As 2022 comes to a close, we wanted to offer you a recap of some of the issues we’ve been tracking this year. In our first full year of operation, we here at the Government Accountability Project (GAP) are proud of the part we’ve played in shining a light on the policies and practices of the City of Asheville and Buncombe County. If you’ve found our reports valuable, consider a donation to the Racial Justice Coalition, which supports our work.
Here are sum totals of the various types of flags we’ve raised this past year.
Things that seem problematic
The City of Asheville’s oversight of its Police Department is insufficient
We included multiple reports on the attempts by the Asheville Police Department (APD) to recruit more officers through a contract with Epic Recruiting (see our reports on 1/10, 3/28, and 10/31). We also noted the APD’s pursuit of a contract with PR firm Cole Pro Media (see our reports on 11/21, 12/12, and 12/19). We also reported on APD’s shift to a more aggressive policy around homelessness (see our report on 1/24). Finally, we expressed concern that the analysis of traffic stop data, which shows an alarming racial bias, was conducted by the APD itself, rather than an independent body (see our report on 3/7).
We remain troubled by the passive approach toward police accountability taken by the Public Safety Committee and the Asheville City Council. Asheville has named “reimagining public safety” a top priority since 2020 with little to show for it. We would suggest that it’s unreasonable to expect the police department – or any institution for that matter – to lead its own transformation. If the City wants to attract more community-oriented officers, improve the department’s relationships with citizens (and not just its image), and do the necessary internal analysis of the racist impacts of its policies and practices, our elected officials are going to need to take more leadership.
Both Buncombe County and the City of Asheville consistently withhold information necessary to evaluate their programs and policies
One of the challenges we returned to repeatedly this year was the lack of racial demographic data in public presentations and reports by various entities within both governments, with the County especially deficient in this regard (see our reports from 1/3, 1/24, 2/7, 2/21, 10/3, 10/17, and 12/5). In addition, agenda items for City Council and the County Commission often lacked sufficient documentation for us (or anyone) to be able to adequately evaluate their racial justice implications (see our reports on 4/18, 5/2, 10/24, 11/14, and 12/5). The Asheville City Manager’s office rarely released necessary documentation two business days in advance of City Council meetings, making it almost impossible to analyze those reports and share relevant information with the community (see our reports on 1/10, 5/9, and 10/24).
Both City and County governments frequently say they are committed to racial equity and transparency, and we’re not questioning their sincerity when we flag these issues. It’s one thing to take race into account when that’s the explicit focus of a given report or policy, but a deeper commitment to racial justice requires applying that lens to all of your work. When it comes to transparency, making information available eventually is no substitute for offering it up front, which allows impacted communities to take meaningful action.
Both the City and County overwhelmingly award grants to white-led organizations and enter into contracts with white-owned businesses
In multiple reports throughout the year we noted the lack of grants and contracts going to organizations led by people of color (see our reports on 5/23, 6/13, 8/15, 9/19, 10/3, 11/14, and 11/21), despite the stated intention of both governments to support those kinds of entities. The City of Asheville routinely reports on their outreach attempts with “women- and minority-owned” companies whenever they are seeking contracted work; Buncombe County is in the process of setting up a similar process (see our reports 10/31 and 11/28 for more information).
This is not an easily solved problem for either government, and therefore it’s relatively easy for them to declare that they are doing their best. We think more creativity and greater prioritization are necessary, and don’t see much evidence of either so far.
Things of concern, more information needed
City of Asheville begins process of restructuring their Boards and Commissions
Early this year, City staff rolled out a new vision for the City’s Boards and Commissions. At the heart of the proposal would be the replacement of the 20 current advisory boards with four new ones. Among those boards initially slated for removal were the Human Resources Commission and the African American Heritage Commission, both of which were created by the City with the stated intention of addressing ongoing harm to its Black community.
The feedback on this proposal was widespread, loud, and overwhelmingly negative, including several reports from us (see our reports on 2/21 and 4/11). Ultimately, the City backed off the most problematic of their initial recommendations (see our report on 7/11).
It’s unclear where this process is headed, although we are encouraged by the work of a citizen-led (and City staff-supported) Realignment Working Group. We’ll continue monitoring this issue in the new year.
