Asheville City Council candidate guide — Rich Lee

by David Forbes September 27, 2015

Name: Rich Lee

Profession: Financial Advisor

Political Affiliation: Democrat

Why I’m running: The next few years will be a crucial test of Asheville’s strength and creativity as a city: how we absorb a flood of new people and money while holding onto the things we all value, our artists and entrepreneurs, our economic diversity, and our infrastructure, natural beauty, and quality of life.

General questions

These questions are about problems, challenges or topics facing city government and how you would try to deal with them if elected. 

1) According to recent studies, Asheville has an extremely low amount of available housing and the city’s currently making national lists as an unaffordable place to live. What steps would you pursue to deal with this issue?

I support programs to directly build housing on city-owned land (or in close collaboration with a nonprofit partner) over the common practice of giving grants and tax incentives to private, large apartment developers. And I favor supporting the small-time landlords and homeowners supplying almost half of Asheville’s rental stock, perhaps with tax breaks for keeping rents truly affordable, fee waivers, or other kinds of assistance in building and operating small basement and backyard rentals. Small rentals have lower traffic and other impacts, are easier to fit into existing neighborhoods, and seem intuitively to be a lower-cost and more efficient approach, with the advantage of helping small landlords continue to afford to live here themselves. It reduces the pressure to convert long-term rentals to short-term vacation rentals. In any event, I don’t think taxpayer funds or city incentives should go toward creating housing that’s not truly affordable by anyone’s standards.

I think my West Asheville neighborhood would be a great fit for inclusionary zoning but am not sure it’s a one-size-fits-all approach. I’d also push—though again, the legality is still being decided—for commercial developers on major corridors to propose affordable housing above their retail or business space. How much better would the new Whole Foods on Tunnel Road or the Harris Teeter on Merrimon be if they had apartments on second floors, instead of being one-story buildings occupying prime real estate near transit corridors?

Ultimately any discussion of affordability is also a discussion of what people earn here. The city has the ability to really push job growth across a range of sectors, and to insist on those jobs paying a living wage. If we can get there on wages, we’ll have a lot easier time getting people into housing they can afford.

2) During the past year, we’ve seen an increasing numbers of concerns raised about de facto racial segregation in Asheville, an issue worsened by the impacts of redlining, racism, urban renewal and the state of public housing. If elected, what specifically would you do to help address this problem?

There’s a lot we could do. Create housing affordable on local minority families’ typical wages, including opportunities for black homeownership. Use zoning to reduce the spread of high-end, above-market housing in Shiloh and S. French Broad neighborhoods. Create living-wage jobs near historically black neighborhoods and support black business ownership using grants and tax incentives. Consider forming a minority business committee to look at impediments to minority business ownership. Lobby the NC Department of Transportation and rally the community against expanding I-240 into Burton Street neighborhood and a majority-Latino area of Emma. Improve the relationship between Asheville Police and housing project residents, making Asheville a regional leader in fair policing with regular, ongoing anti-bias training. Integrate public housing more into mixed-income developments, reducing the physical and social isolation of public-housing residents.

In the end, I can’t blame black families and young people of color for leaving Asheville to pursue better opportunities in more supportive communities like Charlotte, Atlanta, or Winston Salem. Since I moved here in 1997, Asheville’s black population has shrunk by over 1,000, even as its white population has boomed. As a city that values fairness and diversity, Asheville needs to commit to supporting its minority residents. To me, affordable housing and living-wage jobs are also matters of racial justice, as well as social and economic justice.

3) From internal disputes and problems with morale to concerns about racial disparities, many are wondering about the state of the Asheville Police Department. What specific steps do you see as necessary to reform the APD and improve relations with the community?

The city has taken a good first step by hiring a new chief who has broad support within the department and raising police and firefighter wages so staff aren’t poached away to other cities. (With hiring and training costs approaching six figures per officer, losing trained police because of uncompetitive wages is a money-losing proposition.) The other half of the equation is support within the community. I would suggest the chief implement regular, ongoing anti-bias training and continue the department’s community-oriented policing model, getting officers out of cars and into community meetings and neighborhoods.

As the Police Department begins using body cameras, let’s make sure there’s a sensible policy about protecting the privacy of citizens, especially children. No innocent person in an encounter with the police should have to worry about bodycam footage being requested and posted to YouTube the next day or week. Without such policies in place, I’m uncomfortable with officers wearing cameras while interacting with people in the community. And let’s please end the practice of filming and storing footage of political rallies and other Constitutionally-protected events, thanks.

4) Wages in Asheville are well below the state average and federal data shows pay for many jobs here remains stagnant despite the tourism boom. If elected, what specific steps would you pursue to help boost local wages?

