New Residential Construction Is Not to Blame for the Holiday Water Crisis
Asheville For All expresses deep concern about a narrative emerging from the city’s holiday water crisis. Residents of Asheville and Buncombe County should reject the idea that halting new home construction is a valid measure for preventing future water service calamities such as the one that began during the last week of December 2022.
In the two weeks following the incident, which began with water pipes bursting across the city due to record low temperatures, we’ve seen opinions from residents that seek to pit “infrastructure” versus “development” in a zero sum contest. This kind of framing of the problem is misguided and unproductive.
Specifically, we’ve seen two arguments. First is the suggestion that too much construction and population growth in the region was the cause of the water outage that ensued following the pipes bursting. Second is the idea that halting further urban growth is a necessary solution to prevent future water outages.
Neither urban growth, nor tourism, as some have suggested, caused the water crisis. As NPR reported, cities across the South suffered similar incidents. These cities are small and large, some growing fast, and others growing more slowly. Some have tourism and others do not.
Again, cold temperatures and burst pipes, not a shortage in general overall capacity, was at the root of the disaster.
Building much needed infill housing, at higher densities than exist in much of Asheville, and in areas close to amenities, jobs, and transit, is not only compatible with strengthening our infrastructure, but may be a necessary precondition for it. With a greater population, the city can benefit from a larger tax base, and city services are more efficiently delivered where density is greater. In other words, it costs less per capita to maintain water service to condominiums, apartments, and townhomes, than it does to sparsely populated single-family-only neighborhoods.
Put another way, if the city is struggling to pay for infrastructure maintenance, don’t blame new multi-family home construction. Home builders pay for new pipes out of their own pocket. Instead we should look at the costs of continuing to double down on unsustainable, costly, and exclusionary status quo land use.
It is entirely understandable for Ashevilleans to be angry, especially those that suffered weeks without potable water. Like housing, safe water is a human right.
And we make no claims or assumptions about who did what, right or wrong; who was competent or incompetent; or who, if anyone, should be blamed. We do not intend to enter such a discussion.
Rather we are only asking that residents not fall prey to simplistic and cynical takeaways that are not rooted in the facts, but instead have been crafted only to confirm already existing prior anti-housing biases.
We continue to believe that opposition to housing—to subsidized workforce home construction; to missing middle zoning; to transit oriented development; and to form-based zoning codes—is a minority stance in Asheville.
But these kinds of emotional appeals that emerge during crises can be dangerously powerful. We urge the vast majority of Ashevillle and Buncombe County residents that care about our housing scarcity crisis to keep a level head, and to follow the facts as they continue to emerge.
Our region’s housing scarcity crisis affects low-income people, the homeless and housing insecure, a rent-burdened professional class, artists, musicians, service workers, and migrants. Should new residential construction become a scapegoat for the water crisis, these are the people that will be hurt the most.