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Charlottesville working to develop housing strategy amid need for 4,000 affordable rental units

A finalized strategy is expected to be developed by summer 2019 to be incorporated into the City’s comprehensive plan

<p>Household incomes in Charlottesville and the surrounding metro area for 2017, as found in a housing needs assessment conducted by the City earlier this year.&nbsp;</p>

Household incomes in Charlottesville and the surrounding metro area for 2017, as found in a housing needs assessment conducted by the City earlier this year. 

Members of the Charlottesville City Council and the City’s Housing Advisory Committee began the process of drafting a comprehensive affordable housing strategy for the City at a joint work session between the two bodies last Thursday. Topics of discussion included defining the parameters of community engagement for the plan and potential themes for its creation. 

The HAC is a 21-member board tasked by Council with developing and recommending housing strategies and policy for approval by the Council, and its first incarnation was established in 2003. 

Ridge Schuyler, co-chair of the policy subcommittee for the HAC, gave an overview of the current housing crisis which the City faces. 

Schuyler said the average price for a two-bedroom apartment in Charlottesville has grown from $931 a month in 2011 to around $1,250 a month — or by 27 percent — in 2018, adding that wages in the City have not kept up with the increase in rent rates. The national average two-bedroom rent is $1,180.

“The struggle of working people [and] people on fixed incomes to pay their rent, to pay their mortgages has moved the goalpost beyond their reach,” Schuyler said. “We’re finding people spending a greater and greater percentage of their income on rent.”

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the cost of housing is considered to be “affordable” if it does not exceed 30 percent of a household’s income. A housing needs assessment recently commissioned by the City detailing the scope of housing needs in the city found that 1,750 households spend more than half of their income on housing. 

Schuyler added that 1,800 families, or 29 percent of families in the city, did not earn enough income to be self-sufficient — or without external financial assistance — in 2011. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 families, or 25 percent of families in the city, continue to earn too little to be financially self-sufficient. 

“When we talk about numbers, we talk about percentages, we lose sight of the fact that these are actual real people who are struggling to support their families but are increasingly unable to do so because of the cost of housing,” Schuyler said. 

In Charlottesville, Schuyler said the cost of housing is by far the most burdensome financial impediment for city residents, while child care is a distant second. According to standards defined by HUD, affordability is defined as 80 percent of the area median income — approximately $76,600. However, Schuyler said there are about 600 families in Charlottesville that don't even earn $10,000 a year. 

Councilor Wes Bellamy said that the Charlottesville Housing and Redevelopment Authority needed to be granted greater powers as part of any housing strategy implementation, including the ability to issue bonds to renovate existing public housing units and purchase land for additional affordable units. But HAC Chair Phil d’Oronzio said it won’t be cheap.

“No matter how sophisticated a strategy, no matter how elegant, no matter how precisely calibrated, no matter how detailed, this is going to cost — and it's going to cost a lot,” d'Oronzio said, estimating the 4,000 units described in the housing needs assessment, valued at $30,000 each, could sum to $120,000,000.

The Council will further discuss the financial aspect of the housing strategy at a budget work session Thursday. 

Bellamy said it would be essential to the success of any housing strategy for extensive coordination to be carried out with representatives from surrounding Albemarle County. Councilor Kathy Galvin added that Virginia law grants the County — but not the City — the ability to execute “inclusionary zoning,” where developers can be required to include a certain number or percentage of affordable units within a given project. 

“The City obviously has a big role to play in this, but we fundamentally service a lot of people in the County,” Bellamy said. “We rarely talk about the County — who has the majority of the land and open space — when we’re talking about affordable housing.” 

Charlottesville is comprised of only 10.2 square miles of land area and is one of the smallest localities in Virginia, while surrounding Albemarle County is more than 700 square miles by comparison. According to 2017 estimates, one-bedroom apartments rent for a median $1,010 a month and two-bedrooms for $1,200 a month in the County. 

The Council and members of HAC also discussed the community engagement plan for the housing strategy at last week's work session, disagreeing over the proposed hiring of a consultant to oversee and coordinate the outreach process. 

HAC member Sunshine Mathon read from the body’s community engagement proposal, outlining the goals of the plan. Mathon said the engagement process was meant to supplement the quantitative data of the housing needs assessment with more qualitative research and balance the need for immediate action and long-term planning in developing a housing strategy. 

“In Charlottesville’s history, the failure of institutions and City government to be accountable for low-wealth communities, particularly communities of color, has taken many forms,” Mathon said. “Housing is at the root of historical, structural inequity and oppression in the United States that came to be this way deliberately. We must be equally deliberate in dismantling the dynamics and structures that perpetuate continued inequity.” 

Currently, the plan presented by HAC members aims to engage traditionally-underrepresented segments of the community — including low-income, minority and young demographics — through an outreach process conducted by community organizations and led by a professional consultant, who has yet to be determined. 

The preliminary budget for the outreach process is $200,000 — $120,000 of which would be allocated to the potential consultant and the remainder for funding the actual outreach process. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Bellamy were opposed to the proposed community engagement budget, saying that the hiring of a consultant was unnecessary and costly as community organizations, such as PHAR and the Legal Aid Justice Center, could carry out the process. 

The HAC is expected to submit a revised proposal at the Sept. 17 Council meeting for consideration of approval by the body. 

Within the past year, the Council has more than doubled the allocation of funds to the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund to $5.9 million in the 2019 fiscal year, with $900,000 of these funds have been used to support a City-created voucher program to assist low-income residents in meeting their rent payments. Schuyler said this effort has allowed 70 families to move into homes. 

City staff are developing a finalized proposal for consideration by Council for an independently- owned land bank for the purpose of acquiring property in the city for the development of affordable housing. The City is also in the process of completing a study to identify areas of the City which could be developed for the purpose of creating affordable housing. 

The Charlottesville Planning Commission is also expected to play a role in developing the housing strategy as it looks to have a draft of the City’s comprehensive plan before the Council for consideration by the end of this year. The completed housing strategy is expected to be incorporated into the final draft of the comprehensive plan by the end of 2019 in conjunction with a rewrite of the City’s zoning laws.