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City of Charlottesville, Batten School host first annual affordable housing summit

The summit included a broad range of speakers from the local community who spoke on potential solutions to address limited affordable housing in the community

<p>Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said during the summit that it was essential to recognize the ongoing legacy of white supremacy in terms of Charlottesville’s affordable housing crisis.&nbsp;</p>

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said during the summit that it was essential to recognize the ongoing legacy of white supremacy in terms of Charlottesville’s affordable housing crisis. 

The City of Charlottesville and the Batten School jointly hosted the first annual Charlottesville Affordable Housing summit at Garrett Hall Friday, where speakers discussed the status quo of housing in the local community, what factors affect its affordability and solutions to increase the availability of housing for low income residents. 

Speakers at the summit included Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, Charlottesville Principal Planner Brian Haluska and a number of representatives from local affordable housing organizations, both public and private. 

According to Stacy Pethia, a housing development specialist with the City of Charlottesville, the issue of affordable housing has become a major issue in the local community, which prompted the City and the Batten School to establish the first annual affordable housing summit. Pethia said similar housing summits have been held in the past, but added that the increasing prevalence of the issue locally will require an ongoing discussion on the matter. 

The issue of limited affordable housing in the Charlottesville community has become a matter of great public concern in recent months, and a frequent subject of discussion at City Council meetings. At the Feb. 8 Council meeting, local activists called for a greater focus on affordable housing development by the city and criticized a proposed special use permit — which the Council ultimately rejected in a 3-2 vote — by a developer to continue the construction of luxury condominiums on Water Street. 

During her opening remarks, Walker said it was essential to recognize the ongoing legacy of racism in Charlottesville’s affordable housing crisis as it disportionately affects minority members of the community. 

“We’re at a critical juncture, and it’s important for us to all understand where we are,” Walker said. “We’re not in a place where we’re just talking about housing, we’re talking about undoing a legacy that's been in place for 400 years, and I think we need to understand with every decision we make that that's where we are.” 

During a panel discussion moderated by Paul Martin, assistant professor of public policy, representatives from local coalitions and organizations involved in affordable housing advocacy spoke about the issue. Brandon Collins, lead organizer for the Public Housing Association of Residents, echoed Walker’s thoughts, saying that the legacy of racist housing policy in Charlottesville and inequitable urban development shaped the modern affordable housing crisis. 

“People call that legacy a mistake,” Collins said. “This was not a mistake of urban renewal. It was quote deliberate, there were decisions made, and that's a tragedy, and … that’s a stain on Charlottesville’s history.”

In response to audience questions concerning the University's role in addressing limited affordable housing in the local community, Martin said the University’s response has been insufficient so far. 

“My private sense is that U.Va. has a lot of work to do,” Martin said. “It has not dealt very seriously with issues of housing, and there are folks within the University trying to take those issues more seriously, but I think it's an uphill battle.”

Martin further acknowledged the need for the University to expand its scope beyond the student population in addressing the issue of affordable housing.

“The University has to further recognize that they have a responsibility to the community,” Martin said. “Sometimes they think of their students first — which may be appropriate in some ways — but the understanding of the impact on the community doesn't always seem strong.” 

Walker also said events such as the affordable housing summit are ineffective if tangible, concrete solutions cannot be developed as a result. She called upon elected leaders to approach the issue of affordable housing in a fundamentally different way than in previous decades. 

“We can keep having these conferences and these meetings and we won't heal anything,” Walker said. “We will be a town that will look primarily white and upper-middle class in the next decade … all of you who are in positions of power really influence where we move [and] you have to decide whether you're willing to come to the table differently.” 

Janette Kawachi, a representative of the Charlottesville Albemarle Affordable Housing Coalition, said all local affordable housing organizations and advocacy groups need to collaborate to achieve progress.

“I think coming together about this was really a critical step for us to leverage our existing resources … in terms of more strategic, working together,” Kawachi said.

Haluska delivered a presentation on how the zoning practices and procedures in the Charlottesville community affect the local availability of affordable housing. According to Haluska, land use in the city is strictly regulated by where commercial, residential and industrial properties can be constructed. Haluska added that 55 percent of land in the city is zoned only for single-family, detached structures meaning more affordable, multi-unit structures cannot be built throughout most of the city.

“What we’re talking about when we talk about zoning [is] supply and demand,” Haluska said. “You have a limited amount of land, zoning controls how much additional supply you can add to it and determines its cost as well.”

Haluska also said the issue of affordable housing comes down to income but is intertwined with racial inequality. 

“What we’re seeing is really — there’s a racial undertone to it — but it's income,” Haluska said. “You're seeing an income gentrification in a way where people who are making far more money are able to outbid people because the units are so limited.” 

Jeff Fogel, a local attorney and representative of the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition, said all sectors of the local community are responsible for failing to address the affordable housing crisis. 

“We in the community have done a terrible job with respect to the issue of housing affordability particularly for low income people,” Fogel said. “When I say community, I include public officials, I include the private sector and I include advocates as well.” 

Collins added that there is room for optimism in approaching the issue of limited affordable housing in the community. 

“This is not insurmountable,” Collins said. “There are resources in this community and dealing with affordable housing for extremely low income people in Charlottesville is not insurmountable. We’re talking 1,000, 2,000 homes, that's not that hard.” 

According to Pethia, another affordable housing summit is tentatively scheduled for this October, although a specific date has yet to be set for the event.