In recent weeks, student organizations and community activists have taken Charlottesville Planning Commission’s rewrite of its Comprehensive Plan as an opportunity to speak out in favor of increasing the affordability and equity of Charlottesville’s housing stock.
During a public hearing on the Comprehensive Plan held by the Charlottesville Planning Commission and City Council Oct. 12, former city manager Chip Boyles announced his resignation, and the commission moved to unanimously approve the Comprehensive Plan. City Council will read the plan twice in the coming months, with a first reading of the plan set for Nov. 15 and a second reading and vote scheduled for Dec. 6.
Student Council released a statement Oct. 12 on Charlottesville’s Draft Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map. The statement includes personal anecdotes from a recent housing survey and emphasizes Student Council’s commitment to creating additional housing on Grounds and affordable housing units below the current market rent prices.
The release of the statement came a week after housing affordability group Livable Cville made public its requests to the Charlottesville Planning Commission for what it sees as policy changes to improve housing affordability in the city.
Comprehensive Plan revisions
Both the Student Council statement and Livable Cville letter came in the midst of an elongated process of revising two major housing-related documents — the Future Land Use Map included in the Comprehensive Plan and the Affordable Housing Plan. FLUM guides zoning laws by mapping out allowable zoning usage in different areas, while the Affordable Housing Plan aims to provide solutions to the affordability of housing in Charlottesville.
“So far, what's been accomplished is the affordable housing plan was written and approved by the City Council back in March,” said Matthew Gillikin, Charlottesville resident and member of Livable Cville, which was founded in June 2021. “What's happening now is the Comprehensive Plan rewrite, and then what will happen after that is the zoning rewrite.”
The official Comprehensive Plan is required by law to be updated every five years. The plan was supposed to be reapproved in 2018, but has been delayed as the City prioritized attempts to engage the community for feedback and bring in outside expertise from consulting firm Rhodeside and Harwell Inc.
The community engagement process occurred through an initiative called Cville Plans Together, a strategy that allows activists, leaders and residents to work with planners to better incorporate local needs into new housing and land use policies. Since development of the AHP and FLUM has concluded, Cville Plans Together is now working on revising the zoning laws — a process that will extend into 2022.
Affordable housing has been a long-standing issue in the Charlottesville area — the Charlotteville Low-Income Housing Coalition has identified a shortage of over 3,300 affordable rentals, as well as high rents and displacement of long-time residents.
The CLIHC has also demonstrated that the affordable housing shortage is a racial justice problem, noting in a series of recent community studies that Black communities have been most impacted by these shortages — the city’s Black population is rapidly decreasing as living costs skyrocket.
The city of Charlottesville has a history of displacing or “redeveloping” majority Black neighborhoods — in 1964, the city razed Vinegar Hill, a predominantly Black neighborhood, in the name of “urban development.” Vinegar Hill spanned Main Street from the eastern end of today's Downtown Mall and is now home to the Omni Hotel and a Staples. Roughly 500 residents were displaced and moved into segregated housing or left the city.
Prices for renters have also been increasing in Charlottesville in recent years, reaching a $1,500 average for a two-bedroom apartment in September — up from $1,189 dollars five years ago — despite community-oriented incentives, such as the ability of creating more affordable housing stock in Charlottesville to help house people experiencing homelessness.
“We think that allowing different types of homes like more townhomes and things like that will provide more opportunities for homeownership for a wider range of income levels,”Gillikin said.
Livable Cville pushes for denser zoning laws
Livable Cville is a local group of community organizers working with Charlottesville working with Charlottesville residents to address issues with housing and transportation in the city. According to Gillikin, the group includes a few University graduate students as well as recently graduated University students. Gillikin and the group provided guidance to Student Council while the organization crafted its letter and is thanked in the statement “for their tireless efforts and leadership in creating a more equitable housing market and experience in Charlottesville.”
On Oct. 21, the group made public a list of requests to the planning commission regarding housing affordability and equity.
In particular, the leadership of Livable Cville, wrote in its letter that it believes the city should allow three-and-a-half story buildings, four unit dwellings by-right, triplexes and townhouses, as well as "allow[ing] small-scale commercial uses throughout the city." Currently, just over 70 percent of residential land is zoned only single-family detached homes, according to Gillikin.
