming to the Ramada in East Asheville, there are 185 permanent supportive housing units in the pipeline, Manheimer said.
The city is also continuing development of high-access shelters, a model originally planned for the Ramada Inn before a quick council pivot in December.
In partnership with Buncombe County and Dogwood Health Trust, the city issued a request for proposals in February to seek a homeless services consultant to develop future projects, long-term solutions and housing options.
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Business owners questioned how the city could stop being “attractive” to homeless people, and Manheimer said that as a service hub in western North Carolina, Asheville is home to resources such as the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which will draw people here for support services. .
However, Manheimer also expressed support for the Asheville Police Department to continue enforcing the city’s camping ban — which abruptly dropped its seven-day to 24-hour notice policy earlier this year.
“We need to make that clear, that people can’t come here and expect to come and camp within the city limits. That’s not going to be acceptable,” she said.
“As long as we continue to have capacity in our shelters, to provide people with accommodation options, I believe the police need to continue to work with Homeward Bound to enforce this camping ban.”
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Despite the low numbers, currently down about 41%, Manheimer stressed that the police department is fully funded, regardless of accusations from some community members.
As part of the city’s campaign to reinvent public safety, the council reallocated funding from some police departments to other departments — like animal control, data and performance, park rangers, homeless education, noise ordinance enforcement, parking and nuisance/abandoned vehicle abatement.
According to Manheimer’s presentation, 97 officers have left the department since January 2020.
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Another issue discussed at the meeting was affordable housing, which Manheimer said continues to be a top concern.
Asheville has developed a “robust toolkit” to tackle the problem, she said, and uses land use incentive grants, federal grant programs, housing trust funds and development funds. Affordable Housing Bonds, as well as non-profit and private investments, to develop affordable housing.
With more changes needed to encourage housing growth, she said the city was interested in a housing and apartment model similar to the new ordinance which created a “by right” process for hotel development in a neighborhood. dedicated to hotel overlay.
The current hotel rules, which went into effect with the February 2021 end of Asheville’s 17-month moratorium on new hotel permits, have given future hotel developers in the city a smaller area where they are allowed to build and a system that has forced them to pay into a new fund for reparations and other public benefits.
With nine hotel projects approved or under review since adopting the new process, Manheimer said, eight have chosen the process “by right,” which does not require city council review. , but increases the number of public benefits to which hoteliers must contribute.
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These eight projects could bring at least $1 million to an affordable housing trust fund or repair fund.
State of the local economy
Also at the March 4 CIBO meeting, Nathan Ramsey, Executive Director of the Land of Sky Regional Council and Director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, gave a presentation on the local labor market.
The job market, despite taking a hit early in COVID, “has largely…recovered,” he said, and is bouncing back.
In December, the Asheville metro area saw an unemployment rate of 2.6%, he said, its lowest since December 1999, which stood at around 2.2%. Before the pandemic, the area had the lowest unemployment rate in the state for 61 straight months.
Metro Asheville fell from 3.6% unemployment in March 2020 to 16.2% a month later, and in Buncombe County the rate reached 17.5%.
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Despite the low unemployment rate, Ramsey said the area is still struggling to fill the jobs it does have, with far more openings than workers.
In February, Ramsey said there were about 23,301 unique positions in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties, and 5,584 unemployed.
It’s not a problem unique to the region, he said, and encouraged employers to focus on retaining, expanding their network and “upgrading” existing workers.
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Current advice? Email [email protected] or message on Twitter @slhonosky.