Ultimatum season

by David Forbes March 7, 2017

Once again, a state legislator plans to force district elections on Asheville and the Airbnb issue reopens, in a Council meeting marked by old battles coming back for another round

Above: Mayor Esther Manheimer, file photo by Max Cooper.

The Feb. 28 Asheville City Council meeting, relatively brief as it was, still proved eventful. After a flood of applications reflecting public interest in the issues facing Asheville’s education system, Council appointed Pat Griffin, James Lee and Joyce Brown to the Asheville City School board. They approved the schedule for setting the city budget, hearings and worksessions that will determine the fate of over $150 million.

But the biggest news of the night was a few paragraphs, read by Mayor Esther Manheimer to her colleagues and the public. Last year, a scheme by a powerful state senator to gerrymander Asheville’s local elections failed in a political upset. But in an email earlier that day state Sen. Chuck Edwards declared his intent to bring the idea back this year and force an overhaul in the local elections system.

“It has come to my attention that it is the intent of the Asheville City Council, maybe as early as tonight, to conduct discussions of the possibility and mechanics of partitioning the city into districts for the purpose of municipal elections,” Manheimer read. “I applaud the openness of the Council to engage this topic.”

But despite those kudos, he informed Council that Asheville’s officials didn’t really have a choice in the matter.

“Out of respect for the time and possibly monetary resources of your Council I wanted to inform you of my intent to soon file a bill in the senate that will require Asheville to conduct district elections,” the email continued. “It will also provide that six will be the number of required districts. It will offer some flexibility for your Council to determine the geography of the districts. I am open to realistic conversations as to the timing of the requirements. I am confident that this measure will pass both the senate and the house.”

“As a courtesy I am informing you of this intent with the hope that your discussion may revolve more around how to district and forego the discussion of should we district,” the note concludes. “My actions are the result of trends taking place within municipalities as well as a great deal of feedback from the citizens of Buncombe County.”

“That is ‘I’m going to do it whether your community says yes or no,'” Manheimer summarized. “I still think it should be relevant whether the citizens of Asheville would like to see district elections.”

Council, in response to last year’s furor, had already agreed to study the matter and perhaps put the district election question before voters. That evening, they were set to discuss how to “reach out to the community and find out if there is support for the district concept,” as Manheimer put it, and were discussing conducting a poll similar to that used to suss out the level of local support for last year’s bond referendum.

Currently, all Asheville voters get to cast their ballots for all six Council seats and the mayor’s spot, a system known as at-large elections. Many local elections in the state have at-large seats, districts or some combination of the two. Which one is better overall is a matter of considerable debate. Defenders of the at-large system say it works well for small and medium-size cities and helps ensure that elected officials are looking out for the interests of the city as a whole rather than just their own backyard. Proponents of district systems assert that they ensure no part of the city is left out, and can help with minority representation (though due to where minority neighborhoods are located in Asheville, there’s also the potential districts could actually hurt than representation more than help).

Historically, many Council members of all ideological stripes come from North Asheville, site of some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, though that’s changed a bit in recent cycles. While districts have been broached over the years, serious local political traction for them hasn’t emerged. But as Asheville’s conservatives have steadily lost power and seen their standing sink in local elections, the idea of having right-wing state legislators intervene to give them a more favorable system has come up repeatedly. Edwards’ is the third attempt to do so. Then-Rep. Tim Moffitt drew up a draft bill to split up the city in 2013 (though he never introduced it) and then-Sen. Tom Apodaca spearheaded a much more serious push last year.

The rest of Council agreed to move forward with polling the public on the district question, regardless of Edwards’ ultimatum.

“The people definitely need to have a say in this, in what direction we move,” Council member Keith Young said.

“Obviously it’s extremely disappointing that we’re back to ‘Raleigh says’ and it doesn’t matter what Asheville residents say,” Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said, adding the poll information could help determine the shape of the districts.

“This is a big deal for Asheville, this is exactly the sort of thing you want to provide voters an opportunity to come together and make statements,” Council member Julie Mayfield said, hoping to get it arranged by the time the legislature takes its spring break in April.

“The question of districting is one that doesn’t have a right answer, it has an opinion answer whatever side you’re on,” Council member Cecil Bothwell said. But he also wanted to add questions on allowing more Airbnb-style rentals and the fate of the much-debated city property across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence to any polling the city did.

