Housing summit focuses on activism, policy for Charlottesville

Speakers included national, local experts on housing policy

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Cornelius Griggs, president and co-founder of GMA Construction in Chicago, speaking at Saturday's conference. 

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

Nearly 100 community members and stakeholders joined the University, members of the Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents and other advocacy groups in CitySpace on the Downtown Mall Saturday for a full day of discussion about public and affordable housing. The conference consisted of four panels of local and national experts who highlighted the importance of activism and community involvement in affordable housing. 

This was the first large conference coordinated in Charlottesville, where the “cost burden,” or number of citizens putting more than 30 percent of their income towards housing, is the second highest in the state, according to a report cited in a 2013 C-VILLE Weekly article. Laura Goldblatt, a conference organizer and postdoctoral fellow at the University, said a primary impetus for the event was to start the dialogue between previously-separate groups to address the issue of high costs.

“We invited [some people] because they are national experts in housing policy and have been part of campaigns that have been successful in terms of tenants rights or rent-control without it being necessarily rent-control,” Goldblatt previously told The Cavalier Daily. “One of the real goals of inviting people is trying to find a mix of organizers, academics and activists who may be different pieces of the puzzle.”

The event’s organizers — the University, PHAR, the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition and the Grassroots Humanities Collaboration — invited several speakers from out-of-town organizations, including the National Housing Law Project, the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and the Chicago Housing Authority. Local representatives from the University, PHAR and the Charlottesville Housing Authority were also invited to participate. 

The day’s first panel, “PHAR and the Positive Model of Redevelopment,” discussed local successes and challenges in guaranteeing affordable housing to Charlottesville residents. The forum was moderated by former Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris.

Norris began with a discussion of the Residents’ Bill of Rights for Redevelopment as a regional success for low-income housing. The Housing Authority Board of Commissioners and Charlottesville City Council approved the Bill of Rights in 2008, which set out guiding principles for redevelopment of public housing, including one-for-one replacement for demolished units and resident participation in substantive decisions.  

The panelists emphasized the importance of knowledge for residents of public housing. 

“We have a lot on our plate. A whole lot on our plate, and we’re constantly learning,” said Audrey Oliver, Housing Authority Board of Commissioners treasurer and PHAR board member. “We’re gonna keep on pushing and keep on learning and we’re not going to let anyone take anything away from us. Because this is our house.”

A primary barrier, speakers noted, was a lack of new construction: The last Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority location was built in 1995, according to the CRHA website. One audience member asked the group about the number of new public housing units currently being built. Nick Yates, a Housing Authority resident commissioner, PHAR board member, and Charlottesville Area Transit operator, responded that there are currently no projects underway.

“There is none,” Yates said. “When developers come to Charlottesville, they have two options: they can either put some money in the pot [the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund], or they can build units … why are we asking them to put money in a pot that already has a surplus of money? They need to build units for low-income, very low-income, extremely low-income groups.”

Contributing to the CAHF — at two dollars per square foot of gross floor area — is one of two options developers have when building high-density housing, according to City codes. The other, which Yates said developers rarely choose, is to build new affordable housing units in Charlottesville with at least five percent the square footage of the primary construction.

The second panel, entitled “Recovering the Lost Roots of Public Housing: Job Training and Community-Based Learning,” focused on Section 3, a 1968 federal program from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Section 3 helps low-income individuals find employment in local construction projects. 

Cornelius Griggs was among the invited speakers and is the president and co-founder of GMA Construction in Chicago. GMA is a Section 3 business, meaning that it was either founded by low-income groups or its employees are at least 30 percent low-income.

“The program is supposed to allow you to hire folks from the community and give them opportunities they wouldn’t already have,” Griggs said. “If it’s effective, and it has been for us, businesses will grow. We’re not supposed to be a Section 3 business for 20 years.”

Griggs also discussed rising costs of housing.

“I had to ask myself, how is it possible that the cost of labor to build the facility is $15 an hour but the cost to sell the unit is half a million dollars?” Griggs asked. “Someone is making a lot of money there … Somebody is pocketing dollars and it’s not going back into the community.”

Willie “JR” Fleming, the president and co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, also spoke at the conference and is a long-time advocate of Section 3 policies. 

“Who better than the residents to hire the residents?” Fleming asked. “You don’t gotta sell the residents on hiring people from where they come from.”

The conversation then turned to methods for Charlottesville residents to implement Section 3 and other affordable housing-friendly policies that don’t harmonize with state or federal agendas. Eric Dunn, a representative of the National Housing Law Project, said the chief long-term priority should be the elimination of Dillon’s Rule, a constitutional principle in states like Virginia where municipalities must ask permission of the state government to address certain issues, sometimes leaving local governments to feel restricted.

“A long term goal in Virginia might be to get rid of Dillon’s Rule,” Dunn said. “It’s very repressive … This is a way to maintain wealth and power in the way that it’s been.”

Fleming told the audience the fundamental dynamic for local change is activism.

“You gotta struggle if you want victory, you gotta push the envelope,” Fleming said. “It can’t be just the low-income people doing this. My challenge is to the middle class folks … you gotta fight together.”

That activism, Fleming said, must be continuous. 

“You got to take some radical action,” Fleming said, mentioning the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. “There shouldn’t be anywhere that Dr. Carson is allowed to go without hearing the voice of the people.”

To read about the other panels at the Housing Justice summit, check out The Cavalier Daily’s continued coverage here.

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