My house is your house

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“When is this thing going to start?” asks a resident during a redevelopment check-in meeting at Crescent Hall, one of several public housing sites in Charlottesville. Amy Kilroy, director of redevelopment for the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, answers the same way she has since the start of a summer-long meeting series to discuss redevelopment. “We don’t know.”

The next question is usually about where the money will come from to redevelop the city’s public housing stock. The answer: “We don’t know yet.”

The redevelopment of Charlottesville’s public housing system is like a complex, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle involving people, money and politics. All of its pieces are vital to creating a more vibrant and less racialized image for the city, but just like in a puzzle, when one piece goes missing, the picture fails to come to life.

In the case of CRHA, the missing piece—and the most important one—is funding. Without the money to revamp the city’s old and battered public housing sites, the vision of removing isolated pockets of poverty and transforming entire areas into cosmopolitan and diverse neighborhoods will only live on paper.

Exactly a year ago, the CRHA Board approved and adopted a redevelopment master plan, drafted by Philadelphia consulting firm Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), that illustrates the possible physical changes to each of the seven public housing sites and their surrounding areas. Since then, CRHA failed to receive a federal grant that could have jumped-started the process and is straining to find a rabbit inside an empty hat. In the eyes of residents, however, no concrete changes on the ground translates into a palpable uncertainty for their future and the well-being of their families. The ultimate question among public housing residents and city residents alike is whether redevelopment will ever happen. For some, the evidence is less than reassuring.

No money, mo’ problems

A project that once looked like the starting point for a watershed transformation of public housing has now started to look like a broken dream.

 

CRHA’s biggest sites


Year built Current number of units
1. Westhaven 1965 126
2. South First Street 1981 58
3. Sixth Street 1981 25
4. Crescent Hall 1976 105
5. Riverside 1980 16
6. Madison Avenue 1980 18
7. Michie Drive 1980 23

 

“None of us have a crystal ball,” says Kathy McHugh, housing specialist for the City of Charlottesville. “We would love to think that it is doable and we think that if we continue to work hard enough on it and hopefully get fortunate enough or blessed enough to have a partner that comes forward and works with us that, yeah, it’s definitely feasible. There’s so many ifs, ands, or buts in there and hills to climb and valleys to walk through.”

But those who have been most closely involved in the redevelopment process since its inception are confident that in 20 years, the Charlottesville landscape will look very similar to what the consulting firm created in its master plan: modern residential structures with green spaces and public parks, community centers and workforce housing, neighborhoods connected to each other.

“It will happen,” says Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, who serves on the CRHA Board. “The thing to keep in mind is that we’ve known from the early stages that it’s not going to happen at once, it’s going to be a phased process and it’s going to happen over a period of many years and there are some pieces of the project that can certainly happen without federal funds.”

The master plan for redevelopment, which involved meeting with residents to listen to what they would like their new homes to look like, focuses primarily on a mixed-use and mixed-income approach for the public housing sites (see list below). The plan also draws heavily, too much perhaps, on federal money to start and complete the process.

Both housing scenarios in the master plan carry a hefty price tag and rely on a big chunk of money from Hope VI, a federally funded initiative that supports urban redevelopment efforts for the most distressed public housing in the country.

The first scenario includes 558 units—with the existing number of 376 public housing units remaining intact—and it is estimated to cost about $116 million. The second plan aims at higher density development with 719 units and comes in at around $151 million.

The second scenario also presents a greater variety of market-rate, tax-credit units and possible home ownership opportunities. It is preferred by local developers and a few members of the CRHA Board, who envision the redevelopment process as a chance to bring the sites and their surrounding neighborhoods into the 21st century, equipping them with modern and connected infrastructure and increased access to a more robust transportation system.

However, both scenarios run up against the same obstacle: a depleted and struggling federal government.

