Despite Strong Need for Housing of All Types, ‘Yes In My Backyard’ Push is an Uphill Battle

Written by John Boyle, Asheville Watchdog.

Announce a residential building project in Asheville or Buncombe County, and you can count on one reaction: opposition.

Whether it’s apartments, condominiums or single-family homes, neighborhood opposition will quickly coalesce. No one wants construction noise, more traffic, development runoff, and bulldozers knocking down trees near their homes.


In a city that’s nestled amid pristine mountains and that has the highest rents in the state and a dearth of affordable homes to buy – two key components in a housing crisis – pushing for more residential development is an uphill struggle.

Andy Paul knows this well. So does the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Last year Paul started the “Asheville for All” group, one of 46 YIMBY Action chapters across the country. Around the same time, the chamber’s president and CEO, Kit Cramer, publicly called for YIMBYism.

YIMBY stands for “Yes In My Backyard,” a hopeful inverse of the longstanding American tradition of NIMBYism, or “Not In My Backyard.” The YIMBY movement started in housing-crunched San Francisco a decade ago and has spread energetically. YIMBY Action says in its 2022 Impact Report that it added 18 chapters last year and has members in 42 states.

Paul started the local group because, he said, the area lacked a pro-housing perspective, and it needs housing of all kinds and price levels.

“For me, it’s really about changing the narrative in Asheville, because I think so many people who consider themselves empathetic, progressive, or whatever word you want to use, they believe that new housing is bad,” Paul said.

Paul hopes to change that narrative by showing that more dense and varied housing is often a welcome addition to communities, and actually harkens back to how American cities used to grow. The chamber also is pushing for a lot more variation.

“We’re for housing, and housing of all types,” said Zach Wallace, vice president of public policy for the chamber. “That’s the only way we’re going to get our housing costs down.”

In recent years, housing costs have gone only in one direction: up. In the second quarter of 2023, the median home sale price in Buncombe County was a record $465,000, according to Mosaic Community Lifestyle Realty’s second quarter Asheville real estate market update. In the city of Asheville, the median home sale price of $500,000 tied the previous record set in the second quarter of 2022.

Housing plays a key role in the workforce and in recruitment of industry and business to the area, Wallace said. When the chamber’s Economic Development Coalition tries to recruit businesses, “one of the things those folks look at is, ‘Do I have a workforce there?’ And that workforce needs housing.”

The chamber also wants to see the city and county look at development ordinances, tweaking them where possible to allow more density and variation in housing types. Wallace also applauds the city for engaging a consultant to study the so-called “missing middle” of housing.

Wallace said YIMBYism will likely remain a struggle in Asheville.

“But we’ve got a lot of people talking about housing. They might talk in different ways about it, but they’re all talking,” Wallace said. “So we’re seeing some positive movement.”

Paul, who moved to Asheville 10 years ago from Austin, Texas, says he sees some parallels between the two cities, especially that so many people view the “ideal version of the city” as the exact time they moved there. People want to shut the door after they move here because Asheville is “so special,” he said.

The thinking is that Asheville is so special it must remain that way, largely untouched. Larger cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte can build all they want, but that’s not acceptable here.

Paul pointed to a recent New York Times article that details the same anti-housing arguments in Berkeley, Calif.

“No one is special,” Paul said. “No city is exempt from the laws of supply and demand — that this is really hitting everywhere.”

Seeing the impacts of building, personally

North Buncombe County resident Marilyn Ball is well aware that the area has a housing crunch, and she doesn’t believe new housing is inherently bad. But she’s seen the downside of new higher-density construction, she said.

“I’ve lived here in Buncombe County for 45 years,” Ball said. “I am not opposed to building and growth.

“People need a place to live — I get it. But really, think about the environment. I guess that’s my big thing is that I’m an old land steward, and that’s a big part of Appalachia. And we’re in (environmental) crisis right now.”

She moved from the Reems Creek area in 2015 to a small subdivision off Aiken Road, a two-lane road in an area with a lot of woods and single-family homes.

She and her neighbors were unhappy when a Greensboro development company, Fall Line Development, got a conditional use permit three years ago to build just under 300 apartments next door on 26 acres of previously wooded land.

Ball, a podcaster and author, said she and her neighbors hurriedly hired an attorney to secure a postponement.Ultimately, she said, they spent over $6,000 for legal advice, formally raising concerns about traffic, the loss of natural habitat, and whether multi-family housing should go in that part of the county.

During construction, Ball and her neighbors documented numerous problems with runoff from the site that damaged nearby homes or yards, construction that went on from sunup to sundown, and lots of noise and light issues related to the project. In April 2020, Buncombe County issued the developer a notice of violation for failing to install sufficient sedimentation and erosion control devices.

