Asheville City Council candidate interview — Lindsey Simerly

by David Forbes October 30, 2015

One of the biggest things facing Council in the next four years is the overhaul of the UDO. If elected, what are going to be your priorities on that?

There’s been a lot of frustration with the number of hotels that are being built downtown and the amount of chain stores that are looking to come into downtown, so particularly looking at downtown and seeing what ways we can write into our code ways to limit chain stores coming in, and what are ways that we can limit the hotel construction.

There seems to be a real frustration among city residents and if that’s what the community is saying — that we don’t want anymore for now, forever — that we need to listen to them.

There has been a lot of concern about hotels, as you mentioned. As someone who’s dealt with zoning policy, what are the ways a restriction or change of policy would or should take place?

I don’t know exactly what it looks like in the UDO or the comprehensive master plan. I feel like I can’t say exactly what it is because I don’t want to limit the ways that could take shape with saying like, a height restriction or something like that. I think it would need to be more specific to hotel use.

Some of the conversations have been around the overhaul of the Downtown Master plan limits on review. Is that something that should be revisited?

At this time, no. One of the main reasons why is because with the Downtown Master plan a lot of those changes came about to make it a lot more clear to builders what you can and can’t do with allowable sizes in downtown. What we’ve seen play out a lot of the time is people trying to build housing being delayed. The Larchmont is a good example of a project that because it had to come before Council review, it gets caught up in politics and not necessarily what’s best for our city.

It took over two years to get the Larchmont finally approved, which provided 60+ affordable, attractive safe units on Merrimon Avenue. They [developer Mountain Housing Opportunities] were able to stick it through with that process, but that scared off a lot of people that are willing to build affordable housing.

Whenever we say ‘hey, if you’re building something that’s below a certain size” — like if we were to reduce it down and say that anything that’s built downtown has to come before Council review — having it in the hands of seven elected officials, so you may bring a project and there’s an election and you’ve got an entirely different body sitting in front of you. Primarily from the lens of affordable housing, I’m not for it at this time.

So any restrictions on hotels would have to take another form?


Another thing you’ve spoken about is your belief in the need to increase density in some of the zoning changes going forward. What would that look like and what, in your perception, is the need for it?

One of the changes that’s already happened is allowing for residential usage in commercial zones. So that’s going to be a big one, that that’s now an allowed usage on those commercial corridors, so for example Patton Avenue, Tunnel Road, those big commercial corridors that are dominated by businesses now, of really encouraging mixed-use development to happen in those. Those are going to be, I think, really critical thoroughfares, seeing a lot of density crop up along those transportation corridors.

We’re growing in population, pretty significantly, and for sustainability, for affordability, we’ve got to be able to increase some of that density in the city limits and along those transportation corridors. If not, people are going to continue to move to Candler or Haywood County and commute in, which puts a strain on our traffic, it puts a strain on our air quality, it puts a strain on all of our quality of life.

One of the proposals you’ve been an advocate of is an inclusionary zoning ordinance, similar to the ones in Chapel Hill and Davidson. Specifically, what do you see as the need for that?

Mandatory inclusionary zoning is the single most effective policy to get new units of affordable housing in mixed neighborhoods all around the city. The best part about it is that it’s not a city subsidy, it’s demanding that developers play an equal part in providing this affordable housing. That cost is then passed off to more wealthy renters or homeowners. It’s a policy that works, every city that you look at it. It’s a policy that in five, 10 years can really, really increase the number of affordable units that we’ve got.

Our affordable housing trust fund can get us 60, 70, 80 units. Our policy changes can get us a few hundred more, but the city of Asheville can not solve the affordable housing crisis on its own, at all. It just can’t.

As far as with subsidies or incentives?

Yes, there’s just not nearly the money there to do that. Development is a big part of the reason housing costs so much. So it just makes good common sense that developers should be a part of addressing that problem.

This has obviously been around for some years in two other North Carolina cities and you’ve dealt with city housing policy on the Affordable Housing Commission. Why hasn’t it happened in Asheville yet and what do you see as the obstacles if you’re elected?

There’s three: Davidson, Carrboro and Chapel Hill, though theirs [Carrboro] is a bit more limited. The honest answer is that we’ve been scared that we’re going to get sued if we did it. It’s no secret that the city of Asheville, especially when Rep. [Tim] Moffitt was in office had a target on it. Anytime they’d find a way to help working class people, Raleigh would find a way to squash that down.