According to the master plan’s financials, the first scenario relies on Hope VI or Choice Neighborhoods for $17.4 million, while in the denser scenario that amount increases to $19.9 million. The consultants attribute the biggest chunk of cash to equity from 9 percent tax credits, $71.3 million for the first scenario and $83.6 million for the second. The Hope VI program is on its way out, about to give way to a new program spearheaded by President Barack Obama called Choice Neighborhoods, an initiative that “will transform distressed neighborhoods and public housing and assisted projects into viable and sustainable mixed-income neighborhoods by linking housing improvements with appropriate services, schools, public assets, transportation, and access to jobs,” according to the Department of Housing (HUD)’s website.

Charlottesville’s current 376 units won’t make the cut. Randy Bickers, CRHA executive director who manages the day-to-day operations of the Housing Authority and has been an advocate for redevelopment, says that since the federal government changed the scoring criteria for its funding grants, CRHA’s own sites don’t rank high enough.

“They look at things like vacant units in the area and not just [CRHA] vacant units, but overall. They look at whether houses are sitting there empty, which we don’t have a lot of,” he says. “They look at crime statistics and our crime is not as bad as many other places, which is a good thing.”

For some, however, the lack of federal funding does not present a vision-ending obstacle. Norris says that sit can help city officials and Housing Authority staff think more creatively about a solution.

“There are a lot of other funding sources out there for affordable housing development, such as low-income housing tax credits, such as bank financing, such as foundation money, such as local money,” he says. “I have not, by any means, ruled out the possibility that we may be able to get some federal dollars.”

To that end, in March, the City of Charlottesville and the Housing Authority began a collaboration geared toward finding a new funding strategy for redevelopment. Two city staff members have been working part-time with the Housing Authority sifting through mounds of paperwork and grant applications. McHugh says that although the lack of federal monies is a setback, the real challenge lies in choosing the right development partner if it ever comes to that.

“I think it’s more than just identifying where we are going to get the money,” she says. “We really want to make sure that when we identify who is paying for this, we make sure it comes with the strings we want attached to this project and it is not going to limit what we want to do.”

Partner time

The structure of that partnership is still nebulous, but Bickers sees a collaboration between local partners—mainly architects and planners—and a major national redevelopment agency that will handle the finances.

Joy Johnson lives in Westhaven and has made fighting for public housing residents her life’s calling. She says she is not against density if it’s done right. “I am not for density when you are building more Starbucks, when you are building more luxury apartments,” she says.

Kilroy, who has seen the project evolve, says that one of the lessons the Housing Authority has learned from the master planning process is the importance of partnering with local agencies.

“I’m looking forward to having at least one local partner on any future development team,” says Kilroy. “It will help to have folks on the team who know the community, who know the politics, who know the site plan and the redevelopment process.”

Bickers agrees.

“Hopefully sometime next year, we’ll be able to start partnering with somebody and getting the ball rolling,” he says. He adds that a national development partner could ease the pain of learning how to play the complex game of navigating federal grant sources. “They will be able to give us the best advice about Choice Neighborhoods, they’ve done it before, they’ll be able to tell us if we can compete,” he says.

Locally, CRHA intends to work with Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA), a nonprofit agency that focuses on creating housing opportunities for low-income residents, and Habitat for Humanity.

“My concept is that for whatever house ownership we have, we will turn it over to Habitat, we give them the land, they have a model that works. They know how to do home ownership affordably and effectively, better than the Housing Authority. That is not our specialty,” says Bickers. “PHA, with their expertise will certainly be at the table.”

Dan Rosensweig, Habitat’s executive director, tells C-VILLE that the agency is “100 percent” supportive of redevelopment, but the details of Habitat’s involvement have yet to be ironed out.

“There is nothing concrete on the table right now. We have had multiple conversations with staff and the board members and they have always been conceptual and very positive,” he says. “My sense is that we both think that there is an attractive partnership out there, but until their plans become a little bit more concrete, it’s really impossible to say what that would be.”

Bickers’ vision goes one step further. Aside from the area’s nonprofits, he says the Housing Authority is ready to extend its hand to the city’s largest landowners—people like Coran Capshaw—and others who own property near the public housing sites.

