It’s no secret—Asheville has a housing crisis. Among the strategies to combat that, city planners are looking more closely at developing what’s called “middle housing.” These are townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and smaller apartment complexes—essentially almost anything other than traditional single-family homes.
My guest today is Candra Teshome, a longrange planner for the City of Asheville. We talk about an extensive study the city conducted this year that looked at middle housing, put it in context with the larger housing supply and delve a bit into how Asheville and cities all over the US found themselves with a housing imbalance, along with the creative ways they’re trying to right the scales.
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Candra Teshome: I am a long range planner with the city of Asheville. I came to Asheville from the city of Savannah in December to accept this role. And I've been in the planning Profession for almost 10 years
Matt Peiken: at this point gosh, so you're pretty new here. So You know savannah also has tourism. I imagine savannah also deals with some of the same issues Asheville is what is unique to Asheville?
That you're having to pivot on in terms of your frame of knowledge around long range planning and housing
Candra Teshome: That's a great question. So I will say that you're correct in that Savannah is undergoing and experiencing some of the same problems. There is a housing affordability issue in Savannah, but it is not necessarily as limited in terms of housing supply.
So I think one of the unique things about the City of Asheville is its topography and the impact of that on the cost of land and therefore the cost of construction.
Matt Peiken: Talk about that a little more. How does the topography play into cost and availability?
Candra Teshome: Another great question. So if I'm not mistaken we have a steep slope ordinance that may very well place some additional restrictions on construction.
In addition to that, of course, mountainous terrain can create significant hurdles. When it comes to construction phases so I think those are two of the most prominent components that have an impact on cost.
Matt Peiken: Is that one of the reasons, and this might be a simplistic look at it, but is that one of the reasons the pricier homes in this region are up on the hills?
It takes a lot. Of money and effort to just build
Candra Teshome: up there. That is correct. That is absolutely the reason why.
Matt Peiken: Interesting. Because I live in North Asheville, and as you drive up this, I think it's Web Cove Road, it's a dirt road goes up to the parkway and I've seen houses take two years to build.
So what brought you to my attention today and brought you here is talking about middle housing. And I wasn't even aware of the term middle housing. So first of all, define middle housing for us.
Candra Teshome: So middle housing would be those housing types. that have been predominantly missing from the residential landscape for roughly the past 70 years or so.
They include homes like townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, quadruplexes, and then also smaller apartment buildings that are 20 units or less.
Matt Peiken: You just touched on two things I think is really interesting. One is... Middle housing is the antithesis of single family housing, correct? And two, you said this goes back 70 years.
That's really interesting to me. I would think that, townhouses, row houses, more tightly compressed urban housing was, I might be mistaken on this, and please correct me on this, but this was probably I guess that is 70 years ago, up until about the 50s, was pretty prevalent. What changed in America to make that go out of
Candra Teshome: style?
That's a great question. So across the United States, of course zoning ordinances started to become more prevalent across the country. And essentially the single family zoning district, in addition to the federal government's promotion of single family home ownership had a significant impact on the amount of land that was set aside and reserved for that type of housing.
So essentially, we end up with a residential landscape that includes single family homes on one end of the spectrum, and then you have the larger, more traditional garden style or high rise style apartment buildings on the other end of the spectrum. A lot of zoning ordinances prohibit the construction of middle housing.
Matt Peiken: Why would that kind of housing go out of vogue?
You would think in some ways Cities that are having housing or maybe some the housing problems we're talking about today just did not exist 70 years ago and it was more just a prevalence of that was what was preferred by families that they if you have your own house detached from any other structures that was a sign of perhaps wealth what do you think just given your insight and experience what why do you think that went out of vogue
Candra Teshome: In my experience, frankly we're getting into the realm of exclusionary zoning.
So we're going down a road where the cities became much more suburban in nature. So there was sprawl starting to happen. Again, the federal government. Promoted highly the home ownership aspect of community in the United States. And that was focused very heavily on single family homes.
So I think that's the road we're going down right now is how. Zoning could be used as a tool to exclude certain populations from specific areas and cities. Why
Matt Peiken: was that in and of itself exclusionary? Did certain people at the economic ends of the spectrum, or was there a racial component that preferred living in certain kinds of houses that were no longer...
allowed under certain zoning ordinances.
Candra Teshome: I don't think there was a racial component in that certain people did not want to live in single family housing. I think that the powers that be, whether that be the federal government with its restrictions and GI bills with all of the other Exclusionary policies that came out of the federal government contributed
Matt Peiken: including lending policies.
Candra Teshome: that is correct contributed to specific segments of the population being excluded from Homeownership from the American dream. So it sounds
Matt Peiken: like in a way this was maybe an unspoken collusion in a sense of city zoning coupled with or certain redlining and along with Lending policies that in combination made it very difficult for certain people to find homes.
Candra Teshome: I agree with that
Matt Peiken: So how long did this go on before cities such as Asheville? Started opening their eyes and saying wait a minute a we have a housing issue here We have an affordable housing issue here an availability issue here. When did it become clear that the kinds of? housing that were Not in vogue, and were maybe deliberately zoned out that this was a big problem, that we're missing this in Asheville.
