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Charlottesville's Affordable Housing Crisis

Charlottesville officials are attempting to craft a strategy to fight an affordable housing crisis. On Friday, the city hosted its first-ever housing summit, bringing together dozens of stakeholders for a day-long attempt to find common ground. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has this report.

In Charlottesville, one in five people earn less than $23,000 a year, says Stacy Pethia, the city’s housing program coordinator. But the majority of Charlottesville’s available housing is only affordable to people earning two to three times that.

Speaking at Friday’s summit, Pethia said in part that’s because over the last two decades, Charlottesville’s population has grown rapidly.

STACY PETHIA: And our population is expected to grow by another 7 percent by 2022. So the housing situation needs to be addressed now, so that we don’t fall deeper into an affordable housing hole as we move forward.

Pethia organized the conference in hopes that city officials, developers, activists, non-profit heads, community organizers, and business leaders could better coordinate a response to the growing crisis.

Over the last 15 years, as more white middle and upper income people have moved to the city, paying more for housing in the process, it’s driven up the market, making fewer options available for low-income residents, many of them African-American. Nikuyah Walker is the city’s first female African-American mayor. She said what’s made this housing trend possible is part of a much larger pattern.

NIKUYAH WALKER: We’re not in a place where we’re just talking about housing. We’re talking about undoing a legacy that’s been in place for 400 years.

In 2010, the city set a goal to have 15 percent of its housing be affordable for low-income residents by 2025. But since then, it’s stayed at about 10 percent, as developers have averaged just one affordable unit for every 20 market rate units that they build.

As city officials continue crafting an affordable housing strategy, Walker and others are advocating for the lowest income earners to be at the center of that conversation. About an hour into Friday’s program, city councilor Kathy Galvin acknowledged that historically this has not been the case.

KATHY GALVIN: I just wanted to say, the city has done a terrible job engaging its community. We are slowly shifting the big ocean liner around.  

Claudette Grant said it’s not just conversations around housing that low-income residents are left out of. Grant works as a community organizer in Friendship Court, a neighborhood that uses Section 8 funding to subsidize 150 apartments in the heart of Charlottesville’s thriving downtown, just two blocks away from the pedestrian mall.

CLAUDETTE GRANT: They all said, ‘We don’t go downtown, we don’t like downtown, we don’t like the Mall, we don’t feel comfortable there.’  

And that’s not exactly a new sentiment. Joy Johnson remembers when the city razed several African-American neighborhoods in the name of economic development in the 1960s. After the bulldozing, more than a dozen black owned businesses closed their door, their customer base displaced. It severely hurt the city’s black middle class. Johnson mentioned this past summer’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

JOY JOHNSON: And what happened on August 11th and August the 12th, just unveiled the ugliness of what we have been living with.

Part of that reality was a long practice of restricting the sale of homes in certain parts of Charlottesville in favor of white people. These restrictive covenants prevented black people from amassing wealth through home ownership, says Jeff Fogel, a local civil rights attorney and activist. Fogel questioned whether the city’s current zoning map was drawn to mirror those covenants.

JEFF FOGEL: If that’s the case, if in fact our zoning map was drawn on the basis of restrictive covenants, we’ve got to throw out the zoning map and start all over again and look at our community as it exists today with the moral values that we have today.

These realities are very present as the city attempts to craft a comprehensive plan to govern all future growth. It’s conducting a housing study, to determine exactly how many additional units are needed and for what income levels. In the meantime, the city’s designated nearly $2.5 million this year to support the construction of about 100 new units of affordable housing. That money will also launch a $900,000 rental assistance program, and a landlord risk reduction program, among others.

Councilor Galvin said all of these steps and more are needed. But, as the longest serving councilor, she reminded people that just 20 years ago, the entire city was struggling financially. It was losing money, developers weren’t building, and residents were leaving. So the city rezoned to incentivize growth and revenue, with the aim, she said, to use that money to fund social services for the lowest income earners.

GALVIN: I think it’s really important that to keep a thriving city, you’ve got to do the equity thing…And you’ve got to do the viability thing, you’ve got to have that strong economy so that the city can keep funding these things. It can’t be a zero sum game…We can’t support you unless we are a strong city financially.

Later this week, the housing advisory committee will meet to discuss the next steps, including whether to delay the city’s comprehensive plan until the housing needs assessment is completed.

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.