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City Council approves funding to allow affordable housing strategy to move forward

$200,000 will be allocated from the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund to initiate the strategy development process

<p>Nearly 20 percent of households in the City of Charlottesville made less than $15,000 of income in 2017, as found in a housing needs assessment conducted by the City earlier this year.&nbsp;</p>

Nearly 20 percent of households in the City of Charlottesville made less than $15,000 of income in 2017, as found in a housing needs assessment conducted by the City earlier this year. 

The Charlottesville City Council voted at its Oct. 1 meeting to approve the allocation of $200,000 from the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund to allow the City’s Housing Advisory Committee to initiate the process of developing a localized affordable housing strategy.

The measure passed with a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Councilor Mike Signer in opposition. 

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

During the meeting, HAC member Sunshine Mathon gave a broad overview of the currently proposed strategy to the Council, saying that many of the specific details are still to be determined. However, as part of the approval of the funding request, the Council and the HAC will hold a series of joint-meetings throughout the next year to allow the two bodies to more specifically outline the parameters of the current housing crisis in the City and develop an action plan to address it. 

A housing needs assessment 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. The report also concluded that the City will require 4,000 affordable units in the coming decades. 

Based on input from the Council at a joint work session with the HAC last month, Mathon said the proposed framework for the strategy has been revised to further prioritize community engagement during the process. During the work session, councilors expressed concerns about plans to hire an outside consultant to carry out the engagement process, but Mathon said the justifications for doing so were developed in conjunction with community organizations, such as the Public Housing Association of Residents and the Legal Aid Justice Center. 

“This does not preclude local organizations from responding to an RFP [Request for Proposal], in part or in total, and in fact I would expect any successful RFP response to include partnerships with local organizations,” Mathon said. “[The] engagement strategies absolutely have to use community-based, non-traditional methods to prioritize the voices of the communities who have been historically ignored or discounted.” 

According to Council meeting agenda materials, hiring a consultant from outside of City staff would increase the timeliness of the project, allow there to be an objective voice in the process and introduce perspectives with housing expertise into the strategy development to allow for the explanation of complex planning terms during the community engagement process. 

However, Councilor Wes Bellamy said he still had concerns about the notion of an outside consultant in terms of the potential group or groups receiving more funds and powers over the process than local organizations. 

Most of the funding for the approved plan — $120,000 of the total $200,000 — has been earmarked by the HAC for the hiring of a consultant to oversee the community engagement process. Mathon said portions of this funding could be allocated to local community organizations once the process begins and added that local organizations would also be able to apply to be the main consultant for the strategy. 

Nonetheless, Signer said he was still concerned about hiring a consultant from outside the City government, citing his past experience with ineffective studies and consultations commissioned by the City. 

“I’m concerned that it would end up creating a product that would not ultimately be implemented due to a whole lot of different reasons,” Signer said. “I would like to think about putting the resources into expanding the full-time staff we have or the constant resources that we have that are dedicated inside the government.” 

Walker also asked why the strategy development process could not be led internally by City staff. Councilor Kathy Galvin said tasking staff with overseeing the development of the strategy at the current moment would be risky, citing the Council’s ongoing search for a permanent city manager who is expected to be appointed by the Council by the end of this year. Galvin added that major changes in the composition of City staff would be possible under a new city manager. 

Galvin said she was concerned by the lack of concrete detail in the proposed strategy, as it does not specifically assert how exactly the strategy will be developed. 

“What I’m not getting enough meat on is the actual content and the breadth and depth of the housing strategy itself,” Galvin said. “It’s not only the housing fund we're talking about, it is tax policy, it is overall approach to future land use planning, it’s relationships with the University and [Albemarle] County.” 

Mathon said the proposal is still abstract to allow for the introduction of recommendations or revisions from the Council as needed while the strategy itself is being jointly developed over the next year. However, Mathon added that there was a general sense of urgency within the community to expedite the strategy development process. 

“There is no silver bullet to solving our affordable housing crisis,” Mathon said. “No one in the country, no city, no state has solved this in any way, shape or form — everyone's challenged by it. There is no single solution that's going to get any city there, including ourselves. It requires every tool possible out there, which includes zoning, land use [and] incentive structures.” 

Interim City Manager Mike Murphy expressed concerns about the proposed plan’s lack of recognition of the massive population growth the City would have to endure in the coming decades if the current affordability rate of 10 percent is doubled or tripled. Currently, the population of Charlottesville is around 50,000 people, and the land area of the City is only 10.2 square miles — one of the smallest independent cities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

Mathon said the planned, public work sessions between the Council and HAC, included as part of the approved funds allocation for the strategy, would be instrumental in tackling questions about urban density, population growth, zoning law and land use in relation to affordable housing development. 

Vice Mayor Heather Hill said having a concrete housing strategy in place would aid the City’s government in efficiently allocating funds to affordable housing development in the future, as rough estimates of the total amount of money required could be well over $100,000,000. 

“My fear is that if we don't really invest in this that it's just not going to happen,” Hill said. 

A finalized strategic housing plan is expected to come before the Council for approval by May 2019. 

Earlier in its meeting, the Council also allocated funds to several housing initiatives in the area — including $186,000 for the Piedmont Housing Alliance, $945,000 for the City's subsidized rental assistance program, $585,000 for Habitat for Humanity, $375,000 for the Albemarle Home Improvement Program and nearly $1.5 million for the construction of 48 rent and income restricted units as a part of the latest addition to the 54 existing units at Carlton Views apartments on Carlton Avenue. Construction is expected to be completed by May 2021. 

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. 


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