5/7/2012 - Affordable homes, more jobs point to improving Asheville area economy
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- Before he moved here, Rob Hooks had heard the rap against Asheville: Hard to find a job, harder still to find an affordable place to live.
"We heard you better have a job before you get to Asheville, that there's more waiters and waitresses with MBAs serving tables here, since it's such a destination," Hooks said. "We also heard it was very expensive and very difficult to purchase anywhere to live."
But Hooks and many other residents are finding a new reality in an improving economy for Western North Carolina.
The region is enjoying a 20-year high in affordable housing. Unemployment in the Asheville area is running well below the state and national averages, thanks in part to the strongest sustained growth in manufacturing jobs since 1993.
Moving from Savannah, Ga., Hooks was able to find a job as branch manager for PNC in Biltmore Park.
He married his wife, Lauren, in Hot Springs in September. She just passed the bar exam and is working with a downtown attorney. They just bought their first home in Montford, finding a property in their price range around $200,000.
And their first baby is due in June.
"The timing has just been perfect," Hooks said.
Home sales see rebound
The Hooks family is not alone in their good fortune. Their home purchase contributed to a noticeable hike in housing sales in recent months. In a new research report, Beverly-Hanks & Associates showed a 24.8 percent increase in area home sales for the first quarter of 2012 compared with a year ago.
"The real estate markets are mending, albeit unevenly," said Neal Hanks, CEO of Beverly-Hanks. "In many price ranges and in some locations, we've seen double digit increases in the number of homes sold when compared with the first quarter of 2011."
What's hot is what's affordable. More buyers are shopping for homes priced in the $200,000 neighborhood, rather than the multimillion dollar properties that fueled a development craze before the Great Recession hit.
Asheville is actually at a 20-year high for affordability. Families earning the national median income of $64,000 were able to afford 73.2 percent of the homes sold in the Asheville area in the last quarter of 2011, the National Association of Home Builders reported in its Housing Opportunity Index released in February.
More jobs in manufacturing
It's not just home sales making a comeback, but jobs, too. The Asheville metro saw job gains across all sectors of the economy in March, according to the N.C. Division of Employment Security, including the hard-hit construction industry and manufacturing sector.
Years of layoffs and plant closings left the perception that manufacturing had gone to Mexico or China, and the "Made in USA" label was extinct, but factory jobs, especially in high-skilled, advanced manufacturing positions, are on a surprising rebound for the area.
The Asheville metro has seen gains in manufacturing jobs for the past year, the longest sustained period of growth in that sector for the past 20 years.
"I don't pay much attention as numbers go from month to month, but when I saw a whole quarter's worth of growth, I was surprised. You have to go back to the early 1990s to see that," said Tom Tveidt, a private analyst who runs SYNEVA Economics in Waynesville and a former research director for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
The increase since May 2011 amounts to 600 more jobs in manufacturing, a 4 percent increase. In March, manufacturers employed 118,400 workers in the Asheville metro area, which covers Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties.
That doesn't mean, Tveidt added, that the area will regain the thousands of manufacturing jobs lost in the past few decades, particularly those lesser-skilled jobs in textiles, furniture or electronics assembly lines. From 1990 to the start of the Great Recession, the region saw 12,000 manufacturing jobs disappear.
"But with 600 new manufacturing jobs in the past year, the trend is promising," Tveidt said.
Home construction promising
Steve Linton is seeing the same signs with business picking up for Deltec Homes, which has been manufacturing its distinctive line of round homes since 1968.
From its Bingham Road plant , Deltec workers manufacture panels and other sections for whole houses to be shipped and assembled at the site.
"Our home shipments have been up 40 percent this spring over last spring, and our leads on new sales are up 20 percent. We've hired six or seven people since last fall, and we'll definitely be adding more as we get more leads on new sales," Linton, Deltec's president, said.
Deltec is branching out from its signature round homes, adding a new line of energy-efficient traditional homes in its Appalachian Collection. Linton sees consumers interested in smaller homes of about 1,500 square feet going for $200,000.
The company formed a new division, Deltec Building Company, to build the affordable homes. That means more jobs in the hard-hit construction sector, which has been showing improvement locally up 300 jobs over last year, state labor market data shows.
"We think we're well positioned to help revitalize the housing industry in this area," Linton said.
Back to historic growth?
Tveidt envisions a new economy taking shape for the region. For years as the chamber's research director, Tveidt plotted a consistent growth for the Asheville economy without the highs and lows that affected other metros around the state.
"Many of us began to think that Asheville and Western North Carolina was somewhat isolated from the national trends, due to our diversified economy," Tveidt said.
But the Great Recession didn't spare the mountains. "For the first time in my career, we really saw Asheville mirroring the national trends," Tveidt said.
Now, the region may be returning to a historic norm of steady, but not explosive, growth. Slowly improving job numbers and better home sales are helping boost consumer confidence, at least at the local level, Hanks said.
During the height of the recession, when local housing sales dropped by up to 50 percent, "it was very tough, there was a lot of fear in the marketplace," Hanks recalled.
"But now consumer confidence seems to be rising. People have readjusted their budgets and a lot of them are tired of pretty much putting their lives on hold for the past three years," Hanks said.
As a new homeowner, Hooks is seeing signs of hope on the streets of downtown Asheville and among customers coming into his bank's branch office. "People are definitely more optimistic. The younger crowd who have been renting, they're getting married and looking for houses. We are getting more competitive with jobs. Opportunities are coming."