As with many apartment developments, the trees were removed, leaving bare earth that became muddy during rains and dusty during dry spells. When it rained hard, runoff inundated neighbors’ property and basements, and when it was dry, the dust was terrible.

Despite the opposition, the project moved forward. Now Ball and her single-family subdivision neighbors have an apartment complex next door.

Called Highline North, the apartments lease for monthly prices ranging from $1,525 a month for a one-bedroom to $2,135 for the most expensive three-bedroom, according to Assistant Property Manager Shawn Jones. Construction will continue into mid-2023, Jones said

Asheville Watchdog tried to reach the development company’s main contact for the project but was unsuccessful.

Beyond the apartments, more land has been cleared for development, this time a proposal for 73 single-family houses.

“We simply do not have the land”

On the southwest end of Buncombe County, Steve Waugh still tends his bees and a sizable garden on the five acres on West Oakview Road that he and his wife, Blanche, have called home for 32 years. Waugh says he was “born and raised on Pond Road,” and he’s watched as the once-rural area has started transforming from rural to residential.

“As far as development, you hate to see it happen, especially on farmland,” Waugh said.

IC Imagine Charter School, which opened 10 years ago off McIntosh Road, expects 1,300 students this fall, according to Head of School Jenn Townley. D.R. Horton, one of the country’s largest homebuilders, is building a nearby neighborhood called Fountain Park, which includes dozens of townhomes and detached single-family homes.

Waugh worries about all the traffic on the narrow country roads, as well as low-lying areas that are prone to flooding.

Waugh and his daughter, Elizabeth Waugh-Harri, spoke against the developments at a Buncombe County Board of Adjustment meeting in which the developers sought permits to build. Waugh-Harri raised concerns about the increased traffic, potential runoff and flooding, and noise.

Waugh-Harri, a teacher, grew up in the area but has moved to a less expensive region. Like Ball, she understands the local housing crunch.

“Some of the growth is for the better,” Waugh-Harri said, “but some of it is not. These are two-lane roads made for tractors and pickup trucks, not for townhomes, a school, and apartment complexes. My parents constantly have people turn around in their driveway coming from IC Imagine. Sometimes they try to sit in my parents’ driveway to wait to pick up their kids.”

On several occasions, nearby pesticide applications have caused Mr. Waugh to lose entire beehives, a financial hit of about $300 each time, he said.

More development is coming. Construction should start in the fall on a 228-unit apartment complex across McIntosh Road from IC Imagine, the Alabama-based developer has said. The project will include 14 buildings.

“To me, building the housing development, ICI, and the apartment complex in less than a mile of each other on two roads that were never designed to take that volume of traffic, you’re asking for disaster,” Waugh-Harri said.

She remembers a more hippified Asheville where regular working people could afford to live. Now, Waugh-Harri said, the city seems to be catering to the “richy-rich” and people moving here from other areas.

“You’re pushing those families that lived here for generations out,” she said. “What was so popular about Asheville is it was not overcrowded. You could drive and see farmland and pastures. You saw residential houses, but Asheville now has become that overcrowded, overdeveloped place you can’t live in. There’s no balance.”

Nathan Pennington, planning director for Buncombe County, said the idea of “balance” is at the core of what his department does. Pennington likes to use the analogy of a seesaw because his office has to “balance the residential community and the business community.”

Pennington said coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, “we’re all dealing with a new playing field.” More people are moving here, and home prices and rents have shot up.

“That field is sometimes ‘absolutely not, over-my-dead-body’ opposed to whatever it is,” Pennington said, noting that social media, and sometimes misinformation, can fuel the opposition to development.

Neighbors also have to understand that the county and the Board of Adjustment have to adhere to state laws, which do tend to favor property rights, including development, Pennington said. People tend to mistakenly think the boards established as a way to govern development are a means to stop development, he added.

Much of this comes down to density — putting more units on available acreage, whether it’s apartments, townhomes, or individual homes, Pennington said, because development has to follow available infrastructure, particularly water and sewer.

“I think what we’ve got to understand is that the land use of single-family homes is an unsustainable model that will not work in the future,” Pennington said. “We simply do not have the land.”

Paul, the Asheville for All founder, pointed out that the ability to live where you want is part of the American bedrock. You can’t move here and then shut the door.

Wyatt Stevens, an attorney who represented the developers behind Highline North, acknowledged that all development affects those nearby. But he also pointed out that every single neighborhood in the mountains once didn’t exist and had to be developed.

Many NIMBY’s, Stevens said, are “very well-meaning,” deeply care about the environment, and often acknowledge that we badly need more housing.