“When you take the federal money off the table, it will be anybody and everybody that we can get. The city will have to be very involved and they are committed to that,” says Bickers. “At what level money they can afford to do that, I don’t know. That’s still very much up in the air.”

Regardless of the level of involvement in the redevelopment process, each developer and potential partner will have to agree and support the Residents’ Bill of Rights, a document approved by City Council in 2008, that, among other things, limits to 12 months the time residents will live in temporary housing and guarantees residents a seat at the negotiation table.

There are those, however, who think partnering for redevelopment is not such a good idea. Sherri Clarke, CRHA Board member, Riverside resident and vocal advocate for the well-being of public housing residents, is fearful that giving power and authority to a partner will negatively affect the residents.

“It appears to be a good idea, the structure of these buildings has been the same for so many years, but I also see a downside,” she says. “The downside that I see is that it appears to be costly…and you are going to have to involve other people to maintain this project and the fear for me as a resident is thinking that the one that puts the most in wants to run the show.”

In fact, Clarke is not convinced that tearing down and rebuilding the existing public housing stock is a good idea at all.

“I thought, why go through such a cost at a time when we are having such a hard time with the economy? Why can’t we restructure what we already have or just recondition some of the homes? That might save the cost.” She is not alone in thinking that renovation could yield the best results. Many residents, including Deirdre Gilmore, board chair of the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR), a nonprofit organization that drafted the Residents’ Bills of Rights, believe that their homes are in need of a major revamp and not necessarily of a complete change.

Renovation was considered an option in the initial stages of the master plan, says Bickers, but it was quickly abandoned after the consultants documented the conditions of some of the units in each of the city’s sites. Because most of the units, especially in Westhaven, are not up to code and are built in a way that makes it practically impossible to alter their structure, in the end, it would end up costing more to renovate than to bulldoze and rebuild them.

Fresh ideas

McHugh, Kilroy and fellow city employee Melissa Thackston have spent months researching other housing authorities around the country that have successfully redeveloped their public housing sites without much federal help.

Randy Bickers, CRHA executive director (standing in front of the Crescent Hall housing site), believes the Housing Authority is ready to partner with local agencies and national development firms to jump start redevelopment. “They will be able to give us the best advice about Choice Neighborhoods, they’ve done it before,” he says.

“We wanted something that was similar in population. Demographics didn’t have to match exactly in terms of per capita income and that kind of thing, but we wanted it to be a college town or have a strong college influence,” says McHugh.

Decatur, Georgia, a town of 18,000 on the outskirts of Atlanta, has done just that. Although less than half the size of Charlottesville, Decatur sports a vibrant community of young professionals, similar to our own.

“We never qualified for Hope VI,” says Paul Pierce, executive director of Decatur’s Housing Authority. Instead, Decatur used tax-exempt bonds, 4 percent and 9 percent low-income tax credits, capital funds from HUD and money from the sale of a third of a vacant parcel they owned, to finance a four-phase approach.

“It was not easy,” he says, but adds that an extensive planning process, combined with some in-house logistical work, has helped give residents the certainty that in five years, their community will finally be complete.

For Jason Halbert, former CRHA Board member and Program Officer with The Oak Hill Fund, finding money for redevelopment takes a back seat to the willingness of city and CRHA Board members to see this project come to fruition.

“I can’t predict the future, but if you have a will on City Council and on the Housing Authority Board, it could begin within a year or two,” he says. “If there isn’t a will and people start taking it in different directions, and some people would like to see it going in a different direction, which I think is a really bad idea, then it will take longer.”

Residents’ uneasiness

“It’s gentrification that nobody wants to really talk about. When I look at 10th and Page, when I was a little girl and I grew up here, those people are gone,” says Joy Johsnon, who lives at Westhaven and is a vocal advocate for public housing residents. “There are new faces. I know that things don’t stay the same, but the community around is not a low-income community anymore. This is the only low-income community. Gentrification is happening. The squeeze is happening.”

