We are a city of renters

by David Forbes May 17, 2016

From Airbnb to city boards, too much of our politics focuses on property owners, but renters are half the city’s population. It’s time to listen to them seriously.

City Hall under renovation. Photo by Bill Rhodes.

If you haven’t heard, Airbnb and its ilk are back in the news, as tonight Asheville City Council will consider whether to allow accessory dwelling units (i.e. garage, basement apartments, etc.) to be rented out to tourists and visitors.

Short-term rentals are a complicated topic, one we’ve covered in-depth from a lot of angles. But so far the debate has been, with a few exceptions, largely portrayed as one between two factions of property owners. One sees using Airbnb as a way to make money off a tourism economy that they see mostly benefiting hotel owners and larger companies. The other focuses on the issues that might affect them when those other property owners rent their property out to tourists: disrupting their neighborhoods, noise, property values, more commercial activity in residential areas.

During the most recent round of that debate, at the May 4 Planning and Zoning meeting, this dynamic was on full display as the speakers volleyed back and forth. At one point, one asked if Asheville really wanted to become a “city of renters.”

Here’s the thing, the giant point too often missing from this and so many other debates: we already are.

Asheville is a city of renters. According to information from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half the city’s residents, 49.2 percent, rent rather than own their homes, and that percentage has steadily ticked upwards over the years.

But Asheville’s political culture haven’t kept up, and the terms too often used in the Airbnb debate are just the latest example of that: overwhelmingly, the voices of renters have been left out, with the fate of this or that group of property owners tied to whichever decisions the city makes.

Yet renters are now the core of the city, the people who make up a large part of its working class, who ensure that just about every industry operates and who are responsible for a major part of our culture and economy. Even for those that wanted to, the incredibly low wages paid in many of Asheville’s industries preclude home ownership.

Without renters who have the ability to live in some measure of basic, affordable comfort and security, Asheville doesn’t function. Given the condition of plenty of the housing around here, and the skyrocketing costs that still have our city making lists of the most unsustainable housing markets in the country, their future and the pressures threatening it are among the most important problems Asheville faces.

I’ve brought this fact up a few times in discussions during the short-term rental debate and several others, mainly to provide context and try to broaden the discussion just a bit. The reactions witnessed have been the most disturbing part of all this.

For all its reputation as a “progressive city,” plenty of Ashevillians who might tout their liberal bona fides have fully embraced the repulsive idea that the simple fact of owning property gives them a special voice in local politics and that being a renter, by the same token, gives one none.

It’s hard to say how regressive an idea this is, but a direct tie between property ownership and political voice was attacked as far back as the late 1700s as aristocratic and un-American, and under serious siege as a far-right holdover by the 1830s. It made a few comebacks, usually tied to ugly racism as well (Jim Crow state constitutions often restricted the ability to vote on property as well as race, though not as severely).

But the core idea, unfortunately, has wormed its way back in our cities, and it’s reflected in plenty of policies as well. Several boards have seats reserved for property owners, and at one point there was even an attempt to give power over tax dollars to an independent entity that would have reserved governing seats for downtown property owners of specific classes of wealth. The trope comes up repeatedly in the repulsive invocation of “skin in the game” (i.e. wealth and property) as the requirement for political voice.

So let’s dispel the myth at the heart of that assumption. Owning property means one thing about a person, and one thing only.

At some point, they had the money to buy property.

That’s it, that’s all it means (or that they inherited it). By itself, property ownership doesn’t make someone better or more invested in the people around them. A homeowner might be a pillar of their community who goes out of their way to help others and improve things for all or they might be a nasty, gentrifying busybody who wants to kick out anyone of insufficiently high social standing before flipping the house for profit.

But it doesn’t bestow any special insight or public feeling, and the idea that property somehow magically gives one those powers needs to die yesterday. Inevitably, this belief skews policy discussions and decisions towards wealthier, whiter voices and away from large numbers of those most affected by government policy.

Reversing this will take conscious effort and a refusal to accept some deeply-held political assumptions that have gone unchallenged for too long in our city. Property owners have historically received overwhelmingly more attention from media and politicians.

For any debate going forward, the rules for assessing a policy need to change. Does it extend renters’ rights or curb them? Does it make them more or less secure from eviction? Does it give landlords more arbitrary power or less? Does it raise the cost of rentals or lower them? Were renters directly involved in the boards and commissions that drafted it?

These questions need to be asked every area from public safety to affordable housing efforts to zoning to, yes, Airbnb and the latest city budget, both of which are up for public discussion tonight.

But that should be only the beginning. The voices of renters are those of half the city. Any decision made without their needs front and center is leaving out too much of Asheville to lead anywhere good. Too many of those decisions, too many times writing off half our citizens as unworthy of a voice, and Asheville will end up in the middle of a disaster.

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