Asheville City Council Candidate Rich Lee
Local elections are officially underway, and we’ve sat down with several candidates to find out more about who they are, what they stand for, and why they feel that they should be elected to office. For this episode of Asheville Real Estate News, we invited Asheville City Council candidate Rich Lee to discuss his campaign and perspective on a number of major issues facing Asheville in this current election cycle.
Lee, who has lived in Western North Carolina for twenty years, first began to get involved with local politics several years ago when New Belgium Brewing started its move into town. The brewery’s original plans would have routed tractor trailers directly up the road he lived on. Concerned about the impact that this would have on his neighborhood, Lee engaged with the city and New Belgium to work out a new route that would resolve the issue. His success in addressing this issue led neighbors to bring additional issues to him for help, which he was able to assist them with. This continued to happen, Lee’s portfolio of projects, as it were “kind of just moved farther and farther away from my house until eventually it was city-wide issues. …I think that’s how it gets its hooks in you – you start to work on a small issue, and if you’re the kind of person I am, then you just get sucked farther and farther in.”
Now, Lee sits on the city’s Transportation Commission, as well as several other committees and commissions, and is hoping to increase his involvement further by running for City Council. In that office, he would be able to help effect change on a number of issues currently facing the city – several of which are directly related to real estate.
One of those is the topic of short-term rentals, and it’s an issue that Lee feels strongly about. “Coming from a perspective of working on neighborhood issues and a lot of focus around the integrity of neighborhoods, I’m really conscious of the threat that tourism…can pose to a neighborhood. All you have to do is go down the hill to Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach or Charleston and see whole neighborhoods that have been wiped out and been turned over into essentially resort communities. I don’t want that to happen. I can’t imagine any neighborhood in the city that could really benefit from that.” Despite his concerns about the negative impact of short-term rentals on local neighborhoods, however, Lee recognizes that there could be benefits as well, and that the city government needs to work towards “striking a balance between those two concepts – Should people who need the money be able to participate in a tourism economy? Should locals be able to do it? Should that business all be left to people that happen to own big downtown hotels? I think striking the balance of that is going to be one of the biggest, toughest tasks of the next Council.”
Lee hopes that, in seeking that balance, property owners who are currently renting out short-term units will understand the need for certain limitations and regulations. “I would say this to people who are participating in it right now – what you’re selling, if you are renting out a room or an apartment…is the experience of an authentic neighborhood. That would disappear [if short-term rentals proliferate]. You could undercut your own market if you don’t find a way to strike a balance between the genuine residents of the city and not.”
According to Lee, that balance has not yet been found, and, in certain areas, has already begun to swing in the direction of the Hilton Heads and Charlestons of our state. “Walking the streets as a candidate, I have to tell you…I can tell if your house is a short-term rental or not,” he says. “I’ve walked down streets in the city where half or more of the houses are already converted over.”
The issue isn’t yet universal, and is largely concentrated in more popular parts of town. “It’s definitely hitting certain hot neighborhoods, like here in West Asheville, like parts of Montford and Liberty Street area, Chestnut Street area, a lot more. We have to find ways, for everybody’s sake, to protect that.”
Lee hopes that property owners will see the necessity of protecting the integrity of their neighborhoods, and be willing to compromise in order to do that. “People tend to get caught up in the legality – is it legal to ban outside owners? – rather than a vision which I think we could all agree on, which is a vision of a real, authentic town where we have nice things.”
That does not necessarily mean, however, that he is entirely opposed to the idea of incorporating short-term rental units into our community. One option, about which Lee is cautiously optimistic, could be to allow the use of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, as short-term rentals if located on the property of a permanent resident in the primary dwelling. “I could see that, as long as I could be convinced that we weren’t turning over neighborhoods in some crazy way. It would taking a proposal on its own terms. I’m not closed to it.”
An obstacle to this use of ADUs, however, might be their suitability for another use for which there is a pressing and genuine need – affordable housing. “This is the big conversation of this election,” Lee says of the affordable housing problem. “We need to focus on the full-time workers making minimum wage, or just barely above minimum wage. That translates to a range of $500 to maybe $750 a month rents, or mortgages ideally. I do think that accessory dwellings – garage apartments and basement apartments – are a big part of that equation, because they tend to be smaller.”
