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Divisive housing development approved on 3-2 split

A rendering of the proposed development (left) alongside a sign that opponents posted outside council chambers.
HRHA/Randi B. Hagi
A rendering of the proposed development (left) alongside a sign that opponents posted outside council chambers.

A hotly contested housing development won approval from the Harrisonburg City Council on Tuesday. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

On a split vote, the council voted 3-2 to approve the rezoning request for the proposed Bluestone Town Center, as the Daily News-Recordreported. The developers, Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the private investment firm EquityPlus, plan to build up to 900 housing units there over about 10 years.

Council members debated for two hours in a work session earlier that evening, with Chris Jones speaking out in staunch opposition to the project.

CHRIS JONES: This has become about checking the box of 'affordable housing,' and not making sure that the entire city can absorb it, and the entire city grows at the same time.

Topics of debate included how many students the development would add to city schools, whether tax revenue generated from new residents would be enough to cover services provided to them, and whether the housing authority was capable of properly managing the project – given previous conflicts with council over their properties' maintenance.

JONES: How do you give someone something else, if they can't take care of what they already have?

Michael Wong, the executive director of the housing authority, countered that he's met with Jones previously and addressed his complaints.

Wong and a representative from EquityPlus also caught some heat from council members for claiming that the council could provide input or completely halt the project in the future. Now, legally, that is technically possible because the housing authority is a public entity, it will have to get approval from council if and when it goes to issue bonds to finance the project. But City Attorney Chris Brown cautioned that it is practically unheard of for a city to deny a bond issuance after approving a project – and doing so could have "devastating" effects on Bluestone homeowners and the city's reputation with developers.

CHRIS BROWN: Please, don't have the attitude that we can use bond financing approval or disapproval as a zoning enforcement tool. That's not what it's made for, and that would just be a disaster all around.

Jones compared the project to the 'urban renewal' that took place in the 50s and 60s, and how that disadvantaged many Black residents of Harrisonburg – razing their homes and moving many of them into public housing.

Monica Robinson, while holding a "No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor" sign, disagreed with that characterization.

MONICA ROBINSON: And it feels to me like we have a sign up, but we're not living the sign. In order for this community, in order for our community … to move past all of these racial disparities of the past, I feel like a project like Bluestone Town Center has the potential of allowing us to develop in a way that's different from what I've seen happen in the past.

Mayor Deanna Reed argued that they have approved many other housing developments, and there will be more to come. She also noted that the council had recently allocated $2 million of American Rescue Plan Act money to a housing fund, which could be used in a variety of ways.

DEANNA REED: Why are we acting like this is it? If we don't do this, nothing else is going to happen?

Vice-mayor Laura Dent said it's not enough.

LAURA DENT: Of that long list that we've gone through of housing developments we have approved, only two, maybe three, have an affordable component of ones that are still alive. … If we don't do this, it's a major opportunity cost.

Now, what exact socioeconomic demographic the development would be for was also a topic of debate, with council members referencing groups like "the workforce," "ALICE population," and "low to median income."

However you want to characterize these groups, here are the numbers. According to the developers' proffer statement, all of the for-sale homes would be reserved for households making between 80 and 120% of the Area Median Income, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – which comes to an income of about $64,000 - $97,000 a year. Rental units will be occupied by households making about $64,000 or less.

A presentation assembled by the developer also states that 75 of the development's rental units will go to people with housing choice vouchers, which allows the federal government to pay a housing subsidy to the landlord.

Laura Dent, who stayed relatively quiet during the two-hour discussion, moved to approve the rezoning request. Her motion was supported by Dany Fleming and Monica Robinson. The approved request did not include one of the initial proffers made by the developers, which would have included a cash kickback for city coffers, but was deemed "not legally viable" by city staff.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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