“But as soon as it goes in next door to them, it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen,” Stevens said. “A lot of people moved here because of the beauty, but when they feel (development) threatens that beauty, they respond on their own behalf, not on behalf of what’s best for the community.”

America needs an enormous amount of new housing. In an Aug. 3 article, Housingwire reported that shortage estimates range from 1.5 million units (according to the National Association of Home Builders), to 4.4 million units (Fannie Mae), and up to 7.3 million units (National Low Income Housing Coalition).

In Buncombe County, the rental housing gap — the number of units needed or that could be supported — stood at 3,669 units, according to the 2021 “Housing Needs Assessment, Western North Carolina,” conducted by Bowen National Research and using HUD guidelines. The housing gap for owned homes stood at 2,254 in Buncombe County.

The North Carolina Housing Finance Agency puts the numbers even higher.

This comes despite robust building in Buncombe County from 2010 to 2020. The Bowen report showed a huge surge in building after the dust settled from the 2008-09 Great Recession, with permits for multi-family projects (typically apartments) exploding after 2015, when 311 permits were logged. The number jumped to 1,196 in 2016 and stood at 1,085 in 2020.

Single-family building permits for Buncombe rose steadily throughout the decade, from 543 in 2011 to 1,461 in 2020 according to the Bowen report.

Growth in the mountains tends to come from people moving here rather than from births, according to Tom Tveidt, founder of Syneva Economics. In 2022, Buncombe’s population totaled 273,589, Tveidt said, citing U.S. Census Bureau data.

“Over the last five years the population added about 2,000 net new residents per year, an average annual rate of .8 percent,” Tveidt said. “Buncombe’s population growth rate has been steadily slowing over the last 10 years, which averaged 1.1 percent or 2,700 net new residents per year in the early 2010s.”

North Carolina’s population grew by about 1.1 percent annually over the last five years, Tveidt noted.

The growth we’re experiencing, coupled with a tight inventory of homes for sale, causes home prices to continue to rise, said Mike Figura, founder of Mosaic Community Lifestyle Realty.

Figura notes that economists generally consider a balanced housing market to have six months of inventory, meaning it would take six months for all available homes to sell. Less than six months is considered a seller’s market, meaning there are more buyers than available homes.

The local inventory for homes priced below $500,000 is less than two months, the report shows. Mosaic’s report forecasts more of the same coming.

“With inventory levels declining and population growing, and with new home construction continuing to be expensive and difficult due to geographic constraints and regulations, unless the economy shifts downward significantly, it is likely that we will continue to see an increase in prices,” the report states. “At the very least, we will almost certainly see home prices remain at the current high levels.”

No easy solutions

Housing, NIMBYism, and YIMBYism are complicated subjects, Figura said, and there are no easy solutions. Most people, Figura asserts, consider shelter a basic human right, but the politics of providing enough housing cause deep divides.

Here in the mountains, the topography constricts housing development, as suitable land is limited.

“For the longest time in this country we’ve just had the luxury of having a lot of excess land,” Figura said, noting that led to a somewhat entitled attitude toward housing. “And now we’ve run into a crossroads between running out of land and population growth, especially in certain areas like the mountains.

“Nothing burns me up more than people who think that we should have more affordable housing, but they’re opposed to growth. Because it’s just a contradictory mindset,” Figura said. “To build affordable housing, you have to build dense, and I think that’s what a lot of people don’t like, is density. Especially when they’re in a single family home, they don’t want density next to them, and so there gets to be a little bit of a rub there.”

Besides being a real estate agent, Figura is also a partner in a subdivision development in West Asheville called Craggy Park, which started nine years ago with the land purchase. The development has become something of a microcosm of the housing market, Figura said, although it’s not exactly typical because they’re building 45 custom homes and can’t take advantage of economies of scale you get with homes that are similar.

“I think that if we hadn’t had a lot of neighborhood opposition to building more densely, what we probably would have done would be building multifamily housing there — that was cheaper to build on a per unit basis, and we could have offered a lot more affordable housing, and more housing,” Figura said.

They even had neighborhood opposition to building single-family homes on small lots. Over six years of building, house prices in Craggy Park have jumped from the low $400,000s to the $900,000s, Figura said.

‘Flag lots’ and the ‘Missing Middle’

Barry Bialik, founder of Compact Cottages, which builds smaller, more affordable homes in the Asheville area, says he doesn’t like the terms “NIMBY” or “YIMBY,” because they’re too polarizing and suggest an all-or-nothing approach. He’d like to see folks concentrate more on the middle, where there’s room to meet.

“It seems to me a smarter approach would be to look at, ‘Where do we find our common ground? Where do we find a compromise, because there always is one,” he said.

