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Occupancy Tax Spending Reform Shouldn’t Be About Xenophobia or Nativism

by Andrew P.
November 16, 2023

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

Most of the time, I like and appreciate the work that the Asheville Watchdog does. And I believe wholeheartedly that the Buncombe County occupancy tax should be democratized and spent on community needs. And so I was looking forward to last week’s coverage of the Tourism Development Authority and how that institution relates to the matter of housing scarcity in Buncombe County.

The Watchdog published two articles on housing and the TDA last week, on Monday and Tuesday. And many of the people quoted in these articles made salient and important points. But I’m afraid that as everything added up, the articles may have brought as much heat as they did light. So I want to share a few quick thoughts, ones that arose both as I was reading the pieces and as I was watching the ways that different people responded to them.

First, there should be no place for xenophobia and nativism in the movement to democratize Buncombe County’s occupancy tax. That means remote workers are not to blame for our problems, nor “transplants” more generally, and it certainly means that we can do without dogwhistles referencing “Chinese construction” workers.

Pitting locals against newcomers is the wrong way to frame this issue. To be clear, I don’t believe that the Watchdog is novel in doing so. Rather, I think it’s something like the natural outcome of adding up all of the dominant discourses around both the TDA and housing. It’s in the air. As the journalist and shrewd observer of housing politics Jerusalem Demsas pointed out very recently in a different context, matters of tourism and housing seem to encourage people to adopt a scarcity and zero-sum mindset.

Second, I believe asking “how many tourists is too many” is the wrong question to ask. It assumes a static understanding of Asheville and Buncombe County and its capacity to host people in both short and longer terms. Cities grow over time. Their fortunes improve. Or they decline. All of these things are the result, in part, of policy from city, county, and state institutions, and these things change over time too. Tourists and transplants come and go for all sorts of reasons outside of the TDA’s power—the ebb and flow of pandemics, maybe for one example—and to suggest that there is a single number that we can cap our county at, besides being misanthropic, is to assume a static mindset.

As an aside, I wonder if there was something intentionally provocative about the Watchdog’s selection of a well-heeled family with a big suburban house as the framing device for its big story about housing and the TDA. Or perhaps it was the result of unintentional bias. In any case, most of the “transplants” that I know are working people—they’re servers, retail employees, writers, public employees, and teachers. Perhaps to use them as examples of newcomers instead would have resulted in a different, maybe messier kind of story. On the other hand, the Watchdog does tie in the image of this wealthy with evidence to show that this was the demographic that the TDA had targeted for its marketing. I honestly don’t know if we can say that this kind of targeting itself is a crime.

The housing shortage is real, and it’s true that higher-income homebuyers—whether they’re local or from out-of-town—will bid up the price of existing houses and condos, and this results in the “filtering up” of all home prices and rents in the region. And the TDA is correct on the point that the city and its residents have established barriers to increasing market rate housing supply, particularly the addition of dense infill in neighborhoods close to jobs and amenities that would undoubtedly combat the “filtering up” effect, mitigating pressure on rents and home prices and creating more options for working families. Asheville is of course not alone in doing so.

(The Watchdog’s rejoinder to the TDA’s point on this was rather nonsensical, and it was contradicted by its own further points about housing scarcity. As I’ve written before, an observable increase in housing construction does not necessarily mean that we’re doing enough, that we’ve solved our problems, or that we’ve eliminated the structural barriers that we’ve erected in the past.)

But having said all of the above, it should not be controversial to say that the more national awareness that Asheville receives, and the more marketing dollars that are spent, the more attractive of a destination it becomes for a greater number of people. There is nothing wrong with that in a vacuum. TDA or no TDA, Asheville has room to grow, and people should be able to move wherever they want, to seek pleasure and opportunity, to find jobs or to move closer to family, or to find refuge from ecological, political, or economic catastrophe, whether it’s across the globe, or across the country. Newcomers have the potential to enrich our city. We just need to be able to spend the necessary public money to keep our home a welcome place for newcomers and more established residents.

There’s something about Asheville political discourse on housing—generally speaking, and not by any means limited to last week’s articles—where people can only ever seem to blame one thing and one thing only as the root of all of our problems. It can’t possibly be that both our town’s “homevoter” NIMBY sentiments, mixed with outdated, romantic and privileged pastoral visions of what constitutes “sustainability” and “environmentalism” and our undemocratically misallocated hotel tax funds are both contributing to the crisis, a crisis that pits us—natives, newcomers, and visitors—against each other.

(I think this is because it’s comforting, at least for residents that are of a “small-c conservative” mindset, to believe that if we could just end tourism, or ban short term rentals, that they can freeze their surroundings in time and go about their business without having to change or to see change around them. On the other side of the argument, there appear to be people that have made a substantial sum of money off of Asheville’s growth who are reluctant to think about how that growth may have made others feel alienated and/or exploited. And I think it’s when those feelings go unaddressed that people go down the rabbit hole of misanthropy, xenophobia, and neo-Malthusianism.)

There’s a saying in some academic circles: the highest mark of intellect is the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in one’s head at once. We can understand the need to address some of the effects of growth while celebrating the contributions of visitors and new neighbors. We can enjoy nature while understanding dense urban land use as necessary for climate adaptation and more economical, sustainable, and enjoyable living. We can be rooted in a particular place but still adopt a broader demotic perspective as a means to solve our problems. We can remember aspects of the past fondly while still understanding that nothing lasts forever, and change can be beneficial.

So we shouldn’t be asking “how many tourists” or “how many transplants” do we want. The question that should be before us then is this: in the context of a severe housing shortage—a national phenomenon as well as a local one; one that we know will require multiple tools in our toolbox to fix—how do we best make use of all of the available solutions in front of us, including zoning and land use reform, and including channeling subsidies towards multifamily housing development in high-demand, high-opportunity neighborhoods, in a way that might serve working families of both locals and newcomers? And in a way in which that process of spending the money that is collected by our county government is accountable to a broad swath of people, not just a particular set of wealthy interests?

POSTSCRIPT: I thought the Watchdog’s final piece in the series on the TDA, published a week after the ones discussed above, was much, much better.

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

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