One of the problems with relying on ADUs for affordable housing, however, is that they can be difficult for property owners to finance. Lee has personal experience with this problem, having tried to build an ADU on his own property in West Asheville. “I had a lot of equity in my house at the time, but financing it through a construction loan was tough. I didn’t get all the access to the equity that I needed, and I wouldn’t have been able to reassess the property or refinance the property with the new building on it, even though that would’ve made sense.” This led him to reconsider the ways in which the Council is currently using affordable housing funds, to see whether there might be a better way to utilize them.
“Right now, we have a pool of money that we’re paying a big developer like Rusty Pulliam or somebody $10-50,000 per affordable unit to squeeze them into these big apartment complexes,” Lee says, which may not be the ideal solution to the affordable housing problem. “I’m going to be looking at a way to turn some of that money towards maybe a zero-interest lending pool for an accessory dwelling unit, which would help you get access to your equity, or at least help you get over the hump of some of those initial financing concerns.”
Because these zero-interest loans would be provided to individual property owners by the city, certain standards and requirements – like periodic inspections – could be implemented to help raise the standard of living for those in need of affordable housing. According to Lee, there are currently no mandated or permitted rental inspections, so many affordably rentals are well below grade. “If you tie city money to it, you can exact inspection in return.”
An additional benefit that Lee sees to using city money in this way would be that is constantly revolving and replenishing, and could be reused time and time again – as loans are repaid, they could then be reinvested into additional ADUs and other affordable housing options.
Another component of affordable housing is transportation – creating easier access to and from downtown to places that are more economical to live in. This, Lee says, is another major area of concern. “We’re having a lot of conversations about that, and there’s this real push and pull over ‘where should the tax dollar go?’ Should it go to finance a home closer, or should it go to increase transit? And really the fact of the matter is we’re going to need both.”
Lee, who utilizes the city’s public transit system himself, is supportive of more complete and convenient public transit for the city, but feels that there is contention about how to create that system. “The city will tell you…that the city actually has to grow more and fill in more for [the city to] become “transit ready” with enough people per mile. I think that’s…getting it backwards. I think that a convenient transit system that we invest a lot in now will draw users and eventually the city will kind of come up to match it, will grow along the routes.”
In order for this to happen, though, Lee says that the transit system must be developed in such a way that it “becomes convenient enough that people willingly start to abandon their cars and use it. Right now, we’re the ‘hippiest’ city that does not use its bus system. Nobody rides the bus in Asheville, essentially, unless they’re forced. We’re going to have to hit a certain threshold of convenience with 15-minute loops or faster trip time into town, coming closer to your house…but it’s going to have to cross that threshold before it becomes really convenient to the average user.”
Moving into another element of affordability, we asked Lee about rising property taxes in the city, and specifically how individuals on fixed incomes may be pushed out of their homes due to the increase in taxes.
“The first thing I would say to those specific people is that there’s a state program that you can qualify for if you’re on a fixed income and retirement age that can cut your assessment in half, which will cut your tax bill in half. It’s a program designed for tax relief for senior citizens so that they’re not priced out of their home on fixed incomes, and you can find that on the Buncombe County tax website, among other places.”
Even with these programs, though, many long-time residents are at their breaking point. Lee acknowledges this, and feels strongly that the city must prevent the problem from growing any worse. “I would stake myself on saying we have to go my whole first term without another tax or fee increase if we’re going to give people a chance to catch up with this, because it’s putting a lot of strain on people.”
Of course, taxes go up for a reason – the increased revenue is needed to pay for the infrastructure improvement and programs that are so needed by residents. “We have to be aware that the same people that are being squeezed by their rents going up are the people that do need more transit and better roads, and they need job incentives and they need…public space like a park, because they live in an apartment building and there’s nowhere outdoors that they can go in the city. There’s a continual demand in this liberal urbanist city for more and more stuff, and we need some tight stewardship of the tax money we get in to really get the most that we can out of what we’re bringing in. I don’t think we can afford another tax increase now.”
For many voters, the promise of a full term without another tax increase alone might be enough to convince them to vote for Lee. But for those who might still be undecided, we asked Lee to answer one last question: why him?
“I have the most experience on advocating for neighborhoods and advocating for on-the-ground issues of all of the candidates who are running. I’ve got a record of accomplishment that backs up that I’m not just talking about it, I’ve been out there working for years now.”