One area Bialik has been working on is what he considers a middle-type approach that would free up thousands of lots in Asheville for more homebuilding, whether it’s accessory dwelling units or small houses. Bialik, also a past chairman of Asheville’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, said his company has built 180 homes in the area, including 45 in a neighborhood off Hendersonville Road in South Asheville called Atkinsville.

Bialik is a student of the city’s sometimes-dreaded Unified Development Ordinance, or UDO. A couple of decades old, the code governs building in the city, and Bialik found that it includes “a little tool” that is complaint-driven.

“There’s a tool there where any citizen can suggest a text wording change to the UDO,” Bialik said. “It’s not used very much.”

Bialik recently made two suggestions, one that would make it easier to do a “flag lot” — a type of division of property that allows for another structure to be built — and the other a tweak to the city’s Cottage Development ordinance, which allows for development of smaller homes around a shared open space. His proposal called for allowing two cottages as a minimum instead of three, and easing other restrictions.

Bialik’s flag lot suggestion, which was approved by the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission Aug. 2, makes it considerably easier to split off these flag lots. They’re called “flag lots” because when the second lot is carved out, it has driveway access often connected to a rectangle shape on the rear of the property, with the whole resembling a flag and pole.

In its report for the board, city staff described Flag lots as “a form of subdivision that allow a larger parcel to maximize the development area located at the rear of the property by providing an access path from the street to that larger space in the back.”

“That could open thousands of lots in the city, without increasing any base density,” Bialik said.

While city staff opposed the idea, it was approved and will now head to Asheville City Council for a vote. The cottage proposal also advanced.

Bialik says the tweaks are just what a city in crisis needs.

“With housing prices like they are now, what we need is action.” Bialik said.

City staff’s report acknowledged the flag lot proposal encourages responsible growth, increases and diversifies the city housing supply, and promotes development of affordable and workforce housing.

“Nevertheless, although the proposed changes would open up more development opportunities they come with significant negative consequences that are not in the best interest of the city because they conflict with subdivision principles and regulations, conflict with current investments related to Missing Middle Housing, and have not been a part of any public discussion,” city staff wrote.

While the proposed changes would simplify regulations and increase the housing supply, they “would have significant city-wide impacts on the growth and development of our neighborhoods by incentivizing development that undermines investment in public infrastructure and by promoting disorganized patterns of development,” city staff wrote.

Staff listed 10 “cons” to the flag

lot proposal and two to the cottage development tweaks.

The cottage development idea “undermines the community intention of Cottage Courts, which typically contain at least three homes,” the city said, and reducing the minimum number “is a subversive way of permitting two units by right into RS-8 single-family zoning districts without neighborhood and community input.”

A look toward Montford

The city planner who worked on the matter, Vaidila Satvika of the Planning and Urban Design Department, also said the suggestions jump the gun on the city’s “Missing Middle Housing” study initiative.

Last year, City Council agreed to contract with a firm, Opticos Design., to conduct the “Missing Middle” study. It should be finished in September, Satvika said in an interview.

The idea is that for much of the past century, America primarily has built single-family homes and larger apartment buildings, but not the housing that’s in the middle between the two. That includes duplexes, triplexes, quads, cottage homes, small apartment houses, and more.

Satvika points to Montford, the neighborhood just north of downtown, as an example of an area in Asheville that contains a good mix of this type of housing.

The “low-hanging fruit” development has been done, he said, so the city needs to look at more creative strategies, ranging from redeveloping empty retail areas to adjusting zoning regulations.

“In theory, I think we should focus on development in the core of the city,” Satvika said.

Satvika cites a quote from Howard Kunstler, the well-known author and critic of suburban sprawl. Kunstler said suburbia “represents, after all, the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. We built it during our most affluent period of history, and in the decades to come we will be comparatively destitute collectively. In short, we will not have the resources to retrofit most of suburbia.”

But here in Asheville, Satvika realizes development continues to creep outward into the county. In part, that’s because the city has more development regulations and levels of authorization for projects.

The idea is to change the thought process about what’s acceptable development, and that includes more density. That shouldn’t be a scary word, Satvika said.

“One way of couching it is, ‘Do we want more places that look like Montford?’” Satvika said. “Is that a problem? Montford has lots of trees, they have duplexes, triplexes. They have buildings with 20 units in them. It’s walkable. We can have that.”

Like Paul, the Asheville for All founder, Satvika knows “NIMBYs will never go away,” as he puts it, and density will remain a tough sell in many places.

“I think it’s a good thing that they won’t go away, because I want to live in a community where people stand up for what they really want,” he said. “I’ve stood up for projects that I think are incompatible with my neighborhood, and I think it’s the public discussion and discourse that’s really important.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at [email protected].To show your support for this vital public service go to