The group is additionally calling for the allowance of eight story buildings in the Jefferson Park Avenue area where many University students live.
Livable Cville’s recommendations focus on creating more dense neighborhoods and residential areas in Charlottesville. According to the organization, denser zoning laws would allow a greater number of Charlottesville residents to live where they desire at less expensive housing costs as housing options would increase.
“Our goal is to make Charlottesville a more affordable place for everyone,” Gillikin said.
Student Council lobbies on behalf of students
Student Council encouraged the University to take concrete action to help alleviate the housing shortage by implementing a Payment in Lieu of Taxes program to provide financial support to the City of Charlottesville. Similar programs are already operating at Brown, Harvard, Boston College, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.
The program would provide payments to the local government to offset losses from the University’s nontaxable federal lands. Proceeds would then be used to fund services such as firefighting, policing, construction of infrastructure and search-and-rescue operations.
The University already has plans to develop 1,000 to 1,5000 affordable housing units for low-wage workers in Charlottesville and Albemarle County within the next 10 years. The University has also proposed an on-Grounds housing requirement for second years, which would increase housing options for students and help drive down rents.
High rents and low vacancy rates enable landlords and major housing developers to enact policies that may not be in renters’ best interests, as renters have little power to look for different housing. According to a recent survey conducted by Student Council, student renters reported such issues as untimely maintenance support, hidden fees and terms in their leases, unresponsive landlords and concerns for their safety as a result of poor property management.
Roark Corson, deputy director of community engagement and fourth-year College student, explained the motivation behind Student Council’s housing advocacy in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily.
“This initiative is a first step in tackling the complicated relationship students have with off-Grounds landlords and housing,” Corson said. “We recognize that some U.Va. students enter the Charlottesville housing market with a degree of privilege. We also recognize that landlords often take advantage of students and want to begin to push back against unfair practices.”
The Student Council statement includes survey responses from five different students, most of whom voice complaints about Management Services Corporation, a property management company based in Charlottesville.
In one comment submitted via the survey, graduate student Cabell Jones describes her negative housing experience in Woodrow apartments, a housing complex managed by MSC on Stadium Road.
“They are letting this place rot beneath their fingertips and, because the walls are sturdy, don’t seem to give two damns if I’m breathing in mold,” Jones said in her testimony. “More than that, an entire room that was listed as a ‘closet’ on my floor plan is actually a boiler room accessible by the entire house.”
Cecilia Cain, Student Council’s vice president for administration and fourth-year College student, described her experiences with popular rental company Management Services Corporation following a dead tree falling onto — and totalling — her car parked in a paid space at her Oxford Hills residence.
“Despite their negligence, nobody was able to hold MSC responsible,” Cain wrote. “I still do not have a car and know that this process was deeply wrong and only made possible by the standard of predatory management practices under leasing companies around U.Va. Students have no rights.”
Student Council concludes the statement by reaffirming its commitment to the tenants of Charlottesville, and plans to ensure that any future on-Grounds housing developments will be priced below current Charlottesville market prices — particularly the proposed second-year housing.
Though student housing and local resident housing are often viewed independently, Student Council and Livable Cville both acknowledged how intertwined the struggles of all renters are. Gillikin said he appreciates the efforts of Student Council to center housing affordability this semester and voiced his pleasure with the recent letter released by Student Council acknowledging the rental experiences that students share with renters in the greater Charlottesville area.
"That letter is so good, I was so impressed," Gillikin said. "There's some real common themes that student renters at U.Va. experience that renters elsewhere in the city experience, in terms of increased rent, low quality housing, not being able to live where you prefer to live and a general dynamic where the landlords just seem to hold a ton of power, and the student tenants, as well as tenants elsewhere, just don't.”
Gillikin is hopeful that housing reforms in Charlottesville to create higher density options and limit the differential power of landlords or property management companies will positively impact students as well as non-student Charlottesville residents.
“More housing can be built in those areas where students want to live, so that there isn't, as a result, students spilling into neighborhoods like the 10th and Page neighborhood, or parts of Venable and pushing out historic residents, particularly Black and Brown lower-income residents,” Gillikin said. “But also just like giving you all as students more of an ability just to live in scenarios you prefer to live in.”