The uncertainty of redevelopment is weighing heavily on public housing residents. A good number of them are fearful that by the end of the project they won’t have a roof over their head, and the issue of relocation sends anxiety shivers down many residents’ spines.

“I am scared about where they are going to put us,” says one resident during a women’s gathering at the Westhaven Community Center. “Where will we go? I want to know.”

Another young woman, visibly emotional, put her hands over her eyes. She is scared of going back to living on the streets.

“I don’t want to go back to sleeping at the bus stop,” she says. “Or under a bridge,” along with her young son. Although the Housing Authority hosted meetings to inform residents of the status of the redevelopment project, many of them don’t even know it’s in the works, which points to the communication challenge of dealing with a stressed population.

Before residents are moved to temporary housing, whether within the public housing system or not, a relocation plan has to be submitted and approved by HUD.

The first step is for CRHA staff to meet with all the residents, individually, for an informal interview where the details of relocation will be discussed—the number of rooms desired, proximity to bus routes, closeness to work. Then, residents could have a choice.

If Levy Avenue, currently vacant land bought by the Housing Authority as part of redevelopment that was thought could serve as a relocation hub, is available, some families will be able to move there and then move back to their respective sites in a short period of time, no more than 12 months, the duration set by the Bill of Rights.

In the event that Levy won’t be available for relocation, residents will be given housing vouchers, much like Section 8 vouchers, which they could use in many of the apartment complexes around the city. Residents enrolled in Section 8, a federally funded rental subsidy program, usually pay 30 percent of their income in rent and utilities and the vouchers pick up the rest. During relocation, Kilroy says residents who use vouchers will not pay more in rent than what they currently do. Residents will be notified at least 90 days prior to their moving date and moving expenses will be paid by the Housing Authority.

Bickers, however, is hopeful that residents will be able to move within the public housing sites. “We would rather keep the residents under our umbrella. We would rather be the landlords through this whole process because it’s easier for us to support them,” he says. “It’s going to be disruptive, there is no way around it because you are taking somebody out of their home and even for a year, that’s a big inconvenience.”

According to Johnson, training residents for what’s to come is key, and she is disappointed it isn’t happening. “Maybe they are doing the best they can, but I’ve said it from day one that you have to get out and talk to the people. I am pretty sure that if you walk out there, you could get four or five more to say ‘I don’t know anything about it,’” she says. “We need to make absolutely sure that we don’t lose any residents.”

Then, there are the intangibles, like a sense of place.

Johnson loves driving down Hardy Drive when the sun is high up in the sky and shines through the large, adult trees. “I think it’s important that we keep the beauty of it,” she tells Kilroy during a meeting held in the Westhaven Community Center. With redevelopment inching somewhat closer to reality, at least on a conceptual level, Johnson is uneasy about how much of her neighborhood she will eventually recognize. The flowers and the trees are as much a part of Westhaven as are its residents, she says. Her own front yard is decorated with big palm trees and beds of in-bloom flowers.

This is where the ghost of Vinegar Hill haunts the process. The neighborhood adjacent to the current Downtown Mall was reclaimed as part of an urban renewal movement in the 1960s.

“[Redevelopment] is an opportunity for us to make amends for the Vinegar Hill process,” says Vice-mayor Holly Edwards, an advocate for public housing residents. “We need to make sure that we don’t repeat any aspect of our history and that means don’t call it ‘redevelopment’ if it’s really going to be ‘gentrification,’ don’t call it ‘honoring the Residents’ Bill of Rights’ if you are really not going to include the residents in all the parts of the process.”

Uncomfortable density

The biggest challenge in reinventing Charlottesville’s landscape will be the redevelopment of Westhaven, the city’s largest, oldest public housing facility. Built in 1965, Westhaven is also the most dense site, nestled between West Main Street and the 10th and Page neighborhood.