“Disappointing is an understatement,” Council member Gordon Smith said. “This is the same kind of overreach, ignoring municipalities’ self-determination in order to have affirmative action for Republicans int he city of Asheville. I wonder what happened to that core conservative value of local control, because it seems to have evaporated.”

Smith questioned Bothwell’s proposed methodology of combining multiple questions into one poll, but didn’t object to polling on the other matters separately at a different time.

When she met with Edwards a month ago, Mayfield noted, he told her he continued to get phone calls urging him to change the city over to district elections, which she found “funny, because I haven’t gotten any phone calls and I haven’t gotten any emails. I think I speak for most of the people up here. To the people that are advocating for this, what I would say is: let us know, pick up the phone, send us an email.”

“We need to hear from you, who you are and why you want this. Our duty is to be responsive to the people who elected us.”

“It’s frankly a little outrageous you would choose to go to the legislature instead of to us first or even at all,” Mayfield continued. “Please let us know if you want this, because the only emails I’m getting right now are from people saying ‘why are we having this conversation? Asheville is fine, leave it alone.'”

Discussion then shifted to the form of the poll, which Manheimer noted would ask the respondent if they wanted districts and who should draw them (Council, an independent commission, etc.). Communications Director Dawa Hitch noted the city could also host an online poll and try to get input at a town hall.

“I’d love to see the timetable moved up to meet the speed at which other forces are working,” Smith said. Mayfield suggested doing both an online and professional poll.

Bothwell claimed a robo-call poll to touch-tone phones would be cheaper, could work faster and would be reasonably accurate.

But Hitch also noted that holding both an online poll (which is far less reliable) and one done by a professional polling firm might stretch the public’s attention on the issue and, if they had differing results, result in a feeling from part of the public that their feelings “weren’t being listened to.”

Also, “it depends on the pollster” and if they were available to properly conduct one within that timeframe, Hitch noted. She said city staff would work as quickly as possible.

“I feel sure thousands and thousands of people in Asheville will want to make their voice heard on this,” Mayfield said.

“That would be more than actually vote in a city election,” Manheimer added.

“In the area of public trust it can be harmful” to do both an online poll and a professional one, Hitch said. Bothwell added that a small advocacy group could throw off the results of an online poll.

During public comment, the only speaker called for more education about the topic before any poll, and opposed districts.

“As we know on a national level, districting is a very manipulative strategy and I don’t think Asheville got where they are today by having manipulative strategies,” Pat Thobe said. “I think it’s the unity in this community that’s gotten us where we are today. They very words ‘dividing Asheville into voting districts’ is divisive.”

‘To further complicate our evening’

But despite that being the end of the printed agenda. With the words above, Manheimer said she wanted to re-open the topic of how far the city should go in allowing Airbnb-style rentals.

To say the issue has remained controversial is to put it mildly. Right now, except in a few neighborhoods like downtown, Asheville bans offering whole homes or apartments as short-term rentals. Property owners making money off the practice, who compose its most vocal advocates, say that it offers a way for them to garner revenue from tourism and for more cash-strapped homeowners to keep their properties in a time of rising housing costs.

But the often shadowy industry is massive in Asheville, to the point that as more information has emerged, there’s no conceivable way it doesn’t have a major impact on the city’s housing and tourism markets. Recent figures released by Airbnb reveal 104,500 annual visitors, a number larger than the city’s population and far above the scale of the industry in larger N.C. cities like Charlotte and Raleigh and in other Southeast tourist destinations like Charleston and Savannah. The scale here is closer to that seen in Atlanta and Las Vegas, especially considering our city’s far smaller population size.

The scale of the industry and its potential effects on surrounding neighbors and housing for the renters who make up half the city have also solidified an opposition to the practice ranging from affordable housing advocates to neighborhood activists. Some of that pushback comes from concerns that the practice is considerably worsening an already notoriously-bad affordable housing crisis. After all, tourists are potentially far more profitable than local long-term renters and every whole housing unit turned over to short-term rentals is one taken off the market for local residents.

Over the past few years Council’s tried to take a two-pronged approach: strengthening the ban “short-term rentals” of whole homes and apartments but allowing (with a permit), “homestays” where someone who lives in a home is renting out a room where they live.

The Citizen-Times and the Blade both investigated stepped-up enforcement of the local prohibitions, finding that most of those who ran afoul either owned multiple properties or lived outside the area. Our investigation also showed that the vast majority of the people the city was fining were renting out whole homes or apartments to visitors, not rooms in their homes.