Because mandatory inclusionary zoning is so effective, we didn’t want to bring that policy until we felt it had its very best chance of becoming law and staying law, therefore providing those long-term results we need.

It’s still not going to be an overnight thing. I’m not going to get elected and we’re going to implement it the next day. It’s going to be a piece of policy that’s going to take time to craft it in the most precise way possible and have the most clear language on it possible to where, if we are challenged on it in court, we have a very strong chance of winning that.

There’s only one of them that’s been challenged in court — Davidson’s.

Any idea yet on what the percentage requirement or the offset funding would be?

I think that’s something we’d have to look at. Different cities do it any number of ways. In some places it’s just for home ownership, some places it’s just for renters. In some places it’s as little of five [percent of new units required to be affordable] in some places it’s as much as 20, 25 percent. Some places it’s all affordable, some places it’s affordable and workforce. I think it’s too soon in the discussion to say what it is going to be.

Another proposal that’s been brought up on the affordability front is some sort of tax write-off or incentive for smaller landlords to keep units affordable. What are your thoughts on that and if you support it, what form would it take?

It doesn’t currently qualify. I guess it could under the affordable housing trust fund, but that’s just been used to create units of affordable housing. There are some smaller landlords that do it, there’s only one for-profit developer that does access the affordable housing trust fund money, and that’s Kirk Booth.

The preservation piece is tricky. Every study that we get back says our number one goal should be the creation of new affordable units for a whole host of reasons. It’s not as effective to try to piecemeal it and often private landlords have a very different view of what affordable housing means. Somebody that has one house or one apartment may think that they can charge $1,000 a month and say that’s affordable and that they deserve a tax credit for that and that’s not the case, that’s not even close to the federal levels of affordability.

So you think there’d be limited demand for this once the city laid down criteria?

Yes, there are very few private landlords that would be able to offer rents comparable to what Mountain Housing does, of $300 a month for a one-bedroom apartment that meets housing codes and is a quality unit. It’d be very hard for an individual that has one or two units to provide a $300 a month apartment. The city property tax write-off on that, even if there was a 100 percent waiver, it’d be so small. You may have a few folks that would benefit.

Another issue around affordability, with plenty of controversy, if the short-term rental issue. You’re a proponent of strengthening the current ban in residential areas. One of the criticisms that’s been directed at that is that it would hard or impossible for the city to enforce that. What’s your response?

That’s why we would have a person that was dedicated to the enforcement of that. It’s impossible to enforce it without people, but part of the proposal is that there would be a person who that’s their specific job is to handle the enforcement of that.

What do you view as the importance of that enforcement?

The short-term rental ban’s been on the books for 10 years. So this is not a new thing. The city of Asheville, even thought it’s been illegal for 10 years, has the most number of short-term rentals in the entire state of North Carolina. There’s about 1,000 of them operating right now. They’re illegal.

In cities around the country, they’ve said ‘whoa, this is too many.’ I know, whenever I go to the beach, for vacation, or have travelled anywhere and have stayed in something that’s a short-term rental, everything around it is short-term rentals. It doesn’t feel like a neighborhood, it doesn’t feel like a place where people live. It feels like a place people go to vacation. I think that Asheville’s neighborhoods need to be for residents first, not for people that are coming here to vacation. I think it’s one of the biggest threats to quality of life and neighbors and so I support the continued ban on short-term rentals. I support homestays. If someone wants to rent out a room in their house while they’re there, go for it.

But I think that the bigger opportunity, and one reason we changed the accessory dwelling unit policy to make it easier for a lot of people to build an apartment in their attic, their basement or put a tiny home in their backyard, is that that helps them make a little money to pay their mortgage and it helps benefit someone who needs a safe, attractive place to live in the city limits. That was created for workers in Asheville. That policy wasn’t created to expand the number of short-term rentals in our neighborhoods.

So you would have concerns about homestays being extended to accessory dwelling units for that reason?

At this time. I’ve been asked about that, and it’s trickier, people are like ‘if it’s an attached apartment, should that be able to be a homestay?’ I think if we were not in such an overall crisis maybe. We’ve got a less than one percent vacancy rate for rental units across our whole area, in every income range, there’s not even places to rent for people that are looking, which is what has driven the cost up and up and up. So being able to have additional units on the market for people that live and work here, not just people that come here, is my top priority.

