With the median house price in Asheville nearly doubling from $125,000 to $240,000 over the past 15 years, and rent for two-bedroom apartments skyrocketing to over $1,000 a month, some developers and members of the community believe Johnson City needs to find its own path for economic growth – a path that doesn’t price out working-class residents.
In recent years, activists in Asheville have been addressing the issue of rapid gentrification and rising property values coinciding with the rapid growth of its tourism industry — an issue many working-class Johnson City residents hope not to confront.
“People talk about modeling cities after other cities, and maybe there are things they do well that you might want to look at to see how it fits into your community, but I wouldn’t necessarily say Johnson City is modeling itself after Asheville,” Washington County Economic Development Council CEO Mitch Miller said.
“I’ve talked to some developers located here that have developed there, and the cost for construction and price points for workers and things like that are making it tougher to do business there.”
Miller said that while he believes Asheville has experienced positive growth in terms of the tourism industry, Johnson City developers are paying close attention to the mistakes made in Asheville, as well as the successes of their development.
He said Johnson City does aim to bolster its tourism industry, which rakes in about $237 million a year compared to Asheville’s $1.7 billion a year. Johnson City has also modeled much of its flood mitigation park projects after projects in cities such as Greenville, South Carolina.
But still, he said Johnson City needs to find its own identity and carefully plan its growth.
“Johnson City is very different. It has its own flavor and its own identity, which is great,” Miller said. “Johnson City is nowhere near that peak in terms of where Asheville is with price points for (cost of) living. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is around $1,180 a month in Asheville, while it is $680 here in Johnson City.
“Growth causes challenges at times, especially when it’s fast, because you’re reacting more and putting out fires as opposed to planning that growth. I think it could certainly cause some concerns.”
While the growth of the tourism industry has not provided enough jobs to keep up with the cost of living in cities like Asheville, Miller said the growth experienced in Asheville has a lot of positive effects to model after.
“It can be a good problem to have, too,” he added. “If you’ve got money that’s going into your economy, that’s money that could go to things like education.”
Mayor David Tomita said it’s never been the intention of the city to model itself after Asheville, and said commissioners have been keeping the cost of living in mind.
Still, there is some uncertainty about how these things will play out years from now.
“The last thing we want to be is just like Asheville because there's already an Asheville. Everybody wants to use that as a benchmark until they see the consequences of that, like an unaffordable economy,” Tomita said. “Our paths are different and will continue to be as we move forward. We’re not going to see that kind of growth.
“I don’t think we’ll see that spike in the cost of living, but if we do, we hope to see income growth with it.”
Washington County Democratic Party Chair Kate Craig said Johnson City should aim to grow while making sure that growth is sustainable to keep the city inclusive for people whose incomes wouldn’t allow them to even think about paying for an apartment that’s $1,200 a month.
“We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country and everyone, regardless of their income, should be able to afford to live here. No one should be priced out of their home and forced to move because of development done under the name of progress,” she said. “More often than not, when this development happens, it disproportionately affects marginalized communities and those who are most at risk. It is unethical to push those tenants out of their homes so a landlord can charge a higher rent due to proximity to the development.”
Former Mayor Mickii Carter echoed that sentiment. She too said Johnson City developers and officials need to be cautious and considerate of these concerns.
“I know a lot of younger people who think gentrification is on its way to happening in Johnson City now,” she said. “I think any time if you have a healthy community, you have to think about those things, because if you outpace the market, you’re going to have people who can’t afford to have a place to live. That’s always something to be concerned about.
“Downtown is changing rapidly now, and we are getting more like Asheville, which is not a bad model, if we could just retain affordable housing.”
But gentrification is often a slow process. Time will tell if Johnson City remains largely affordable for low-wage workers needing options for relatively affordable places to live.
“The tourism economy in Asheville is so big now. I would kind of liken it to Gatlinburg, but with a different dynamic, and those aren’t going to be high-paying jobs because many of them are seasonal,” Miller said. “I don’t think that dynamic exists here to that level.
“Could it get there one day? Maybe. But the redevelopment of Asheville was like a 30-35 year project. Johnson City is in around nine or 10.”