The three of us — all Rocky Mount residents — took a road trip recently to Asheville to see and participate in the city’s 2021 annual retreat for ourselves.

There’s a lot of talk around town about the problems we face, but we wanted to make sure our city leaders saw the faces of those depending on the solutions they were debating. We came, we saw and we provided our input. We’re reporting back to you on the topic that really raised our eyebrows and captured our attention: housing in Rocky Mount.

Before we tell you about the discussion, let’s acknowledge what we all know to be true: for far too long there has been a lack of affordable housing in our city. At the very core of the city’s goals is its newly created Affordable Housing Strategic Plan. This plan will serve as the guiding document for creating new affordable housing opportunities, preserving and rehabilitating existing housing stock and improving home ownership without the gentrification of historically African American neighborhoods.

We drive past areas of Rocky Mount on our way to work, school and church and we see where conditions can be better. It makes sense that the challenge of affordable housing was at the top of the retreat’s agenda because it’s a truly nonpartisan issue. No matter your race, class, age or political persuasion, everyone values the place they call home.

The housing discussion also helped us understand why the retreat was held in Asheville. Our city leaders wanted to see what they could learn from the notable progress that the City of Asheville has made against its own housing challenges.

What we were all able to agree on is that without affordable housing, Rocky Mount can’t be the city where our citizens want to call home or the place that potential residents would even consider. The debate that we observed was even more difficult than it would have been in previous years because the COVID-19 pandemic set us back even further. Rocky Mount’s renters, landlords, lenders and home mortgage holders have been put in almost impossible positions that they’re only beginning to recover from.

Add to that, we must also be honest that the most neglected housing areas in Rocky Mount are on the Edgecombe County side and that isn’t by accident. Whatever our city’s future vision to create affordable housing is, it has to start by correcting past mistakes and neglect where it is most needed.

As the retreat debate continued, we realized that too often when communities lament their economic and housing challenges, they focus on the disincentive for passers-through to invest when they see dilapidated housing as they speed on to places with better looking opportunities. While they are correct that eyesores and poverty do turn away investment, we let our city leaders know that our primary concern is for those who inhabit those places. They are our neighbors, coworkers and family. When we dedicate ourselves to improving the housing of our citizens, those investing passers-through might stop or maybe even stay.

During the retreat, there was also a lot of discussion about the Rocky Mount Downtown Strategy for residential development. The heart of the plan is to bring more than 500 housing units within five years to areas of downtown that need it so that people won’t just do business there but may choose to live there, too. We also heard from the WODA Group, which is the development company that is scheduled to begin construction of 50 one- and two-bedroom units in early summer 2021 at the Five Points Crossing site in front of Edgecombe Community College, an example of the city’s drive to ensure affordable housing exists in the downtown.

Another potential solution that was also discussed during the retreat was a Real Estate Development and Investment Grant program that would incentivize new business owners to turn old, rundown properties into new ones in the downtown and the target corridors of Church Street, Falls Road, Peachtree Street, Raleigh Boulevard, Atlantic Avenue and East Grand Avenue. These incentives could also flow to landlords and property owners who make safety, restoration and modernization improvements to existing housing.

We believe this program is a positive step forward because it also requires those who receive grant funds to create a set number of jobs, based on the amount of their grant, within five years. Those jobs can’t come soon enough for ready workers in the areas of our city where restoration is most needed.

For those who couldn’t make the trip with us, the whole retreat was available live online and is now on YouTube. The retreat was only the beginning. Over the coming months, there are many more debates and discussions, studies and projections that must be had before the affordable housing initiative and other needed projects go from vision to reality.

Dr. Lisa Robinson, Robert Davis and Garland Jones are Rocky Mount residents who attended the city’s 2021 annual retreat.