The Southside Advisory Board has petitioned for the renovation of the Walton Street pool. This is an effort you’ve publicly endorsed. If elected, what is pushing for this going to look like?

It’s getting it in the capital improvement budget, ideally within the first four years and pushing for that to be the number one parks budget increase.

Why, in your view, does it need to be at the top of the list?

Have you been down there? If you’ve been by the Walton Street pool it’s pretty evident. When you talk to moms whose kids get their feet cut because pieces of pool are coming off or the grass that’s overgrown or the windows that are painted over, it’s not a welcoming and inviting place.

The Walton Street pool was built as a product of segregation and it’s been ignored for a long time. It sits in what’s still a historically African-American neighborhood, and it’s a place of real community history. Not just because it’s a pool, but looking at city policy through a lens of equity, it rises to the top.

Related to that, both with that issue and concerns in the Burton Street and Shiloh neighborhoods about the degree to which their plans have — or haven’t — been incorporated into city plans is there a need for the city to look at how it deals with infrastructure in historically African-American communities?

I think the updated revisions they did to the sidewalks plan that are more data-driven are going to be helpful. But can we apply that same metric to roads, I think it is to some degree already, of ‘do people use it to get to transit, is it a thoroughfare, is it walking from a residence to a business? Do people in the neighborhood not have cars? There’s some solid ways they can prioritize who gets the next sidewalks, not just which neighborhood has the biggest voice in that.

But my only concern with some of the data-driven stuff is that it doesn’t take into account the history of our city, which like every city in America, historically was not an equal place for black people. I was at the Racial Equity Institute this past weekend and they were saying it’s like if you’re playing a three-hour game of Monopoly and all the black people don’t get to start playing until the last hour it’s already been going on for too long, you’re already so far behind in that. That’s the way that’s played out in a lot of our neighborhoods.

I think taking some of that history into account, but it will probably match up pretty well with the data in terms of neighborhoods that still have a lot of poverty and people that rely on the bus system.

The city is likely going to be involved in the development of Lee Walker Heights. This comes at a time where there’s been back-and-forths and certainly tension between housing residents and the housing authority, over RAD, over the increased evictions. Given those concerns, how do you see that redevelopment proceeding?

I think it’s going to have to be a super careful and slow process, because this will be the first one that the city’s tried to redevelop, that the city’s tried to make into a better place, a mixed-income neighborhood where every single person that wants to come back gets to come back and gets to have a nice, clean new place to live.

Because it’s the first one, it’s vital that we get it right. If we get that one wrong, then how are we going to go into any other community in this town and say ‘hey, we want to start the process of revitalization.’ I think getting Lee Walker right, even if that takes extra time and attention, is going to be a critical piece of that puzzle.

It’s been successful in other places. We know that mixed neighborhoods are good neighborhoods. What happened when all these housing projects popped up all over the country was tragic. It’s created cyclical poverty and it’s historically been areas of higher crime, it’s segregated neighborhoods. It’s everything wrong with development and racism and classism mapped out.

If elected to Council, would you support any future deal on Lee Walker being contingent on the approval of the Residents Council?

Probably. The Residents Council has been very involved from the start on that process. I think if you don’t have the majority of that leadership on board, then I think it’s doomed.

There’s of course been a lot of discussion over the plot of land across from the Basilica. You’ve said before that you are open to a potential sale on that. What are the specific reasons you see for taking that course of action?

There’s a couple. I absolutely support a park or a plaza as part of the development of that piece of property that honors the Basilica. There’s no debate that that’s one of the most beautiful buildings we have in our city. It’s an architectural jewel, so we should have something there that engages that space.

But using that whole space that the city’s already paid $2.6 million for to just add a flat green park at a cost of at least $4 million plus the ongoing maintenance continues to put other parks priorities, especially the Walton Street Pool, to the bottom of the list.

Talking to people around downtown, one of the criticisms is that the last two things proposed there were a parking deck and a hotel. If elected, how would this time be any different?

I don’t support a hotel, I don’t support a parking deck on that property. If the building had some underground parking in with it, I think that that’d be great, that area could use a significant amount more parking, especially for the Grove Arcade. That said, it should not be just a parking deck.

