August 26, 2015
Earlier this month, I made a long-planned trip to Asheville, a city of about 90,000 people in western North Carolina. For years, I’d heard glowing stories about it: the natural beauty, the laid back, crunchy-hipster vibe, the microbreweries and cafes. Hike the Blue Ridge Mountains by day, eat food-truck tacos and drink local pilsner by night. It sounded like the Pacific Northwest, or how I imagine the Pacific Northwest to be (I’ll make it there one day, too).
My verdict: Asheville is as great as everyone says, a near-perfect small city. It’s hard to imagine a nicer place to live or visit. You can walk everywhere downtown and from downtown to the inner-ring neighborhoods with ease. There’s an incredible range of restaurants, coffee shops and bars for a small city, and their quality is high. Travel articles talk up the Art Deco buildings downtown, and Biltmore, the eye-popping Vanderbilt pile. But Asheville’s architectural bounty spills over into its residential areas, too, in the form of Arts and Crafts bungalows and Queen Anne-style houses. They sell for prices that could make a Washingtonian weep.
The only big disadvantage to living in Asheville—what keeps me from packing my bags and calling a realtor now—is where it is. Eight hours from Washington, four from the Raleigh-Durham area, and three and a half from Atlanta, Asheville is far away from pretty much everywhere else. The isolation that made it a popular vacation spot in the late 19th century, a cool retreat from sweltering summers on the flatlands, hasn’t shrunk with time, especially since there’s no major airport nearby.
If Asheville sounds too good to be true, you can figure out that it probably is. I’m not the only one who has fallen for its charms. House prices, while affordable by East Coast standards, are surging, the population is growing, and there’s a severe rental crunch: the vacancy rate is below one percent, meaning it’s nearly impossible to find an apartment. Ringed by mountains, Asheville can’t build out, which is a blessing in the long term but painful today. The city is doing its best to build up, and fast.
Like every other great place to live, Asheville is paying a price for its own desirability. But what makes it tick is different from other college towns. The University of North Carolina at Asheville only has about 3,660 students. Compare that to 51,000 at UT Austin or 44,000 at the University of Michigan. Asheville isn’t dominated by its state university the way Austin and Ann Arbor are; UNC Asheville doesn’t employ very many people. The major employers are local governments, hospitals and schools, the Biltmore Company, and the Omni Grove Park Inn, a posh hotel and conference center. Tourism, not higher ed, is the engine.
With visitors in every season of the year, a relative scarcity of hotels (several are under construction), and lots of cute period houses, guess what other problem has emerged? Asheville has more AirBnB listings than comparable cities, even popular destinations like Santa Fe, N.M. The city council is cracking down on AirBnB hosts, since short-term rentals are illegal in most neighborhoods. The impact is hard to quantify, but it’s likely that short-term rentals are removing some units from the housing market, squeezing availability further and pushing rents up.
Now a new influx of people—retirees—is joining the stampede. Asheville often appears on “top places to retire” lists, and its over-55 population is rising. From what I could tell of the Baby Boomers around town, they weren’t put off by baristas with septum piercings or purple-haired waitresses; if anything, they seemed to relish the youthful, alternative culture.
This is where I glimpsed the dark side: where the economy of yesterday, represented by well-dressed Boomers enjoying the fruits of real estate appreciation and their 401Ks, collides with the economy of tomorrow, the tattooed servers, salespeople and bartenders who wait on them. I’m sure many of those service workers are college graduates. Some must be burdened with student loan debt, and are struggling to find an apartment they can afford.
Of course, retirees are helping Asheville’s businesses prosper, and that’s a good thing. Still, it’s discomfiting to see this dynamic—older, moneyed customer and young, hip, $8-an-hour attendant—play out around you countless times a day. It feels too much like the arrival of a future in which parents and their children are separated by a giant wealth gap. Maybe that future is already here.