Government Accountability Project Asheville

As 2023 comes to a close, we wanted to offer you a recap of some of the issues we’ve been tracking this year. In our second full year of operation, we are proud that our Government Accountability Project (GAP) has shone 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. A few notes:

  • We raised less than half as many flags (of all types) this year compared to last year (63 vs. 138). (You can read our year-end report for 2022 here.) This reflects an important shift in our approach. Whenever we became aware of an issue that wasn’t time-sensitive, we made a concerted effort to reach out repeatedly and directly to government officials to get more information before rendering a published conclusion.
  • Despite the overall decrease in flagged items, the percentage of each type of flag remained almost entirely unchanged.

Here are sum totals of the various types of flags we’ve raised this past year.

URGENT

  • 4 items (6% of total / 7% last year)

PROBLEMATIC

  • 14 items (22% of total / 21% last year)

CONCERNS

  • 33 items (52% of total / 53% last year)

POSITIVE

  • 12 items (19% of total / same last year)

The Questions We Asked in 2023 (and will continue to ask in 2024 and beyond)

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin

We believe that a critical step for a government (or any organization) to move toward racial equity and racial justice is to routinely ask a series of important questions:

  • How does this particular policy or program impact distinct racial groups differently?

  • What are the needs of Black and Latine people in our community and how can we address them?

  • What are the barriers to racial equity and how can we concretely remove them?

With great regularity, the role we took on in 2023 was to remind our local government to ask these questions. We recognize that answering these questions is not always easy, and that taking meaningful action to address the issues the questions expose can be even more difficult. But as James Baldwin reminds us, we cannot address issues that are not being named.

It’s important to note that we can focus on these questions, and encourage our local governments to routinely ask them as well, only because both of our local governments have repeatedly and consistently named the pursuit of equity as a primary goal. It is prominent in both the Asheville and Buncombe County Comprehensive Plans. There are many regions of this country where equity has become politicized and fiercely resisted, making these kinds of critical questions more difficult to ask and answer. By committing to these goals, Asheville and Buncombe County have crossed an important threshold. We believe it is our job – the GAP Team and you, our subscribers and advocates – to hold them accountable to following through on those goals.

How Asheville and Buncombe County Answered These Critical Questions in 2023

How does this particular policy or program impact distinct racial groups differently?

We found both Asheville and Buncombe County’s attention to this question too often lacking and inconsistent. In many instances, it simply wasn’t asked, blurring the distinctions that exist between racial groups and obscuring the unique challenges that Black and Latine people face in our region. Here are a few examples:

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RED:

Things that seem problematic

Limited attention was given to racial dynamics in public safety issues

The City of Asheville pursued various strategies for addressing public safety issues in the City, such as hiring more officers, and implementing several pilot or short-term projects such as the Downtown Safety Initiative and Community Responder Program. These efforts were often touted as successful, or moving the City in a positive direction. Five members of the Asheville City Council published an “Open Letter” summarizing their approach to public safety in August. The letter claimed that the City is engaging in “a comprehensive and multifaceted approach” to public safety that will address the “root causes of human actions that put safety at risk and beget criminal activity.” You can read the full text of the letter here, news reports on it from Yahoo news and WLOS, and our original GAP Report on August 14.

We were consistently troubled by the Asheville government’s inattention to the intersections between issues of race and public safety. This was demonstrated most prominently in the previously referenced “Open Letter.” This letter, while claiming to be “comprehensive” and to address “root causes,” chose to completely ignore this critical intersection. There are well-documented and deep racial inequities in how this City is policed, who is able to afford housing, and who has access to health care, but there is no reference to these issues in the letter, and therefore no mention of any strategy for addressing them. Strategies for improving public safety will not be racially equitable if questions about how different racial groups experience these challenges aren’t asked.

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YELLOW:

Things of concern, more information needed

Racial demographic data was inconsistently collected and/or shared on many programs

Throughout the year, there were various presentations and report-backs in both City and County meetings on the impact of a range of programs. Especially in County presentations, racial demographic data was frequently absent, making it impossible to evaluate how programs impacted different racial groups. Here is a partial list of the GAP Reports where we asked this question:

  • Vibrant Economy Follow-up (January 2)
  • Covid-19 Emergency Spending Money Report (January 2)
  • School Board Update (February 13, March 20) (Note that this report did offer some racial data, but asserted that “economic disadvantages” were the primary driver of discrepancies between Black and white students. No data was offered to support this.)
    Economic Development Commission report (July 17)
  • Tourism Development Authority Presentation on Local Attitudes Toward Tourism (July 31)
  • Down Payment Assistance Program (July 31)

It was often unclear to us whether racial data wasn’t collected in the first place, or was simply omitted from the public report on the impact of the program. Either way, we tried to consistently raise the question – and make the point – that without this data, it’s impossible to evaluate whether any policy or program is being administered in a manner that addresses racial inequities.

