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Buncombe Affordable Housing Initiatives Garner National Attention

The innovative ways the Buncombe County Planning Department is encouraging the growth of affordable housing are getting noticed at the highest levels of the housing industry. The County’s Affordable Housing Services Program (AHSP) and the Community Oriented Development (COD) element of the zoning ordinance recently ranked among the nation’s top ten among those nominated for the Ivory Prize in Housing Affordability.

“While many large, metro areas are making inroads to impact housing affordability, few entities have had as comprehensive an approach as Buncombe County,” notes the Ivory Award Committee. “The totality of their efforts, as well as the application of proven strategies often only used in more urban and larger settings, advanced them as a finalist.”

The Ivory Prize, from Ivory Innovations, is an annual award recognizing ambitious, feasible, and scalable solutions to housing affordability. Buncombe is the only local government to make the cut for the final ten in consideration for the grand prize. The search committee looked for affordable housing solutions that combine elements of finance, policy, and design/construction. Buncombe’s Planning staff stood out for its competency in using policy with a particular focus on supporting new, scalable approaches to improve housing policy.

“The Affordable Housing Services Program, and the Community Oriented Development program were both designed to generate opportunities for the creation of long-term affordable and workforce housing units and these efforts have taken several years to develop and promote,” states Planning Director Nathan Pennington. “When it comes to affordable housing strategies we may never feel finished on a County planning level,” notes Pennington, “we are grateful for the support of our local leaders, housing advocates, and development community.”

Affordable Housing Services Program (AHSP)

Through the AHSP, the County has assisted nonprofit and private developers in leveraging funds to provide affordable housing. Established in 2004, the AHSP has supported the creation of single-family homes and multi-family rental units, as well as provided aid through tenant-based rental assistance, down payment assistance, emergency repair, employee housing assistance, and permit fee rebates.  Over the most recent two years, the AHSP has been able to support 387 units of affordable housing.  Since its inception in 2004, the AHSP has assisted 1,533 families with a total of $6,845,967 in local funding. The AHSP was primarily established as a loan fund, with proceeds being returned to the County to help further the creation of additional units, similar to a housing trust fund. For some types of assistance, grants are awarded. The application for programs is on an annual basis, with additional funding being provided each year through the County budget process. The Planning and Development Department staff administer the AHSP.

Community-Oriented Development (COD)

The COD program was created in 2015 and is offered through the County’s zoning ordinance. Zoning in unincorporated Buncombe County was first adopted in 2009. With the constraints of our steep slopes, protected ridges, flood hazard areas, and national forest land, the vacant land served by public water and sewer is already at a high premium. The County responded to these constraints by creating the COD program, which is also administered through the Planning and Development department. 

The COD program awards density bonuses of up to 250 percent for developments on public infrastructure that include affordable or workforce housing units. The program incorporates the AHSP requirements for income eligibility and rental rates/housing price affordability criteria and secures a minimum affordability period of 15 years. In addition, program points can be applied for from a range of options under the three tiers of the County’s Sustainability Plan: Community, Environment/Transit, and Economy. Additional points can be awarded for added amenities.

Buncombe’s Affordable Housing Planning Staff include Planning Director Nathan Pennington, Donna Cottrell, Gillian Phillips, Josh Freeman, Cynthia Fox-Clark, Shannon Capezzali, and Matt Cable.