Asheville tiny home villages address affordable housing, COVID-19 crisis, in creative ways

Mackensy Lunsford
Asheville Citizen Times

Rev. Amy Cantrell knows a sense of community lifts people up. And it can keep them safe in times of crisis.

"We see that really clearly with COVID," said the pastor and co-director of Beloved Asheville. "You see how neighborhood networks and mutual aid have been so incredibly helpful. People live around each other, and they know each other."

With the rest of the Beloved Asheville team, which includes Ponkho Bermejo, Carmen Ramos-Kennedy and Adrienne Sigmon, the community nonprofit organization continues work on the Beloved Asheville Village, a network of 12 micro-homes in East Asheville and an innovative solution to the housing crisis.

The idea was born out of tragedy. 

Janet Jones, who lived without housing by the river and delighted in the turtles she found there, died of hypothermia on the first cold night in October 2016. 

Amy Cantrell, co-director of BeLoved Asheville poses outside of the model home of the future BeLoved Asheville Village in East Asheville on June 11, 2020. The site is planned to include 12 micro-homes of about 440-square feet. Cantrell describes the homes as "deeply affordable housing" designed with equity building in their rental plans.

Cantrell and the Beloved community had a memorial for Janet, and discussed homelessness as a public health emergency.

"After the memorial, what was so powerful, and has shifted our work in so many different ways, is people basically said, 'What else are we gonna do?'" Cantrell said. 

More:Open up hotels? Asheville homeless community scrambles for coronavirus action

That manifested as a community of 12 "deeply affordable" — 30% of area median income — homes on donated church property in East Asheville.

One model home has already been erected on the property, and space has been made in a bamboo thicket for the rest of the homes, generous for the style at nearly 500 square feet with a second floor for storage and, potentially, more living space.

Amy Cantrell, co-director of BeLoved Asheville talks about the future BeLoved Asheville Village in East Asheville inside the under-construction model home on June 11, 2020. The site is planned to include 12 micro-homes of about 440-square feet. Cantrell describes the homes as "deeply affordable housing" designed with equity building in their rental plans.

Addressing past injustices

The village was created as a sustainable and accessible community space, with porches planned for each home.

Cantrell hopes the village can also help address lingering inequality from harmful policies like redlining, a post-Depression government policy where the Home Owners' Loan Corporation marked traditional African-American neighborhoods as red on assessment maps.

Residents of those neighborhoods were considered to be at high risk for loans, denying them traditional pathways to home ownership and the wealth-building it often affords.

"We know our African-American community, for decades and decades, has literally been pushed out of housing through urban renewal and through redlining," said Cantrell.

Land for the future site of the BeLoved Asheville Village, a community of 12 "deeply affordable homes" was donated by Land of the Sky United Church of Christ in East Asheville and sits adjacent to one of their parking lots.

More: View the map of Asheville's history of redlining here.

"Particularly around racial justice, equity is so important. We have this huge wealth gap across the nation, in Asheville, the second-most gentrified city in the country," she added. A 2017 realtor.com article about cities that were gentrifying the fastest gave Asheville that No. 2 ranking

The COVID crisis has only exacerbated that, she said, with most Americans not being able to afford an unexpected ER bill.

"So we have this poverty pandemic, and this racial pandemic, prior to COVID," Cantrell said. "Those are just becoming more acute."

Led by Amy Cantrell, of Be Loved Asheville, left, and sign carriers Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, and Rabbi Justin Goldstein, of Congregation Beth Israel, a group of clergy and community members cross over the Charlotte Street pedestrian bridge on their way to the courthouse during a prayer processional calling for racial justice on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. The group stopped at significant places for prayer and reflection including the former Stephens Lee High School.

The equity question

Whether community members can purchase the homes outright remains in question, with the answer tied to a complex problem of public versus private sewer lines.

Regardless, as an alternative to traditional home ownership, the Beloved team will place a portion of each resident's rent into an equity account.

"If you move, you take all your home equity with you," Cantrell explained. "And you can draw off that home equity for things that will help you move forward in life or mitigate a crisis." 

Cantrell isn't aware of another property with a similar plan for its residents.