What are the needs of Black and Latine people in our community and how can we address them?

As alluded to in the prior section, the experiences and challenges that different racial groups face are different. Both Asheville and Buncombe County assert that they are committed to supporting Black and Latine people in our region, and we don’t doubt their sincerity. While there were a few positive moments this past year (see the green items below), too often those needs are given a low priority. Here are a few examples:

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RED:

Things that seem problematic

Asheville’s approach to “affordable housing” often doesn’t address the needs of Black and Latine families

A series of housing projects that came before the Asheville City Council for rezoning approval, most of which promised to deliver a percentage of “affordable housing” units. Most of those units were targeted at those making 60-80% of Area Median Income (AMI). (A partial list of the GAP Reports where we covered this issue: October 9, November 13, November 20, December 4, December 11.)

We routinely red-flagged these items and encouraged the Asheville City Council to push for more deeply affordable housing. Research by Thrive Asheville, done in partnership with the City, demonstrated persuasively that so-called “affordable” units targeted at those making 60 or 80% of Area Median Income (AMI) actually leads to greater inequities in housing access. Most Black and Latine families in our region have a median income that is below 50% of AMI, and so truly affordable and racially just housing must address this reality.

Reparations Commission request for an extension disregarded

The Community Reparations Commission (CRC) voted in November to formally ask the City and County for an eight-month extension of their timeline. To complete their work successfully and with full integrity, they have requested that the deadline for their final recommendations be extended from April to December 2024. City and County staff have suggested that a shorter two-month extension should be adopted instead. The outcome of this request is still pending, with no final word offered by either government as of today’s date, but it appears that the CRC’s request will be rejected. (Read our GAP Report on December 11.)

We find it deeply disconcerting that the City and County didn’t immediately agree to this extension. There is a long list of reasons why it is warranted (which you can see summarized on the RJC website here). It’s troubling to note that both governments granted themselves several extensions in the timeline for setting up the CRC, but now that the body they have appointed to conduct the process asks for more time to successfully complete their charge, they seem poised to say no. In light of that history, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that the City and County were resistant to start this process, and now that it’s underway, are in a hurry to end it.

Asheville failed to support the East End Community’s needs in reference to the Aspire project

The Asheville City Council approved a rezoning request for a 10.5-acre parcel containing three properties, one of which would become the tallest building in Asheville. The East End Community, Asheville’s oldest Black neighborhood, is immediately adjacent to this property, and they raised concerns about several ways the new project would impact them. They were promised consideration by the developers but ultimately their primary concern — the projected building height — was not changed and the initiative passed anyway. (See our GAP Reports on August 21, September 11, and September 25, and October 2).

The Asheville City Council consistently asserts its intention to support legacy neighborhoods like East End, and we don’t doubt the sincerity of that intention. What’s less consistent is the prioritization of the needs of such neighborhoods, especially when they conflict with the plans of developers and the desire for more downtown housing by other members of our community, which remains predominantly white.

GREEN:

Things that sound like a step in the right direction

The Pack Square Visioning Project gave appropriate consideration and priority to The Block

The McAdams Company was hired by the City to develop a plan for reimagining Pack Square in the aftermath of the removal of the Vance Memorial. McAdams gave priority to seeking out and considering the input of Black community members, and in particular stakeholders on The Block, Asheville’s original Black business district, which lies just one block from Pack Square. Their final proposal uplifted the need for the new Pack Square to feature historical references and context, and for a revitalized connection between the square and The Block. (See our original GAP Report on September 25.)

It remains to be seen what will ultimately emerge from this process, and plans to convert the Municipal Building, which stands between Pack Square and The Block, into a police academy are troubling. However, the City has secured funding to facilitate a Boost The Block initiative that is intended to begin implementing many of the recommendations in the Visioning Project. We appreciate the admirable and appropriate attention McAdams paid to lifting up both the story and future of The Block in their report.

The City and County both identified and acted upon a few opportunities to support local Black-led initiatives and/or prioritize the needs of Black community members

Here is a partial list of actions taken by the City or County to prioritize Black people:

  • My Daddy Taught Me That was given long-term access to a City building (April 24).
  • Free Voter ID Cards were offered to anyone in Buncombe County who needs one (August 7).
  • Additional funding was routed to the Peak Academy (October 16).
  • Support for the Fairhaven Summit project, which offers deeply affordable housing, was continued (December 11).

We happily green-flagged all of these items, and will continue to salute similar actions by our local governments that appropriately uplift the Black community.

