Asheville’s rise in popularity only adds gas to the fire of gentrification, driving out locals with the deepest roots to the city, according to community members.
“The city has been a monster in creating tourism for Asheville with all these different hotel systems, and the same vigor they put into hotel systems they should be putting into affordable housing,” said Libby Kyles in April, an Asheville native and school teacher of 20 years.
Median income, population change, and median property value represents an economic trend designed to favor potential newcomers, while pressuring locals who can’t keep up with the spike in housing prices, according to Dewana Little, business development associate for Asheville Self Help Credit Union.
“All of Asheville’s market does shift to support the tourism track instead of the people who are here investing in this community 365 days of the year,” Little said. “We have people who have been here and helped build this city, and they aren’t a part of the economic boom that’s happening here.”
According to Little, a lot of the people excluded from the success in Asheville are Black people who historically inhabited neighborhoods now affected by the rise in property value.
“I grew up with thriving Black communities, thriving Black business owners, I grew up with that and now my kids can’t see that,” Little said.
A city on the rise
Median property value in Buncombe County increased significantly since 2016, according to a U.S census report, paralleling the population increase in the county. Median household income however, decreased, according to the same census.
Between 2016 and 2017, the median property value saw an 8.64% increase, according to U.S Census Bureau numbers. The average cost of renting a home or an apartment in Asheville climbed as well, a 7.6% increase from March 2015 through March 2016, according to Asheville real estate listings.
Median household income in Buncombe County however, decreased in the past year, which doesn’t correlate with the numbers showing increased property value and population growth. Median income decreased from $50,685 in 2016 to $50,040, which represents a -1.27% annual growth.
Mike Figura, owner and broker of Mosaic Realty in Asheville, said how a new demographic of people moving to Asheville decreases median income as housing costs rise.
“The average household income is low relative to the cost of housing, but there are a lot of people moving into the area with inherited wealth or net worth that they earned in (usually) larger cities,” Figara said.
According to publishers for Realtor.com, Asheville ranked No. 2 of U.S cities that are gentrifying the fastest, a trend that doesn’t surprise locals born and raised in historically Black neighborhoods, like schoolteacher Libby Kyles.
“One of my biggest issues with the city is that the city has gone in and taken prime land, for example the public works building which used to be my grandparents’ houses,” Kyles said. “The city talks a lot about equity, but my experience has been that it is just talk.”
Redlining started in the 1930s with the New Deal, when the federally created Home Owners’ Loan Corporation implemented a policy which color coded American cities, using race as a factor, to determine lending and insurance risks for banks, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
“In your funding, in your loans, in your grant system, none of those systems have been equitable. Black folks have been boxed out of those systems for at least the last 30-40 years,” Kyles said.
An extreme example of the gentrification in Asheville can be seen in the 1950s and ’60s, when a highway expansion project established 1-240. Public records show the highway running through what used to be houses in West Asheville, displacing many people from the Black neighborhood.
The systemic disadvantages the Black community in Asheville faced in the past and present don’t usually present themselves when Googling Asheville.
Towards the end of 2017, Forbes published an article detailing The 15 coolest places to go in 2018, describing remote and exotic locations. The publication hailed Asheville as one of those 15 places, nestling the city between Tasmania and Chad on their list. Between 2016 and 2017, the population of Buncombe County grew from approximately 256,000 to 257,000, a 0.593% increase, according to census numbers.
The increased recognition and popularity of Asheville now makes it even harder to find a place to live for those struggling with housing, according to Shaunda Sanford, family self sufficiency and home ownership program manager. Sanford also currently sits on the Buncombe County Board of Education.
“We want people to become homeowners, but a lot of them want to stay right here in the city because this is where they grew up, this is where their kids go to school, but they can’t afford to buy anything in town,” Sanford said.
To find a place to actually build houses remains a big issue for Habitat for Humanity and their projects in Asheville, said Ariane Kjellquist, communications director for Habitat.
“Land acquisition is the hardest part,” Kjellquist said. “Paul Reeves is head of construction services, and he’s in charge of acquiring land. He’s always looking for lots or big chunks of land that we can buy that’s affordable. We have to meet the affordable housing criteria and the lot is included in that, and it has to be within Buncombe County.”
Many local organizations exist along with Habitat for Humanity, all with the shared purpose of fighting the housing crisis through various means. The affordable housing rate remains too high for many residents in Asheville, which results in chronic homelessness, according to Kate Caton, program manager for Homeward Bound’s outreach team.