The consultants saw the 9.9 acres at the bottom of West Main as a “potential connector” between Downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. According to the plan, Westhaven could house up to 255 units, 129 units more than are currently on the site. One hundred of those units would be public housing, while 80 would count towards low-income tax credit units and 75 would be sold at market rates. However, Westhaven residents prefer a much more sparse plan, with only 180 units total, 90 designated as public housing and the remaining 90 split between tax credit and market-rate units.

Johnson says neighbors are fearful that a denser scenario would “stack them on top of the other.” Johnson, who serves on the CRHA Board, has some reservations of her own. “I’m not for density, but I could be for density if it is going to provide more housing for low-income folks,” she says. “I’m not for density when you are building more Starbucks, when you are building more luxury apartments or coffee shops. I do believe a grocery store is necessary in rebuilding.”

According to Norris, there is consensus among residents that the total number of units at the end of the redevelopment process should be higher than the current one. However, he says the controversy is about just how dense the neighborhoods should be.

“You got some developers and social engineers and people who have ideas about transforming these neighborhoods into very high density communities and that has not gone over well with residents, and I can’t blame them,” says Norris.

“We need to be wary of social engineers coming in with grandiose designs and plans and not willing to work with the residents.”

The ultimate goal for all those involved is an end product that people are optimistic about. “We want neighborhoods where you can’t tell when you drive in which unit is public housing, which one is market rate. That’s the real sign of success of redevelopment,” says Norris.

For Halbert, the density debate needs to be tackled by city leaders.

“I think that there is a tendency on the public’s part to resist density, but I do think that there are a lot of people in town who understand that you can have a little more density without making it gross,” he says. “It could be good density that can help us in terms of creating livable and walkable communities and that is really important. When I see people adding two or three stories to existing buildings, I cheer.”

Kathy Galvin, a member of the Redevelopment Committee who has high hopes for redevelopment, says that there is a perception that high density is what causes social problems and unrest. “It’s not the high density, it’s the isolation. It’s the lack of opportunity and what we are talking about here is relatively high density,” she says. “There aren’t more than four story buildings, so it’s more like looking at nice townhouse apartment buildings of a moderate size. It’s not high density.”

And what if redevelopment fails? What if the dream of better housing and more inclusive neighborhoods never materialized?

“If no redevelopment were to occur, then our public housing would continue to crumble and the Housing Authority would ultimately go bankrupt without a significant, ongoing infusion of funds from city taxpayers,” says Norris in an e-mail. The Housing Authority operates a multi-million dollar budget that is generated from collected rents and governmental subsidy.

“Redevelopment offers the promise of opening up alternate revenue streams for the Housing Authority while improving the quality of housing for our residents. Failure of redevelopment would also perpetuate the isolation and segregation of low-income residents (largely African-American) from the surrounding community and from the broader market economy, which only perpetuates the unfair stigma of living in public housing and the stubborn resilience of poverty itself,” says Norris.

For Harold Folley, a community organizer with Virginia Organizing who grew up in Westhaven and raised his children there, redevelopment is a “wonderful idea” that will bring new life to all public housing sites.

“I think it’s very important to the residents because residents have to live in a nice, clean and safe environment. That’s in the Housing Authority mission statement,” he says. Folley adds that it is equally important for the city, because with the idea of transforming the sites into mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods, “people of Charlottesville are ready to live beside a poor person,” he says.

But if the redevelopment process fails, the message that it would send the residents is “that no one cares about them, nobody cares about the issue,” says Folley. “It’s always the poor who get left [behind] when it’s time to do anything. The people who live in public housing already feel like people don’t care about them, don’t want them here in the city and it would make them feel even more disappointed.”

Regardless of what financial scenario presents itself in the future, redevelopment of the city’s public housing sites is about more than just buildings. It’s about a city’s chance to make up for its divisive history by creating a new kind of American city.

“What we want to do is create mixed-income neighborhoods in their place that are not neglected, that have better amenities, that have better quality housing and have better access to jobs and we know that this is going to go a long way in reversing the circumstances in which many of our lowest income families live and to change the dynamics of poverty in Charlottesville,” says Norris. “This is no small endeavor. This is a pretty big deal.”

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