What are the barriers to racial equity and how can we concretely remove them?

If we seek out information about the different experiences different racial groups are having, and we put energy into assessing the needs of Black and Latine people, the next hurdle is a careful analysis of the barriers to racial equity and how they might be addressed. In many of our reports this year, we referenced these challenges, noted the lackluster progress being made, and questioned whether the analysis was digging deep enough. Here are a few examples:

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YELLOW:

Things of concern, more information needed

The membership of Asheville Boards and Commissions remains overwhelmingly white

We addressed this issue in a series of reports (on March 13, March 20, April 10), noting that almost all applicants to City Boards and Commissions were white. (It’s worth noting that we weren’t able to do a similar analysis of the County’s Boards and Commissions because they don’t share that information, another instance of the lack of racial demographic data discussed above.)

This is a problem that the City is aware of and has attempted to address, but we don’t think the roots of the problem have been adequately explored, yielding ineffective solutions. We wondered whether the City has surveyed or interviewed Black or Latine community members who have served in these positions, or otherwise engaged those communities, to better understand why so few community members apply to be part of these bodies.

Business Inclusion practices for both the City and County aren’t effective enough

Asheville has an Office of Business Inclusion, but it lacked a director for most of the year. (There appears to be someone in the position now, but we’re not clear when they started.) Buncombe County has declared the intention of developing its own business inclusion strategy, but does not to date have a similar office in its government. Both the City and the County affirm the intention of contracting with more Black and Latine companies, but have so far only had minimal success in moving the needle. (We discussed this in our GAP Reports on April 17 and April 24.)

Similar to the Boards and Commissions issue discussed above, stated intentions only carry the process so far if the underlying causes of racial equity gaps aren’t identified and addressed. We would suggest that a real shift in business opportunities for Black and Latine companies can only begin if the causes of their exclusion are explored and targeted.

It remains unclear what kind of racial equity training Asheville’s Community Responders will receive

We raised this concern in multiple GAP Reports (see GAP Reports from April 3, April 10, May 8, May 15, May 22, June 12, and June 26). At issue is what “racial equity training” actually means, and how it is implemented. The City of Asheville’s Office of Equity and Inclusion has a program for training City staff, but it’s unclear how often these trainings are conducted or what’s covered in them. The City used to track this work on their Equity Dashboard, but it is no longer being updated, so it’s unclear how many trainings were conducted in 2023. The City shared the content in their “Advancing Racial Equity” training series, and it looked solid, but it appears that staff in sensitive positions, such as the Community Responders, don’t receive any more specialized training.

We appreciate the City’s commitment to offer some racial equity training to all their staff, but are uncertain about the current scope of that implementation. However, we think that basic trainings are not sufficient to prepare Community Responders, and other first responders, to do their critical work with an effective racial equity lens. We continue to believe they should receive specialized training and support around issues of race. Their work would seem to put them in very unique circumstances as they interface with community members of color who are navigating addiction and/or homelessness. Implicit biases are likely to color these interactions, which could lead to escalating situations that might harm the populations this program is seeking to support.

GREEN:

Things that sound like a step in the right direction

The City and County both took steps to support the local reparations process

In the first few months of the year, both the City and the County approved the recommendation from the Community Reparations Commission (CRC) entitled Stop the Harm. The recommendation pointed out the necessity of assessing current levels of harm being inflicted on local Black residents as an important precondition to any meaningful reparations for past harms, and called for an audit of both City and County governments. (See our GAP Reports on January 30 and February 6.) In addition, Buncombe County amended its budget to add a new staff member for their Special Collections Department, in order to facilitate more timely responses to CRC data requests. (See our GAP Report on March 6).

While the more recent apparent rejection of the CRC’s request for an extension of its timeline (discussed above) is an ominous sign, we want to note several important and admirable steps our local governments took that showed support for the CRC. The audit will be complete in February and should shed some important light on current conditions for Black people in this region. The long delays the CRC had to endure for many of their data requests were challenging, and we appreciate the hiring of additional personnel to address that problem. (It’s worth noting that coping with the data delays and having time to analyze and incorporate the audit are two of the reasons the CRC has asked for the extension.)

The Asheville City Council started conducting their pre-meeting briefings in public

City Council started doing in-person public briefings every other week, outlining for the community the issues that are likely to be on the official City Council agenda the following week. (Read our original GAP Report on February 13 here.)

For many years, these briefings were conducted through closed door “check-ins,” which meant that a cumbersome public record request was required to know what went on. These briefings offer important insight into how City Council intends to take action at their forthcoming meetings. Shifting to public meetings was an important step toward a more transparent and democratic process.