Three furies

by David Forbes January 3, 2017

The next year promises to be a major — and contentious one — for local government. Here’s three of the forces that will continue to define our city’s divisions

Above: City Hall by night. Photo by Max Cooper.

While plenty of the attention was on national politics last year, local politics continued to see divisions within our city and local government emerge, something happening at an increasingly rapid pace since the upsets of the 2015 elections.

This year promises little respite. The mayorship and three Asheville City Council seats — a majority of the city’s elected officials — are up for election and the possibility of special elections for the state legislature (mandated by the federal courts, naturally) promises to change the usual turnout calculations in some interesting ways. As 2017 begins, it’s worth taking a hard look at what the past year revealed about some of the major controversies shaping Asheville. While there are no shortage of those, three major forces in particular are shaping our city’s current political terrain. They frequently intersect, but are worth looking at one by one.

Equity — Asheville remains a de facto segregated city. Racial equity issues highlighted by multiple activists and citizens on fronts from the economy to law enforcement and examined by reports like the State of Black Asheville have become more apparent over the past year and will remain major controversies in the year to come.

Ashevillians got reminders of a lot of these issues during 2016. The year started off with a Council retreat that committed the city to an study of how equitable its practices actually are, after 2015’s elections saw the end of an all-white Council. The budget allocated money for staff to try to enforce any suggested changes, though it remains an open question how well locals will see the efforts as addressing these problems.

It didn’t end there. The controversies following the police killing of Jerry Williams last Summer saw an immediate issue collide with deep tensions over police conduct in minority communities stretching back years, even decades.

Debates over infrastructure, from where the bond money was going to what the fate of the Walton Street Pool also continued. Dwight Mullen, the UNCA professor who runs the State of Black Asheville project, noted late in the year that the recent years of tourism boom have also seen a collapse in the income of black households in the city, and that the latest edition of that report — still being compiled — continues to find similarly harsh realities.

The membership of the city’s boards — where a lot of policy gets crafted (or policy developed by staff gets rubber-stamped, depending on one’s point of view of a particular committee) remain disproportionately wealthy, white and male, though there have been more recent efforts to change that a bit, especially following increasing public attention and pressure in 2016.

Expect more pressure on the LGBT rights front as well. Council opting not to pass a Charlotte-style LGBT ordinance pre-HB2 was a more controversial decision than most of the elected officials anticipated, While much of the HB2 ire landed on the state government’s doorstep, that earlier choice by Council shifted many activists from that community towards a more skeptical view of local government’s willingness to take swift action on their behalf. Given that, look for more pressure from LGBT activists for concrete changes, especially on trans issues.

There’s already signs questions over policing will remain a major focus. As the APD wrangles over a new use of force policy, local open data and homelessness activists recently highlighted the number of homeless arrested over the past decade and called for changes on that front as well. The Open Data Policing NC project’s numbers, which deal with departments across the state but showed some major racial disparities in APD traffic stop and search statistics, are also set to become a big issue, as both local and statewide activists are convening in Asheville to discuss and present them in the early months of this year.

Tensions over these issues will also play out in which reforms the city does or doesn’t take upon the completion of the equity report, where the bond money actually gets spent, the looming I-26 hit to Burton Street and other neighborhoods and numerous other local issues of where 2017’s cycle of budget cash goes. This issue also collides with…

The conduct of city staff. The ways in which city staff wields power and which groups they respond to became a much more publicly controversial issue in 2016 from Council’s January retreat all the way to the end of the year. That retreat saw Council members assert that City Manager Gary Jackson should follow through on the Food Action Plan they had passed, something the non-profits in charge of overseeing the plan asserted staff had largely ignored.

From the time it boiled into the public eye in late 2015,  the fight over managing the bus system proved another such battleground. That fight saw members of a city board, the transit workers’ union and a major non-profit sharply criticize city staff and what they claimed was a lack of transparency or responsiveness to community needs. In the process, a major transit staffer told a city committee that a key document that she had directly written a month earlier didn’t exist (meaning she either had a stunning lapse of memory or, more likely, simply lied). In the end, the city went back to the drawing board about the whole question, claiming that amid all that controversy the methods used by the staff involved had also failed to meet federal requirements for the bidding process.

