Asheville Citizen-Times: ‘We were already in a crisis’: COVID-19 highlights cost burden of Buncombe residents (31 August 2020)

House keys sitting on an eviction notice received in the mail.

Able to survive, but not able to build

Asheville resident Andrew Fletcher, 37, makes most of his living playing jazz piano. In normal times, he works about 200 gigs a year, but with so many venues shut down, he’s had one in the past six months. His part-time job with the LaZoom bus tour company, which he worked a few hours each week, also stalled due to the pandemic.

Even before his work stopped, though, Fletcher faced limitations. He said he was able to get by because he doesn’t have a car payment, he got health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and he doesn’t have any dependents.

“I’m able to survive, but I’m not really able to build on the wages,” he said.

Fletcher has lived in Asheville since 2007 and has had roommates the whole time. He said the math doesn’t work for him to have a one bedroom or studio, and he has specific needs because he’s “a musician that plays a 500-pound instrument.” Right now, he shares a house with two others.

When you’re struggling to just “keep your head above water,” one unexpected turn — like a car wreck or medical need — can wipe you out, Fletcher said.

He has stayed positive and adapted during the pandemic but said that if he had children or a family member to care for, he would be in a different situation.

“For all of my difficulties, I know that I’m lucky,” he said.

. . .

Fletcher is bringing in only $70 a week in unemployment benefits, he said. Because of his part-time job, he was ineligible for benefits related to his self-employed work as a musician.

Fletcher was able to stash some money during the months that he was getting the extra $600 a week in his unemployment check. He also invested in tools and taught himself small engine repair, which he hopes will lead to small engine repair business.

“I’ve always had a bunch of little hustles,” he said.

But he does wish things were easier.

“I think that difficulty has been a great teacher but there’s no reason that hard work shouldn’t pay well like it paid my parents and my grandparents,” said Fletcher.

He said he thinks there has been a bipartisan failure on both the state and national level to address the needs of working people and “why the American dream has been dismantled in my lifetime.”

“I think it really comes down to policy decisions that profits over people,” he said.

Locally, he said, much of the economy relies on tourism, an industry that requires a plethora of low wage workers. Decades ago, boosting tourism for economic development made sense, but Fletcher said the industry isn’t producing good jobs anymore.