I support job creation among smaller, local businesses over the usual economic development approach of competing for employers from out-of-area with big tax breaks and other giveaways. Since those big deals go to the city that offers the most perks for the least in return, that seems inherently a race to the bottom. The same incentives and other support NC cities give large employers are available to small ones, too. But many small business owners, even those who want to expand, are struggling with day-to-day operations. They don’t have a whole department out shopping cities, like international corporations do. Helping local businesses would keep money in the community; it would avoid bad deals like Volvo and Caterpillar skipping town as soon as their incentive packages run out. It would mean smaller deals that spread jobs around the economy instead of concentrating them in a few big bets. Take a look at this list of city jobs incentives over the last 10 years.Jobs don’t cost the same amount per tax dollar in every deal. In fact, smaller companies like Hi-Wire Brewing, White Labs, and Tutco Farnam usually pay off better in jobs than the biggest deals (which come with a lot of real estate development.) The city needs to be careful whose taxes it’s cutting, while raising taxes on other property owners, and what it’s getting in return.

As a side note to that, a much more streamlined permitting process would go a long way toward growing businesses and keeping them in the black. Two months or more to get permitted for even minor improvements is too long for many entrepreneurs to budget for. Inconsistency among inspectors and plan reviewers means more expensive changes, which translates to fewer jobs created later. The process should be fair, transparent, and predictable.

5) The last city budget estimated the total cost of the city’s infrastructure needs at around $400 million. What steps would you encourage to address this problem, what funding sources would you use and what would the top priorities be?

While the city’s borrowing costs are low (S&P rates us a AAA borrower, the highest category, with interest rates in the 1.5-2% range, at least for now), the city should be taking on debt to make good investments in the city’s infrastructure. We also need to continue our course of partnering with the county, the state, and even the federal governments, on projects that will make Asheville more livable, more fair economically, and more valuable down the road. We need to recognize that our attractiveness and the appeal of our quality of life is the biggest economic engine in the area. Maintaining streets, parks, sidewalks, greenways and beautiful, healthy neighborhoods aren’t just trivialities in the face of tight budgets; they’re investments we need to make in our future financial health. The same goes for a living wage: right now, local businesses suffer because local residents can’t afford to patronize them. A living wage has some costs to employers, but it also means more money circulating in the economy, more disposable income here locally that can be spent on restaurants, home improvements, entertainment, or — ahem — funding retirement accounts.

In the next year or two, I’d also like the city to take another whack at the hotel room tax. It looks like the city won’t be able to change the split between marketing and tourism projects dictated by state law, but we may be able to get some big infrastructure projects of local interest, like downtown sidewalks, greenways, or affordable artist studio space, deemed “tourism-related” under the law as written, and get access to that money anyway. That’s an ongoing effort and conversation between the city, the county, the Tourism Development Authority and the state legislature.

Yes/No questions

These questions are about specific proposals Council has or may consider, and how you would vote on them. The first word of each answer must be Yes or No. An explanation of one’s position — or an alternative proposal — may follow.

1) A majority of Asheville City Council recently approved increased fines and enforcement to strengthen the ban on short-term rentals (i.e. Airbnb and similar sites) in most areas of the city. Do you support this move?

No. I do think there should be a way to make use of your own home or even a detached unit legally, while restricting the number of short-term rentals in the city and limiting the number owned by any one person to only one. Like anybody, I don’t want to see out-of-town investors with little stake in the community running unregulated mini-motels in the middle of neighborhoods. I genuinely believe that’s something with the potential to affect the availability of affordable housing in town. If the homestay proposal brought to the council is the 50-yard line, I’m two steps to its left. My preference would have been starting the process of legalizing the best practices and increasing enforcement on the worst.

2) City staff recently proposed a detailed plan to restrict busking in downtown in three major spots, with specific rules on the numbers of performers and the amount of space they can occupy. Do you support this proposal?

No. I support the Buskers’ Collective’s counter-proposal to mark areas to be kept clear for pedestrians and let the buskers play where it makes sense. They also have some interesting ideas about how downtown spaces could be changed slightly to make more room for performances AND more room for pedestrians.

3) Do you support a $12.50 minimum wage for all city of Asheville employees, regardless of classification or status?

Yes. The city should keep its commitments and walk the walk, if we’re going to be a model to other local employers.

4) Will you approve city funds to support the proposal, backed by the city-county African-American Heritage Commission, for a monument on Pack Square marking the contributions and history of Asheville’s black citizens?

Yes. This is long overdue.

5) This year’s city budget included a property tax increase, with a majority of the current Council claiming this was necessary due to revenue changes at the state level. Do you support that increase?

Yes. I went into this a little on my website, but at the time there was some discussion of whether the city could delay the tax increase and fund its needs with borrowing. It turned out that by making the hard call now, the city was able to show good fiscal management and achieve the top credit rating: AAA. This means lower borrowing costs and access to better funding in the future, which should pay off in much quicker infrastructure improvements and less pressure on the budget going forward. As much as I do believe any discussion of taxes also goes to affordability in a town currently in crisis, the decision to raise taxes makes sense. Now it’s on this and future city government to give the public the value that they’re paying for.