Buncombe County property tax appraisals show evidence of racial and economic inequity
Evidence came to light last year that deep inequities exist in the ways that properties are appraised and taxes assessed in Buncombe County. High-value properties tend to be under-appraised, leading to millions of dollars in lost tax revenue. Lower-value properties tend to be over-appraised, meaning that lower-income homeowners, including many homeowners of color, are paying more than their fair share of taxes. In light of this, the County formed an Ad-Hoc Reappraisal Committee, which offered its final report in July (see our reports on 7/11 and 7/25). The County Appraiser offered a follow-up action plan in October (see report on 10/17). The County also continued to offer its homeowner grant program, intended to blunt the impact on lower-income homeowners (see our reports on 6/13 and 6/20).
While the County is taking steps to address some of the issues here, we remain concerned that the Appraiser hasn’t specifically acknowledged or addressed the racial dimension of this problem. While some of his proposed reforms show some promise, the timeline for implementing them is unclear with insufficient urgency.
City of Asheville Affordable Housing initiatives are generally not affordable enough
We tracked numerous affordable housing initiatives as they worked their way through the Asheville Housing and Community Development Committee and City Council. Much more often than not, they offered minimal affordability for a certain number of years, after which they would likely offer none (for examples, see our reports on 5/2, 6/7, and 8/15). There were a few exceptions that we celebrated (see our reports on 8/22 and 9/25).
We believe that there are serious limitations to an affordable housing strategy anchored in projects led by private for-profit developers. These projects will predictably offer limited affordability because it cuts into those profits. We would like to see the Asheville City Council consider publicly financed and developed projects, but so far don’t see any evidence that they are considering this.
Things that sound like a step in the right direction
The Community Reparations Commission began its essential work
The Community Reparations Commission, made up of representatives selected by neighborhoods, as well as at-large members selected by the City and County, formed in the Spring. They took action immediately, asking both governments to commit to making reparations a line item in their budgets going forward. Both the City and County eventually made this commitment. The Commission passed a unanimous recommendation at their last meeting of the year, asking the City and County to formally commit to stop harming Black people in this region and perform an audit to account for where they are in or out of compliance with existing law.
We celebrated the Commission’s formation, and were gratified that all of the candidates we recommended were seated (see report on 2/28). While we were frustrated with the City and (especially) the County for their delayed response to the Commission’s budgetary request (see our reports on 5/31, 6/7, 6/13, 6/20, 6/27, 7/5, 7/11, and 7/18), we were excited that both governments ultimately complied. We look forward to their response to the “Stop the Harm” audit recommendation (see our report on 12/12).
City fulfills promise to East End community by committing to track at Memorial Stadium
Utilizing American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds, the City approved much-needed improvements to Memorial Stadium. The most important of these was the installation of a track, which had long been a priority of the East End/Valley Street community, where the stadium is located.
We were proud to advocate for this allocation (see our reports on 2/7 and 3/21), and appreciated the leadership of Council Member Antanette Mosley, along with the rest of City Council, in securing it (see our report on 3/28).
City makes Deaverview affordable in perpetuity
The Asheville Housing Authority requested approval for the first of two phases to eventually rebuild all of Deaverview Apartments. All of the planned 82 units were offered at 60% Area Median Income (AMI) or less, with some units available for households at 30% and 50% AMI. All units would also accept housing choice vouchers. In the initial proposal, however, the units would only be “designated affordable for a minimum of 30 years.”
We raised big concerns about the sunset provision in the initial proposal (see report on 4/25), and were relieved when City Council responded to those concerns and revised the plan, making Deaverview affordable in perpetuity (see our reports on 5/2 and 5/9).
Several City and County Committees showed leadership in applying an equity lens to their work
The Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission focused their yearly retreat on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues related to planning and zoning (see report on 3/14). Under the leadership of Chair Joe Archibald, the committee spent time unpacking the impact of city policies including restrictive covenants, redlining, and urban “renewal,” as well as the impact of some newer, “colorblind” policies like the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).
In October, Buncombe County Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the formation of a “Racial Equity Team” with a focus on improved demographic data collection by the Social Work Department and began a racial equity training process for their whole staff (see our reports on 11/7 and 11/28).
We salute these efforts and hope other local Boards and Commissions will follow suit. We also appreciate HHS Director Stoney Blevins’ detailed response to our request for more clarity on their activities.