Amendment makes affordable housing easier to build

Fred McCormick

As soon as Shane McLaurin was offered a job at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, he knew where he wanted to live. After all, he had been visiting his grandfather Charlie Sparks in Black Mountain for over a decade.

The 24-year-old set out to find a place to live and ran into an obstacle familiar to many throughout Western North Carolina - a lack of affordable housing. A unanimous decision by the board of aldermen at its May 9 regular meeting may provide those seeking reasonable rents a bit of relief.

Aldermen amended the code to allow secondary dwelling units such as garage apartments on each lot in town. The code previously stipulated that there could be no more than four dwellings, whether they were primary or secondary, per acre.

The change helps Sparks, who wanted to support his grandson’s move to the area by converting the upper level of his detached garage on North Dougherty Street into a studio apartment.

“Shane was weighing taking the position at Biltmore after looking at the rent, which is pretty high in Asheville,” Sparks said. “That started the process of me looking back into the rules about secondary dwellings, which I had worked on with Elizabeth Teague, who was the (town) planning director at the time.”

Sparks has some history with housing. In the 1990s, he was the president of the National Council of Seniors Housing in Washington D.C. The organization worked with the National Association of Home Builders, the AARP and the United Nations to promote secondary dwellings as an answer to the need for affordable housing.

“At that time, the biggest need was on the West Coast,” he said, “but now it’s a problem in a lot of places in the U.S.”

Under Teague’s guidance, Sparks worked on a citizen advisory board to establish the ordinance. The board created the secondary dwelling code to foster affordable housing in town. Ironically, the ordinance kept him from converting his garage into an apartment for his grandson.

That changed May 9, when aldermen amended the code to clarify the language.

“The intent was there but the language of it didn’t match what we were trying to accomplish,” planning director Josh Harrold told the board during the public hearing. “What’s been changed is to allow for secondary dwelling units to be permitted on each lot in town, whereas before they were allowed by density.”

Donna Marie Todd bought a house with a secondary dwelling specifically because it had space for her parents to live. The ability to have a secondary dwelling can be critical for families, she said.

“It was of incredible importance to me,” she said. “It’s important to more people than you think. If you don’t have the opportunity to create a secondary dwelling then you don’t have a choice other than putting family members in extremely expensive living situations.”

Having a place for her parents at home “allowed my parents to have a very high quality of life while being around their family,” she said.

Sparks said the amendment passed by the board will have a positive impact on the town.

“It opens up a tremendous opportunity for the community to build more secondary dwellings for a wide variety of needs,” he said. “It benefits the elderly, people with special needs and young people like my grandson.”

McLaurin, Sparks’s grandson, said the amendment makes it easier for younger people to be able to live in a “great community of genuine people that care for each other.”

“I think it’s also important for the growth of Black Mountain,” he said. “It gives young people an opportunity to stay here and help it grow.”

More items from the May 9 Black Mountain Board of Aldermen regular meeting:

• The board accepted the dedication of two parcels of property on East Street by the trustees of the estate of John L. Currie.

• The board voted unanimously to specify a height of 12 inches to be considered as nuisance grass.

• The board voted unanimously to expand the width of residential driveways allowed to 20 feet.

• The board also called for public hearings at the June 13 meeting addressing text amendments for steep slopes in the land use code, closing an unopened platted right-of-way off of Pearl Street and text amendments to the zoning map.