If you read this blog and live in Asheville, I assume you have already decided who you are going to vote for in the City Council election, and perhaps you’ve already voted. While I did not make my city council voting choices based on a single issue, this blog focuses on racial equity in Asheville and I’d like to highlight that issue in this post. The Asheville Blade has an excellent election guide, which includes a questionnaire from the primary that happens to include a question I submitted, which is: “During the past year, we’ve seen an increasing numbers of concerns raised about de facto racial segregation in Asheville, an issue worsened by the impacts of redlining, racism, urban renewal and the state of public housing. If elected, what specifically would you do to help address this problem?”
Below are the answers the candidates gave to that question. I am posting these because we will want to hold the folks who win accountable to taking action towards addressing Asheville’s de facto racial segregation and racial disparities. And I expect the folks that aren’t elected to stay civically engaged, and therefore accountable to act on this issue as well.
Here you go, thanks again to the Asheville Blade for this:
Social equality is found in social justice and social justice is found in social opportunity. We cannot, as a predominantly white city with greater proportions of wealth, property and opportunity in the hands of some, say to the minority cultures that they should come on up. We own the ladders and the platforms, we control the government, the jobs the schools and the businesses. If social justice is to prevail then ladders, platforms and all levels of opportunity must be available and present in affirmative ways and manners.
Publicly-funded housing should be the top priority in our overall affordable housing efforts. Here we have the houses and tenants in place and their situations as tenants should be secured and the infrastructure should be maintained and improved.
The neighborhoods that have traditionally supported Asheville’s Black community need to be protected and maintained rather than encroaching on them with “special interest districts” that will raise property taxes and change the entire rhythm of life. Property taxes should be frozen on those homeowners who have lived in these neighborhoods for a generation or more.
Young Black and minority residents need to be encouraged to stay in our community by having access to education, as they are in some cases, but also access to jobs. When integration is a goal, we must integrate by actively recruiting minority participants in all organizations.
Blacks and other minorities must be included in all conversations and organizations that address Black and minority issues. We must hear from them the solutions that they come to and we must empower minorities by helping them to start and maintain their own social support, non-profit organizations that are run internally rather than the current model of help from the outside.
There are two key challenges here. The first is geographic segregation, as a result of urban renewal and our public housing situation. Asheville has a higher proportion of its African-American residents living in public housing than other major cities in North Carolina. We must embark on a multi-decade effort to reshape our public housing neighborhoods into mixed-income and racially balanced neighborhoods. This cannot happen without significant effort on the part of local government. The second is related to the first, and it is that a higher proportion of African-Americans in Asheville are in poverty than in most other towns, and that is a result of the multi-generational cycle of poverty that predominates public housing. We must do more to create opportunity and pathways out of poverty, and I think that includes strengthened public education. Transformation of public housing will be fundamental here as well.
There’s a lot we could do. Create housing affordable on local minority families’ typical wages, including opportunities for black homeownership. Use zoning to reduce the spread of high-end, above-market housing in Shiloh and S. French Broad neighborhoods. Create living-wage jobs near historically black neighborhoods and support black business ownership using grants and tax incentives. Consider forming a minority business committee to look at impediments to minority business ownership. Lobby the NC Department of Transportation and rally the community against expanding I-240 into Burton Street neighborhood and a majority-Latino area of Emma. Improve the relationship between Asheville Police and housing project residents, making Asheville a regional leader in fair policing with regular, ongoing anti-bias training. Integrate public housing more into mixed-income developments, reducing the physical and social isolation of public-housing residents.
In the end, I can’t blame black families and young people of color for leaving Asheville to pursue better opportunities in more supportive communities like Charlotte, Atlanta, or Winston Salem. Since I moved here in 1997, Asheville’s black population has shrunk by over 1,000, even as its white population has boomed. As a city that values fairness and diversity, Asheville needs to commit to supporting its minority residents. To me, affordable housing and living-wage jobs are also matters of racial justice, as well as social and economic justice.
This is an important issue that needs a thoughtful strategy. There is no silver bullet and, in addition to your list, I would add that our transit system keeps many people of color from fully engaging in our community and finding a path to success. The City can support infrastructure improvements, such as expanding transit, building more sidewalks, and rebuilding our public housing developments so that poor communities of color have quality places to live and an easier time getting around. The City can also: encourage all of its employees, especially those who interact with the public, to go through Building Bridges; seek diversity in hiring and in recruiting citizen leaders for boards and commissions; hold public meetings in communities of color; support community efforts such as the Racial Justice Coalition and ABCRC; and launch a reconciliation initiative that would acknowledge African American history in Asheville, from pre-civil war to urban renewal, and create permanent reminders (markers, monuments, photographs) of those events.
Asheville’s history includes a lot of policies that were based in racism. It is important to acknowledge that fact. It’s up to City Council and staff to work collaboratively with our African-American communities and make decisions based on equity and fairness to create opportunity and begin to right the wrongs of our past.
We do this by building trust and prioritizing our African American neighborhoods.
Including residents every step of the way, we can partner with the Housing Authority to revitalize Lee Walker Heights – guaranteeing every family there a safe, affordable home.
Collaborating with Livingston, Southside, and Erskine-Walton neighbors, we can replace the Walton Street Pool as part of a broad process of neighborhood reinvestment.
Using the Shiloh Neighborhood Plan and the Burton Street Community Plan as templates to guide city efforts in those neighborhoods, we can be partners in good faith.
Partnering with the African American Heritage Committee, Buncombe County, UNC-Asheville, and other community institutions to build a monument at Pack Square commemorating the contributions and the history of African Americans in Asheville and Buncombe County.
We do it by building opportunity for young people and entrepreneurs.
Funding more Pre-K, afterschool and summer education programs to address the achievement gap.
Connecting African American neighborhoods to schools, parks, and jobs with sidewalks, bike lanes, greenways, and transit.
Supporting job training and community building through Green Opportunities at the Edington Center.
Partnering with Mountain Bizworks and other programs to provide training and loans to African-American owned businesses.
We do it by making sure people are safe.
Continuing the Asheville Police Department’s Public Housing Unit.
Implementing the use of body cameras by the APD.
Opportunity is key. There is a deeper underbody to these questions. That underbody consists of education, culture and political action in the communities at the polls. Local government can only do so much but if we improve infrastructure, transit and work on density issues, while thinking out of the box to get real affordable housing stock on the market we can take some steps forward. Also working to improve the climate for a diverse job market will help. Attracting companies that pay living wage jobs and a workforce educated enough to have them will need to go hand in hand.
Photo of the candidates (and David Forbes of the Asheville Blade live tweeting!) at an Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council forum by Cindy Kunst for the Mountain Xpress.