Lately, the battle lines have centered around “accessory dwelling units,” jargon for basement and garage-style apartments or outbuildings. For the short-term rental lobby, these aren’t that different from a local renting out a room. But opponents point out that many accessory units are housing for local renters, especially in the areas close to downtown where Airbnb-style rentals are most popular. Allowing them, they assert, would both worsen the housing crisis and pose problems for neighbors.

The last fight over the practice came late last year, after a majority of a city task force controversially recommended keeping up the ban on using accessory units as Airbnb-style rentals, due to concerns about the housing. Manheimer proved the swing vote, siding with preserving the ban on recommendation from the majority of a task force the city designated to study the matter.

Now Manheimer, who a week earlier had announced she was running for a second term as mayor, claimed she wanted to “thread the needle on this divisive topic.”

Specifically, she wants to “explore whether we could expand the definition of homestay to rooms under the roof of a house. So if someone has turned their basement they’re not penalized for that and can rent out the rooms under the roof of their house” to tourists.

“We continue to hear feedback from the community,” Manheimer continued. “I don’t know that there is any right answer. It’s very complicated, but I’d like to know if there’s any interest in re-opening that discussion.”

Mayfield said she wanted to talk to Airbnb to “push enforcement upstream” to them, as the short-term rental giant recently did in New Orleans, where it now requires those using the service to include their official permit from the city allowing them to do so.

“That would certainly help on the enforcement side,” she said.

“I contacted their legal department in San Francisco and they’re willing to do that,” Bothwell, who’s been on the main proponents of allowing the expansion of the practice, said. “They didn’t absolutely commit, but they’re willing to do that.”

“If there’s a majority in favor of the practice, so be it,” Smith, one of the main opponents of expansion, said, but cautioned that if the city just focused on Airbnb, it missed the numerous vacation rental listings on other services too.

“Let’s talk to them all,” Mayfield replied.

Smith also wanted to examined the impact of short-term rentals downtown, where “they are legal and unfettered.” He said he didn’t intend to ban the practice for those already doing it legally, but had concerns about its future, especially if the city potentially expands the area it counts as downtown, “does that mean expanding STRs into our neighborhoods?”

“I thought we were overdue for our quarterly meeting on short-term rentals,” Manheimer said to some chuckles from her colleagues.

“I felt like we invited a task force, we [the Council members opposed to expansion] opened it up as a possibility that we weren’t going to get our way when we did that and now within four months you’re going to throw away all those citizens work and the hours they spent,” Wisler, who was opposed to bringing the idea back up, said. “It sends a not-great message to any citizen volunteer.”

“I’m trying to bifurcate that discussion to see if there is support for units within the house, under one roof,” Manheimer said. “Which is not a question, exactly, that the task force to my knowledge explored. But I do agree that I don’t want to up-end a task force recommendation.” Now, she hoped, a compromise could be arrived at.

“I’d like to go on record saying that task force was a train wreck,” Bothwell said. “I think people went in with good intent and I think they worked hard, but because of the methodology it was really screwy.”

“I object to Councilman Bothwell’s cast of that process,” Smith retorted, claiming that the “dynamic governance” method used by the group had value. “To throw out the baby with the bathwater doesn’t serve us.”

Opinions on the task force process, both on and off the Council dais, have split along factional lines. Initially composed of four proponents, four opponents and four neutral citizens a majority of the group, including the renter representatives, ended up opposed to allowing accessory units as short-term rentals.

The pro-short-term rental minority asserted the process wasn’t fairly conducted, failing to adequately consider their ideas and running into problems with public notice and clarity. Bothwell agreed, criticizing it after its findings were presented and since. However, a letter signed by the majority of the task force in response to the critics’ statements asserted that despite their differences, the members “worked very hard and diligently to create a solution that we felt was best for the majority of the citizens of our city.” The pro-STR members’ ideas, the letter claimed, had been fairly considered, they just hadn’t gained enough support to go forward.

Of course, looming over all this is the fact that the short-term rental issue may simply not be solvable via compromise. Cities can’t be all things to all people. Asheville may be in the simple position of one of two incompatible futures: that short-term rental proprietors will get a freer hand to turn more space and housing over to vacation rentals or it will end up a sharply constrained practice due to concerns about its impacts on neighbors and local renters. Which direction our local government goes on that front is, once again, back on the table.

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