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U.Va. solicits community feedback on affordable housing initiative as project moves into third phase

Three plots with the potential for over 1,000 units of affordable housing identified as potential build sites

<p>The University's Affordable Housing Advisory Group has spent the past month circulating a virtual survey to gauge community input into three potential build-sites for affordable housing units, as designated on the map.</p>

The University's Affordable Housing Advisory Group has spent the past month circulating a virtual survey to gauge community input into three potential build-sites for affordable housing units, as designated on the map.

As part of its plan to develop affordable housing in Charlottesville after housing prices in the area have continued to rise, the University has entered into the third phase of an ongoing multi-year affordable housing project. Following the conclusion of a community input period, the project is now putting out a request for qualifications from potential development partners.

The City of Charlottesville adopted its Comprehensive Plan in November, which outlines a general plan for the City to address issues including land use, community facilities, housing, transportation, environment, economic sustainability, historic preservation, and urban design. The plan includes a Future Land Use Map, which guides zoning laws by mapping out allowable zoning usage in different areas, as well as an Affordable Housing Plan that aims to find solutions to housing affordability.

Affordable housing is a high-profile issue in the Charlottesville area, with the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition noting a shortage of over 3,300 affordable rentals. The affordable housing shortage hits Black communities hardest, as recent studies indicate. 

The University’s plan to develop 1,000 to 1,500 affordable housing units in Charlottesville was first introduced by University President Jim Ryan in 2020. Ryan’s announcement came after the University-Community Working Group identified affordable housing as one of the ways that the University could strengthen its relationship with the Charlottesville area. The group is chaired by Brennan Gould, president of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, and includes faculty, staff and community members.

In the University-Community Working Group’s Final Report from 2019, the group noted that rent in Charlottesville increased by 42 percent from 2011 to 2018, with a growing number — now thousands — of residents unable to afford to live in the city. In Charlottesville alone, according to the report, more than 3,300 people cannot afford housing and those making less than $45 thousand per year spend over half their income on housing.

In an attempt to be part of the solution to the problem, the University has offered to build on three potential sites. The sites are all very different, both in terms of the size of the plots of land and their location.

Chief Operating Officer J.J. Wagner Davis chairs the Affordable Housing Advisory Group, which was started to oversee this project. The group’s members include individuals from the U.Va Foundation, Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Legal Aid Justice Center and Albemarle Housing Improvement Program, among others.

Davis said that potential sites were chosen after Gina Merritt of Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures, who is consulting for the project for the University, met with community members. The vetting of potential sites and community meetings by Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures constituted the first official phase of the project. 

“Following a public kickoff event in late April, our consultant conducted a listening tour and met with individual community members and representatives from more than 40 local organizations over several months, including city and county representatives, community stakeholders and community groups engaged in work related to affordable housing,” Davis said.

The second phase included both the announcement of potential sites and a six-week period of soliciting community input — running Dec. 18 through Jan. 31 — both through a virtual survey and a comment wall. In total, the survey garnered thousands of responses and dozens of individuals shared their thoughts on the comment wall.

The survey circulated by the University asked takers for opinions on a myriad of factors, including if they support the development of affordable housing on each site, what new services would be needed near the tracts, important features for the housing project, the types of homes desired and the values important to them when it comes to affordable housing — such as sustainability or diversity and inclusion.

The first option is a building at 1010 Wertland St., which is located at the intersection of Wertland and 10th Street, in the 10th and Page neighborhood in downtown Charlottesville. This piece of land is the smallest piece of land offered up, but the closest to downtown. 

The second tract is the current location of the University’s Piedmont Housing community, which comprises mixed standalone houses and apartments right on the border of the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. 

Both of these sites currently have residents living in them — but after some of the residents pushed back against the announcement, the University confirmed that their leases will be renewed through at least spring 2023, as reported by Cville Weekly. 

The final potential location is well north of Charlottesville-Albemarle airport at the North Fork Discovery Park, a roughly 25-minute drive from downtown. However, this tract is by far the largest available.

According to the University’s timeline for the project the University will not actually construct the housing itself. Instead, the University will work with third-party developers to design, finance, build and run the affordable housing projects.

Charlottesville resident Matthew Gillikin expressed concern about how the University plans to finance the project in such a manner that all units are affordable for Charlottesville residents, adding that the University hasn’t yet made clear how affordable the units will truly be.

“U.Va. does not seem to have a clear sense of what levels of affordability they're going to be targeting for these projects,” Gillikin said.

University spokesperson Brian Coy said it was too early in the process to give a sense of what percent of average median income the developments would be offered to, noting that the University still needs to get proposals for the sites and select developers.

“As they formulate proposals, we will encourage the developers to maximize the affordability of the housing units, and anticipate proposals that include mixed income development,” Coy said.

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as housing that costs 30 percent or less of one’s income. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Charlottesville is $59,471 — 30 percent of that figure is just under $1,500 a month in rent.

Charlottesville City Councilor Michael Payne took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the affordable housing plan, expressing his desire to see housing options targeted to zero to 30 percent of area median income. Payne also noted that the University should consider partnering with non-profit housing providers, the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority and community members to ensure voices within the community are heard.

The question of who exactly is able to access the homes that are set to be built is an important one for Gillikin.

“I'm skeptical — there will be benefits if they produce more housing units [because] there's a benefit to that macro-economically,” Gillikin said. “Who is going to be able to access these homes is just a really interesting question.”

Coy said the affordable housing project is intended to serve the whole area, with priority not being given to those affiliated with the University. 

“Our intention is to serve the community broadly, not to limit this to the University community,” Coy said, adding that the University continues to study whether or not it should require all second-year students to live on-Grounds in order to alleviate pressure on the local housing market, something which was proposed in its 2030 Strategic Plan.

The affordable housing survey was open to everyone, including non-Charlottesville residents, and closed Jan. 31. After the University looks at the survey results, the next step is a Request for Qualifications, which the University will use to identify potential partners for the development. According to the University, the goal is to select a development partner or partners in 2022.

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