When did that become apparent?
Candra Teshome: There are two ways to answer that. I think that it has always been apparent that affordability was an issue for specific populations. The other side of that is I believe that people started to want to do something about it probably over the past. 10 to 15 or 20 or so years.
So you start to hear about middle housing maybe around, I believe maybe 2008 to 2012 or so, I believe is when that conversation got started. That seems
Matt Peiken: like quite a while ago to just now be getting to this place some 15 years later where we're doing a study about it. You weren't here, but just from your vantage, why do you think it's taking so long just to begin being active about this?
Candra Teshome: That's a great question. And I think I don't think that is unique to the city of Asheville. What I believe is that, unfortunately in government incremental change is most times the best way to go about change. So you'll see incremental changes like changes to lot width or changes to lot density.
Or you'll see changes that permit the construction of accessory dwelling units. It's more locations across the city and then at some point we all come to see after we study those changes that they are not having the impact that we intended. And then that is when we go out and we try to locate an alternative.
Matt Peiken: And also when you're talking about city government. We're talking about people who hold office for a while and then leave and priorities can change. Tell me if I'm wrong on this, or in maybe assuming this, that when we have changeovers in city council and other elected officials, that certain priorities that were top of shelf for one administration might go...
on the back shelf for another administration. So it's hard to get momentum.
Candra Teshome: I agree with that. I have seen that happen. I've worked long enough in government to see the changing of the guard multiple times. But I think that most cities and competent councils certainly don't just wipe Clean the slate and start over.
So I think for the city of Asheville, it has been recognized for some time that housing supply is a concern. And I truly believe that the city has worked toward resolving that. So before we
Matt Peiken: get into the the roots of this study that was started in April, you defined what this housing was, is this by its nature?
more affordable housing than single family homes?
Candra Teshome: It's oftentimes very easy to conflate affordability with middle housing. And that is a road that I tend not to speculate on. So in my mind, middle housing is a housing product, is a housing type. And we are in a situation where we are defining all of the different variables that are contributing to issues with housing access.
So when you look at middle housing, it is one tool in a toolbox that we're trying to figure out. So to me, the toolbox is supply. Middle housing is one tool in the toolbox of housing supply. You could theorize that an increase in housing supply would dampen rents and bring them down or level them out.
And I'll give you, for an example in a recent study here with the city of Asheville that was completed, a final product put out in 2020, called the Bowen Report. Of the, Rental units they surveyed, there was a 2.8% vacancy rate. And economists say that 5% is a healthy amount. But one of the other factors in this report was a projected increase in population from 2019 to 2024 of roughly 7%.
So those are two concerns in and of themselves. You have 2.8% vacancy rate. When it should be closer to 5%, and then you have people who are still in migrating into town. And unfortunately, it appeared that in the report across the region even in Madison County they had a 0.
0% vacancy rate. Again, middle housing, I do not believe to be a tool to truly attack affordability. It shouldn't be considered affordable housing. It's availability. That's right. It's addressing supply.
Matt Peiken: In that sense, what tool, what are you looking to do, now the study started, the middle housing study from the city started in April.
What are you looking to study? What are you doing with
Candra Teshome: this? So essentially, the study is designed to identify any regulatory or policy barriers the city may have. to the construction of this type of housing. For example, any zoning regulations that may prohibit the construction of this type of housing in addition to taking a look at our comprehensive plan which is Living Asheville to see if those two policies align.
And from what I can tell it, it seems that the zoning ordinance does not necessarily align with the comprehensive plan. Because in the comprehensive plan housing is a priority. But our zoning ordinance may not be constructed in a way that brings that
Matt Peiken: through. Do you think this zoning ordinance, part of the reason is it dates back to such a span of time that it wasn't crafted or revised at a time when this call for more available housing has reached such a heightened peak.
Candra Teshome: You can always revise a zoning ordinance, right? So I don't really think it has to do necessarily with when the zoning ordinance was adopted. However, as you make incremental changes to an ordinance, you've already got that broader, older framework in which you have to respond.
So I think the age of the ordinance may play a role. But I also think that it's important to make sure on a regular, systematic basis, that all of those policies align with each other. So if our policies have changed and we know that housing is important, as stated in our comp plan adopted in 2018, we need to make sure that our zoning ordinance, even if it was adopted in the mid 20th century, Aligns with
Matt Peiken: that, right?
Why do you think at least up to this point? They have not been aligned then you said zoning ordinances can be revised at any time why are you finding this only now?
Candra Teshome: So I don't think that we're finding this only now again there have been some incremental change is done to the zoning ordinance.
But again, when you make one change in one location, there are constraints in other locations in the code. So essentially it, an overhaul would be necessary in order to align the ordinance with the the current issues of the day. And that's what the middle housing study is going to help
Matt Peiken: do. So once you identify, yes, this has been an issue that zoning hasn't kept up with the comprehensive plan.
Assuming you can now relax or revise zoning to open up this kind of housing, what power does the city have to actually enact some of this housing? What can the city do to actually encourage more building and more of this kind of middle housing?