“Asheville usually has a one percent vacancy rating for housing availability at all, and then we’re looking at an even smaller subset of apartments that rent at what’s called fair market rate. Because you can have affordable housing but there’s not really a clear definition on what affordable means,” Caton said. “Our focus is on folks who are chronically homeless, meaning that they have lived outside or in a shelter for at least one year straight or four episodes of homelessness within three years, adding up to 12 months.”
Those in need of secure living conditions also face discrimination when either trying to remain living in a housing unit through renting, or applying for a housing unit, according to Caton.
“There are certain things that aren’t covered under discrimination policies, like including income essentially. Landlords fully have the right to refuse any of our clients because they’re getting a subsidy, that’s not a protected class,” Caton said. “On top of that, a landlord does not have to follow the fair housing laws if they own less than ten units, so they can still discriminate based on those protected classes.”
In 2016, of the 3, 126 Buncombe County small claims court cases, 70 percent were eviction cases, according to Buncombe County records.
Forbes ranked Asheville as No. 15 of the top 100 cities for business and careers, while in a separate article categorized Asheville’s economic expansion as a boom market.
The influx of newcomers to Asheville doesn’t sit well with members of the Black communities being pushed out, according to Dewayne Barton, Asheville local and community leader.
“The people who had to live through the highway expansion, the crack cocaine, and all the Jim Crow segregation, they feel some type of way,” said Barton. “They had to deal with all that crap, and then when the neighborhood becomes popular they then are slow motion forced out, it’s almost like a takeover.”
Barton, an Asheville local and Gulf War vet, founded Hood Huggers International, an organization that gives educational tours of historically Black neighborhoods in Asheville. He said by educating newcomers on Asheville’s history, the community will be stronger and Asheville will have a better chance at solving these problems.
“To have elders of the neighborhood be some of the tour guides, some people who have the greatest resistance about the wave of new people moving in,” Barton said. “They could give the new people some background history with the hopes of building a better relationship.”
The importance of bridging the gap between newcomers and disenfranchised locals remains a shared sentiment with community leaders, along with making sure their voices are heard during this transition.
As a teacher, Kyles drives home the point of how the discrepancy of wealth in Asheville affects more than just housing.
“The places that have the more affluent families, have more people who have more time to advocate for what they want. And those people are usually in the majority and not the minority,” Kyles said. “So precedent is given to fields, and whether not you have mulch on the playground versus tire marks, versus priority being given to the achievement gap.”
As an involved community member, Kyles co-founded Youth Transformed for Life, and helps organize Black town halls in Asheville. YTL aims at empowering disadvantaged middle school and high school children of color, especially girls.
Kyles’s words of bridging the cultural divide in Asheville’s school system mirrors Barton’s comments about people moving into historically Black neighborhoods.
“Making sure not just teachers, but staff throughout the building, are trained in some way that increases their cultural competency and helps them understand how to incorporate culture and cultural sensitivity in the school building,” Kyles said.
Community leaders and city officials alike recognize the danger population growth and demographic change in Asheville brings, resembling a genie unable to return to its bottle. The hope of righting some of the past wrongs and accommodating for the future, however, remains a possibility, according to Barton.
“Some people need to focus on the policy, some people at the grass roots level in the neighborhood, and we really just need to work on this together, and try to be a model for the country, because we know it’s happening all over,” Barton said.
“Best Places- 12. Asheville, N.C.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 2015. https://www.forbes.com/pictures/55b26c54e4b05c2c343221 D/best-places– 12-asheville/.
Frederic Boyer, Asheville North Carolina, map, Division of Research and Statistics, September 22, 1937.
Pan, Yuqing. “The U.S. Cities That Are Gentrifying the Fastest-you’ll Never Guess No. 1>.” Real Estate News and Advice I Realtor.com@. Realtor.com, January 23, 2017. https ://www.realtor.com/news/trends/10-surprising-cities-that-are-gentrifying-the-fastest/.
Redlining. Accessed October 20, 2020. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1050.html.
Rudolph, 2018, photograph of Asheville.
“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Asheville City, North Carolina.” Census Bureau QuickFacts. Accessed October 20, 2020. https : //www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/ashevillecitynorthcarolina/HS G495218.
Bow Rudolph is a Political Science major and a Spanish Minor at UNC Asheville and served on the editorial board.