The Community Relations Committee and the Legislative Affairs Committee of Student Council held a forum with the Charlottesville City Council candidates Monday night in Garrett Hall. Over 20 students and community members came to hear about the positions of the candidates on several issues in preparation for election day on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
All three Democratic candidates attended the forum — Michael Payne, Sena Magill and Lloyd Snook, as well as the one Independent candidate Bellamy Brown. John Hall, the other Independent candidate who has been banned from University property since 2006 for trespassing, was not in attendance.
The event was moderated by Batten School Professor Peter Johannessen, who divided the forum into two parts. During the first half, he asked the candidates pre-prepared questions that touched on major concerns of the Charlottesville community, and afterwards the floor was open for the audience to ask questions.
After briefly introducing themselves and explaining why they were running for City Council, the candidates were asked about ways that Charlottesville and the U.Va. community could realize University President Jim Ryan’s goal of making the University both “great and good.”
All the candidates expressed their support for Ryan’s proposed plan to require all second-year students to live on-Grounds and tied it back to the affordable housing crisis. Magill praised the academic village approach, noting its importance in providing support for first- and second- years. To Payne, a major concern was that students living off Grounds were taking houses off the market for residents because the student population is projected to grow by several thousand in the next few years. Both the county and the University have a shortfall of affordable housing units — the University has a shortage of 3,000 affordable units and the county has a shortage of 10,000 — and the candidates recognized the importance of Charlottesville and the University working together to address this problem.
“In general, what I have seen from President Ryan’s engagement with Albemarle County and the University and Charlottesville itself is that it’s a teamwork approach,” Magill said. “The University has often been kind of siloed in its own little world but Charlottesville affects the University and the University affects Charlottesville and we really need to be embracing that instead of putting up more walls.”
The next question inquired about the candidates’ specific plans to address the affordable housing crisis. Brown recognized the importance of receiving input from the community to address housing issues instead of placing everyone in a neighborhood where cyclical crime and poverty exist, leaving them without a means to climb up the social and economic ladder. According to Payne, zoning reform is imperative because Charlottesville hasn’t updated their zoning since 2003. Updating zoning would allow developers to build more affordable duplexes instead of being incentivized to build expensive single family homes under the previous plan. Other answers included ways to build more housing units, expanding the bus system and supporting the plan for more students to live on Grounds in an overall effort to end chronic homelessness.
“We’re not going to build [more units] by destroying currently viable neighborhoods, bulldozing them and putting up our apartment complexes, but we can probably get 500 or 600 more units as we redevelop public housing projects, and we can get another 500 or 600 units simply by unjamming the process of getting accessory dwelling units,” Snook said. “Ultimately, I really think we’re going to have to confront the fact that this is going to have to be a regional solution.”
The third question was about ways that Charlottesville could address climate change at the local level. Magill made a point about incentivizing people to move towards solar energy and help them do more retrofitting. Both Snook and Brown mentioned that switching to LED lights was a practical way to address the issue. According to Snook, LED street lights save a quarter of a million dollars in Ann Arbor, Mich. each year in maintenance and energy costs. With Charlottesville being 40 percent the size of Ann Arbor, the transition to LED lights could save $100,000 a year. Using an electric bus system and reducing food waste were some other feasible strategies. According to Payne, some impacts of climate change are now inevitable, but the county can still work together to lessen the damage.
“We know that flooding and extreme weather events are going to become more frequent, so we need to incorporate climate plans into our local city planning so when the major storm comes we don’t find out that we didn’t do enough planning ahead of time,” Payne said.
Afterwards, the audience was able to ask questions. One student asked the candidates for their opinions on the integration of Lime scooters and how to create better infrastructure for cycling to ensure people’s safety. According to Payne, the Piedmont Environmental Council has created a master plan for a regional network of pedestrian and bike trails around Charlottesville and Albemarle, but the problem now is obtaining funding. Magill suggested using existing infrastructure to create overpasses, especially over railway tracks. A key point for all the candidates was to ensure the safety of residents.
Another student asked about the segregation that exists in Charlottesville public schools based on race and income. Snook explained that a large part of this issue was under the School Board’s responsibility, but the Council’s responsibility was to help those kids in the hours that they weren’t in school, providing them with opportunities through after-school enrichment programs like City of Promise and the Boys & Girls Club.
“You stick everyone in that high concentration of poverty space and they don’t necessarily get the education advantages that a lot of people will have going to kindergarten,” Brown said. “We get them as early as possible, we start investing in them in that particular space, and we give them the opportunity to move forward from there.”
Another student asked about ways that the council could support refugees in Charlottesville. Setting aside housing and holding ESL programs can help refugees navigate and find jobs. This is something that is already being done that the candidates hope to amplify. As a result of the Trump administration’s policies, the IRC has noticed a decline in the population of refugees, but the candidates hope to be able to create safe and welcoming spaces for refugees.
Third-year College student Kat Descamp-Renner attended the forum after hearing about it from the University Democrats. She said that growing up learning about the Iraq War and conflicts in the Middle East shaped her perspective of the world and made her interested in politics.
“I care a lot about local politics because that’s the sign of change for a lot of things that affect people’s lives on a day-to-day basis,” Descamp-Renner said. “I think that tends to get lost in the national political scene.”
According to Descamp-Renner, it’s crucial for students to vote and become more aware of their local government. As an out-of-state student, she is trying to become more informed about Charlottesville so she can determine her own role in the community, as well as the role of other students and the University in addressing issues.
“People in the 20-30 age range don’t tend to vote a lot and I think there’s a lot of apathy, especially when you’ve got these big issues like climate change that seem so huge and so hard to tackle,” Descamp-Renner said. “I think it’s really easy to get into [a mindset of] ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘my vote won’t matter’ but in Virginia we saw that the General Assembly was literally decided by drawing a name out of a hat because they tied. One person’s vote does really make a difference.”