"You know, one of the things we believe is that, if we get community together, the impossible can become possible," she said. 

More:More apartments available, but rents remains stubbornly high

Amy Cantrell, co-director of BeLoved Asheville poses outside of the model home of the future BeLoved Asheville Village in East Asheville on June 11, 2020. The site is planned to include 12 micro-homes of about 440-square feet. Cantrell describes the homes as "deeply affordable housing" designed with equity building in their rental plans.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development maintains that, if a family pays more than 30% of their income for rent or mortgage expenses, it's considered a cost burden. 

According to a 2019 Housing Needs Update for Buncombe County, more than 46% of renters and more than 20% of homeowners in the area are cost burdened. 

The median housing cost in Buncombe County is $310,000, putting home ownership out of reach for many.

Rev. Amy Cantrell, executive director of Be Loved House, talks addresses the group during a "Housing not Handcuffs" march calling for the end of over-policing of the homeless at Prichard Park on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016.

The Beloved village will cut through some traditional barriers to housing, including credit and background checks.

It's a path to home ownership when choices seem few.

"We're losing our beautiful local people," Cantrell said. "They're being pushed out through gentrification."

Cantrell believes people might want to stay in their houses for the long haul, part of why each home is built to be affordably efficient, and comes complete with a 30-year maintenance plan. 

Cantrell hopes the East Asheville village can act as a prototype for similar housing communities around Asheville.

A solution to topographical challenges 

Drew Crawford, a tiny home consultant who's building his own community in East Asheville, said tiny home communities are a perfect model for adding housing density to land with topographical challenges.

Space is used as efficiently as possible in a currently unoccupied tiny home on the property that will one day be DIY Tiny in East Asheville. Tiny homes typically utilize as much vertical space as they can to maximize the potential of their small square footage.

The Beloved Asheville Village, for example, is being built on sloping land previously choked by a practically impenetrable wall of bamboo.

"(Tiny homes) are a great use of land that is somehow compromised, whether it's too strange to build single family homes on, or too small to build apartments," Crawford said. 

A vanity plate adorns the back of a currently unoccupied tiny home on the property that will one day be DIY Tiny in East Asheville.

Crawford's planned DIY Tiny community acts as an entry point to home ownership in Asheville, where the cost of living has skyrocketed.

More:Asheville, Buncombe homeless count down 6% from 2019; Count done before coronavirus pandemic

Many think tiny home villages are chic and elite, said Crawford. "But we're trying to build housing to address affordable housing, not elite housing."

Crawford thinks he can provide home ownership for around $125,000. He also plans to work with Homeward Bound to help place a couple of residents without housing of their own. 

A currently unoccupied tiny home sits on the property that will one day be DIY Tiny in East Asheville. The plan for the community is toÊhold 16 400-square foot tiny homes, all built around communal space.

Crawford's community plans include garden space and territories for animals, including chickens, pigs and bees.

"I want to base our neighborhood around gardening, so there's a sense of community as opposed to it just being a place to live," he said.

Community, beauty, a universal need

Community is a universal need, and Cantrell said she's heard very loudly that the kind of housing people with homes get placed in is not the kind of housing they want.

Public housing can be too close for comfort, she said. Many people want the same thing: houses that are in good repair that also have garden space, porches and access to different forms of transportation. 

And everyone wants to be surrounded by beauty.

A tribute to Janet Jones, the catalyst for the BeLoved Asheville Village, is drawn on one of the beams inside the model home of the future community. Jones, who loved turtles, froze to death while sleeping by the French Broad River in 2016.

"It matters that I feel at home in my home," said Cantrell.

That's why Warren Wilson's ceramics department will make pottery dishes for the homes, and the Furniture Society of North America, in collaboration with UNCA, will create custom-built furniture.

Artists will also work with residents to create custom pieces for the walls, Cantrell said. 

"In every little thing that we do, we want to make sure that people see themselves so that they feel welcome, that they feel like they belong here."

The Beloved Asheville Village relies in part on donations. Feel moved to contribute? Visit belovedasheville.com/projects/belovedvillage

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Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.

Reach me:mlunsford@citizentimes.com.

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