The harsh response to summer protests taken by Chief Tammy Hooper’s administration, including some police officials either lying to ,the public or failing to know basic facts about the demonstrations, proved another flashpoint over staff conduct. Hooper’s reputation as a supposed reformer ended 2016 a lot more tattered than it began.

Then there were the controversial legal views of City Attorney Robin Currin, which are a good deal more right-wing than those of many other N.C. cities. Currin’s office has taken an incredibly broad interpretation of what records can be concealed from the public along with the stances that the city has almost no ability to regulate business and that Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance wasn’t legal even before HB2.

The latter part of the year saw some of these threads comes together, with another controversy over the cutting down of trees in George Washington Carver Park in contradiction of city policy and some locals sharply criticize staff conduct as a whole. One summed up their concerns, dubbing the city bureaucracy “a very dark and impenetrable place” where citizens’ ideas, concerns, input and even agreements with local government simply disappeared.

Expect all these controversies, and more, showing up in the election and at City Hall both in committees and at Council itself. They’re especially given more urgency by another reality…

Housing/cost-of-living crisis. Wages in Asheville remain low, even by state standards. The tourism boom has furthered class divides in an already divided city and left renters (who are half the city) and lower wage workers (who are plentiful here) struggling. Architects, lawyers and planners have done fairly well, but the vast majority of people aren’t architects, lawyers or planners.

This has hit marginalized groups the hardest, exacerbating the equity issues mentioned in the first force above and the continuation of the problem has — rightly or wrongly — furthered the frustration with city staff and local government in general noted in the second. The deliberative process adopted by successive Councils may have its justifications, but few would argue that adapting to social crises, even long-running ones, are among its strong suits.

This is especially true as the aforementioned composition of many city committees is more likely to include those profiting from gentrification than those hurt by it. Even when dealing with affordable housing specifically, recent efforts by local leaders have turned to the wealthy — including some who directly profited from or caused the crisis — to fix it.

Last year did see a major shift in city policy partly driven by the anger expressed on this front in the 2015 elections: Council agreed to restrict hotels and downtown development more closely. However, this came after they’d passed a controversial one in the heart of downtown at the start of the year. In the process a majority of Council established a standard for circumstances under which they’d give a hotel the nod. That standard’s going to be tested this year, no doubt, and any hotel vote’s going to prove a battleground for all sorts of related issues.

But a key point was also what didn’t happen. At the 2016 retreat, Council ended up split about whether to pursue inclusionary zoning, a rule that would mandate new developments include a percentage of affordable units. While it was unclear if opponents of the move had a majority, proponents never pressed them to bring inclusionary zoning to a vote during 2016.  Some city staff and Council members have asserted that the city legally can’t push such a policy. However, such laws already exist in other N.C. municipalities like Chapel Hill and Davidson, where they’ve been on the books for years, and no specific rule exists that prohibits Asheville from doing similarly. Expect that measure to get a second look in the light of the upcoming election.

The bluntness of some members of the gentry about their belief that the less-wealthy should be outright excluded from the core of the city has worsened tensions on this front in recent years as well. Historically the city’s political culture’s aversion to penalizing any member of the gentry for anything has tamped down major backlashes in this department, but that’s a veneer and one that there’s no shortage of exasperation with.

The fact is: the anger’s there for whatever local political movement’s able to tap into it. If its longstanding organizational problems clear up even slightly, Asheville’s left in particular has the strongest electoral hand in memory.

Recent updates to the 2014 Bowen report show that, at least in number of units being built, the shortage has eased a bit from the absolutely catastrophic levels they were at earlier. But Asheville’s housing and cost-of-living crisis predated that earlier report by years, and it doesn’t look likely to end any time soon, even if the parameters of desperation shift a bit. This daily reality for many locals will continue to shape fights over issues like housing, hotels, Airbnb and more during the coming year.

While locals might debate the way these forces will play out, or what the best responses to them might be, this is the reality of our city right now, and one we all have to reckon with.

Readers, the Blade’s taking a break for a week. We’ll return for live coverage of the Jan. 10 Asheville City Council meeting. Thank you all for your support.

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