Candra Teshome: I want to keep this as contained as possible in the minds of your listeners. This study will make recommendations on how we can change our regulatory code. So essentially to open the code up or liberalize it. In order to permit housing types that are not currently permitted in terms of the city's ability to enforce or the comparison to city owned property, again, that, that is leverage the city has because they own the property.
This is a completely separate issue. So I would say that there aren't really very many other tools we can utilize other than to incentivize somehow that developers look at these parcels that may be rezoned or something. So
Matt Peiken: it it could work in concert in a sense. The revised zoning opening up and creating this housing, making it available to, to do that in conjunction with perhaps using other tools or other incentives in working with developers to build that kind of housing.
Candra Teshome: That is correct. So again this particular tool is one tool in that
Matt Peiken: toolbox. One of the things, I know you just put out a call for a survey so you had your study, which might, I don't know, is that still ongoing, this study?
Candra Teshome: It is And during that process, we'll be asking for public feedback such as, do you believe that these are barriers and what other input.
People may have. In addition, they'll be able to complete a renter survey so the final study with a strategic plan and the displacement risk assessment will be released in September.
Matt Peiken: Expand on that a little more about the barriers you believe that you want to know what people perceive. And I'm wondering why that is important to know. It seems like so much of this is an internal discussion among planners, and legislators. why is the public's input in terms of what they perceive as barriers, why is that important to your knowledge base right now?
Candra Teshome: I would say that this has been the entire time a discussion, not just amongst planners and internal conversations. We have engaged the public on a few occasions with regard to this particular project.
We do have an advisory working group that is made up of members of the public. And going to the public and getting their input is important because Any changes that may come of the study will have an impact on the community and people who live here. So it's really important to have their their thoughts incorporated into this process.
What kinds of
Matt Peiken: questions are you asking specifically of the public?
Candra Teshome: Some of the questions we'll be asking of the public include their input on building and design elements that are important to them in their community whether or not they've lived in middle housing and what their experience was like, and then also some questions about what they believe to be the most significant housing challenges in Asheville.
Matt Peiken: When you're talking about say everything from cost to availability and location, I guess all that plays into it. That is correct. So What's the next steps for the city? I guess digesting what these survey results are Digesting this ongoing study and what happens next? Is that more a more Just now, armed with this information, you and other planners can be much more precise in terms of what you're doing?
Candra Teshome: That's right. So essentially, once the consultant makes their recommendations, it will be up to the city to use those recommendations to recommend any future changes to the development code. And of course, that would go through a more rigorous review internally of the recommendations, an analysis by city staff.
In addition it would need to go through council and other commissions prior to being approved.
Matt Peiken: Getting back to almost the very beginning of this conversation, we're talking about topography and just the challenge of developing new housing. How important do you believe developing more middle housing is to the livability of this city?
Candra Teshome: I think that it is very important to the livability of the city because based on some data that came out of, again the Boeing Bowen Report on Housing Needs Assessment, it appears that the demographics that will be growing most quickly in the city of Asheville prefer different types of housing.
So they are not necessarily married to purchasing a single family home or living in a multifamily large situation. So I think housing diversity and choice is very important for the vibrancy of any city. Is
Matt Peiken: there any sort of conflict with our existing homeowners in neighborhoods that are mostly single family homes?
Is there a potential conflict where, oh, this new? apartment development would come in because we've opened up middle housing to this area that might not have had it before. Is that a real consideration that there might be some friction points between where middle housing starts being developed and single family homes, the borderline of where single family homes
Candra Teshome: are?
Of course. I think in any situation where there is change, there will be friction. There will be nimbyism. However, I think that's why it's important to bring the public into this conversation and ask the important questions such as... What should middle housing look like in your community?
We don't want to just come and plop in large buildings into the middle of single family subdivisions. That's not what middle housing is. Middle housing is something that you don't even really notice is there, unless you look at the gas meters that are on the outside of the building.
Matt Peiken: Are there areas of town that are now either, And I'm wondering, would older commercial districts and I'm thinking specifically, I live in North Asheville and if you go north on Merriman, there are these vast parking lot strip mall commercial centers, some areas they're vacant right now.
And I'm wondering, Under this revising of the zoning and with an eye toward middle housing would potentially some of these underutilized commercial areas be turned into specifically housing for middle housing?
Candra Teshome: The answer for this particular study is no because for this study, we selected four zoning districts, all of which are residential in nature so the commercial zoning districts are not part of this particular study.
Matt Peiken: You said there are four districts, where are they?
Candra Teshome: So two thirds of the city of Asheville is zoned for residential construction.
So I'd have to say that if you take all four of these zoning districts together, it's a pretty pervasive amount of land use. Wow, okay.
Matt Peiken: So is there a sense of a timeline of when next steps in terms of you said September is when you would release the results of the study
what happens next?
Candra Teshome: So what happens next is the consultant team will prepare their final recommendation reports. The survey, will be incorporated into this. And again, the displacement risk assessment will be provided. Again, we intend to receive all of this by the end of September, and the next steps will be for staff to analyze the recommendations and possibly move forward a package of recommendations.