I think it could be any number of cool things. I don’t think we know yet what it could be, whether that’s a university arts department, whether that’s a small corporate headquarters that’s got grand-level retail, a restaurant. I think you can think of many of the cool cities in this country that have really engaging spaces near historically beautiful churches, architecture. I think the best ideas are yet to come on it. The Asheville Design Center has done really beautiful drawings of what the space could look like.

So if elected, when the city’s crafting an RFP, would that rule out certain things?

Oh for sure. It would rule out hotel, parking deck, chain.

The I-26 reports just came out, the Environmental Impact Study just came out from the state. In that, the state recommends a number of things that run counter to the requests of the local leadership over the years. What does that show about the city’s approach towards modifying that project and is the project something that needs to get done or is a bad idea throughout?

It’s still too big, it’s still got too much impact, particularly in the Burton Street neighborhood. No, I think it’s important we get it right. I know that we’ve been discussing it as a city since what, the 90s? But this will be one of the most important pieces of infrastructure and it needs to be able to help connect parts of Asheville, people in Asheville that are coming to Asheville and travelling within the city, not just going through Asheville. The DOT’s plans continue to affect more of a priority on people that are travelling through the city.

In the past few years, city leaders have generally taken a more conciliatory approach towards I-26 in hopes of modifying it. With this proposal not showing modifications, does that need to change?

It’s a good question. There are some better elements in the new proposals, like the greenways running the extent of it that would connect West Asheville to downtown. But as far as the tactics go, I don’t feel like I can say at this time.

Since 2012, the city has not had a dedicated staffer just towards the arts, since the departure of Diane Ruggiero. Is that something that needs to be looked at given Asheville’s status as something of an arts destination? Are there any other changes towards the way the city deals with arts and public art that you think need to be made?

I don’t know if it needs to be a city staffer, but I think our engagement and partnership with arts leaders, whether it’s the Asheville Area Arts Council or whoever, arts are critical to our region. They’re the way a lot of our residents make their money, they’re what make our city beautiful. It’s one of the main reasons why we love living here.

I think as we’re building new infrastructure, revitalizing existing infrastructure, we need to do that with the arts in mind. We have an incredible wealth of resources in this town, Asheville Design Center is definitely one of those. Whether we’re talking about bus stops, benches, guard rails, sidewalks, what can we do to help make those pieces of infrastructure more beautiful, more interesting while employing local artists.

One of Council’s primary duties under the city charter is to oversee, to exercise scrutiny on staff, especially represented by the city manager. Gary Jackson’s been in office for 10 years, and that time’s seen everything from a AAA bond rating to major troubles with the police department. What’s your assessment of Jackson’s conduct in the office and, if elected, what would be your approach to providing scrutiny?

Not having served on Council, I don’t feel like I can provide an accurate critique of him as a city manager. You listed two, the AAA bond rating is his crowning achievement, it’s great, but the problems with the Asheville Police Department are hard to deny.

I think the police department piece, it’s critically important that we get it right and that we get it right quickly. None of us want to see Asheville in the way that we’ve seen so many communities around the country in the last couple years. I’ve got a lot of faith in our new police chief, I think we’ve got a lot of good officers on our force, but there’s no denying there’s an existing morale problem within the department and there’s no denying that many residents still don’t trust the police. So I think we need to take concrete steps, like having Asheville Police Department officers wear body cameras. That is a concrete step we can take that will help improve the trust of citizens and police, which is vital.

Not having sat on City Council, but having dealt with city government, what would you see as your approach to holding staff accountable.

I work with a lot of city staff in my role as housing board advisory chair. The people I’ve met on the staff of the city are hard working professionals who really and truly care about this community. I would hope that that’s true for every single one of those employees. Our job as Council is to make sure that staff is well-compensated for what they do — which is one reason I was so excited about the living wage across the board for every single person that works for the city — but also to make sure that the people that are working for the city of Asheville are doing a good job, that they’re working hard, that they have the community’s best interests at heart and that that’s priority number one. We spend taxpayer dollars to hire staff and have to do a good job by our residents.

Who else are you voting for in this election?

Julie Mayfield and Marc Hunt.

The Asheville Blade is entirely funded by its readers. If you like our work, donate directly to us on Patreon. Questions? Comments? Email us.