A week before Thanksgiving, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation reported an unsettling statistic. Of any town in Virginia, Charlottesville has the highest average cost of a Turkey Day dinner for 10. While the state’s average is $40.74, our area’s is close to $50. Less than two weeks later, a smattering of local officials and housing authorities convened to address another one of the area’s greatest disparities: affordable housing for those on the lower end of the economic scale.
"I’m here to listen and understand," said David Neuman, University architect, who was the lone UVA rep attending the first joint city/county/UVA affordable housing task force meeting.
According to a report compiled by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District, Charlottesville has a "severe" deficiency of rental housing for low-income households, and most units that are affordable for extremely low-income households (less than 30 percent area median family income) are actually occupied by those with higher incomes. Consequently, the report estimated, that left almost 1,000 households with nowhere to rent.
"The housing market in the region is extremely tight," the report said, finding that it was most restricting for "those seeking lower-cost owner housing." Of all the areas in Virginia, Charlottesville ranks second for the highest median house value at $225,500 (in 2005). Taking that into account, the report concluded there were approximately 1,100 units for sale that were affordable to someone making less than $62,286, the area’s median family income. In addition, the average monthly mortgage costs were as high here as in Washington, D.C.
These were staggering but hardly surprising figures for the group gathered in City Hall’s basement. Last March, an upstart interfaith action group called IMPACT held a public meeting where they demanded in front of 1,300 people that the area work on providing more affordable housing to the financially strapped. And on December 6, a joint city/county/University task force held its first meeting to draw up a plan to do just that.
The first task was to agree on the group’s purpose. A four-prong draft charge listed lofty goals such as identifying gaps and issues not being addressed by current initiatives, as well as selecting policy actions and resources that could lead to increased availability and access. By the end of the meeting, that charge had been tweaked to add another aspiration—to "identify cross jurisdictional opportunities for collaborative implementation of the recommendations of this taskforce"—and set a frequency for future meetings at a two-week interval.
Two of its members—city councilor Dave Norris and IMPACT representative Rhonda Miska—work with the constituency this taskforce is trying to serve. Both the city and the county have already started this year’s budget process—with a limit set by staff—so it may be a challenge to fit some sort of initiative in this year.
Then there is the presence of UVA, represented by University Architect David Neuman. Neuman attributed his presence on the task force to the fact that he has worked on the affordable housing issue before. As for UVA’s, he gave a somewhat different take. "I’m here to listen and understand," he told the small room. "That’s where the University stands."
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