The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME Investment Partnerships Program, two grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are drops
in the bucket when it comes to the city’s housing budget. But like other federal funds, they’re drying up at a time when the city’s affordable housing crisis is a high priority.
The HOME grant is designed exclusively for development of affordable housing, but CDBG allows localities to be more creative when allocating the funds—a point of contention for some.
Neighborhood Development Grants Coordinator Melissa Thackston, who manages the dispersal of resources like CDBG, said it’s getting more difficult each year to determine which pots to drop the money in.
“We get about five times more requests than what we have the money to fund,” Thackston said. “It gets very competitive, and we fund as many as we can, but sometimes at a reduced amount.”
Thackston noted that CDBG is one of a select few funding resources that addresses housing, as opposed to the wider variety of dollars for social programming.
City Councilor and architect Kathy Galvin is the Council’s chief proponent of a more diverse approach to distributing the funds. She said she’d like to see some housing money, including CDBG funds, go toward more than just home construction and repair. Addressing the buildings themselves isn’t enough, she said—development needs to include things like sidewalks, street trees, and sewers.
“We need to make sure the whole neighborhood gets an overall improvement, not just individual properties,” Galvin said.
As money for home construction and repairs becomes increasingly less available, Galvin said it’s time to start addressing the city’s affordable housing needs in a more creative way.
“We need to make sure people have income and can afford housing to begin with,” she said. “We haven’t looked at housing in this way; we turn a blind eye to it. But housing can’t be done in a vacuum anymore.”
Charlottesville is one of about 1,200 localities nationwide to qualify for the CDBG program, which funds “community development needs,” including affordable housing and public improvements like sidewalks and storm drains. This fiscal year, the city was granted $441,300 in CDBG funding, 40 percent less than it received a decade ago. City Council voted to allocate $200,000 to developing and improving next fiscal year’s “priority neighborhood,” 10th and Page; 20 percent to economic development purposes like the Community Investment Collaborative; 15 percent to social programming like GED classes; and the remaining 20 percent to administration and planning. The breakdown is nearly identical to those of past years, and city councilors voted unanimously to approve the priorities after little discussion.
Charlottesville is home to dozens of social programs, which provide and advocate for everything from low-income childcare to job readiness and technical training. The problem, Galvin said, is that all these different agencies with similar missions are circling the pot of money and competing with one another.
“In an era of diminishing public dollars, we’re seeing agencies having to band together and consolidate,” Galvin said, noting the city’s recent decision to fund a coordinator position to address homeless needs only after The Haven, The Crossings, and PACEM agreed to combine administrative costs. “It’s going to take that kind of thinking over and over again.”
Public Housing Association of Residents organizer Brandon Collins, a vocal supporter of public housing and advocate for low-income residents’ needs, said he’s tired of seeing so few tangible results each year. Social programming and economic development are great in theory, he said, but things like technical training and job readiness won’t change the fact that there simply are not enough reasonably priced homes in Charlottesville.
“In my mind, there’s a rush to use these funds on a lot of things that aren’t brick and mortar housing for people,” he said. “In a city where we have an affordable housing crisis, that’s a problem. It’s one thing to pull money together, but you’re still not building any housing.”
He agrees with Galvin on one count, though, and said he’d like to see agencies like the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program, Habitat for Humanity, and the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, come together in some way to share resources.
“The issue with all those programs is that they’re all competing for the same funds,” Collins said. “And it’s not always easy to see which one works.”
City officials may be getting choosier each year when it comes to allocating funds, but according to federal officials, towns like Charlottesville may actually be getting more than their fair share when it comes to HUD money.
The CDBG program, which was established in 1974, allocates money to communities based on one of two needs-based formulas, depending on population growth versus population lag. HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said it’s becoming more difficult to accurately determine a city or county’s eligibility based on the formulas.
In college towns like Charlottesville, for example, the population of students with little to no income living in off-campus housing contributes to a town’s calculated poverty level, indicating a higher need for federal funds.
Sullivan said it may be time to for Congress to reevaluate how eligible communities are determined, which could mean even fewer resources for localities like Charlottesville. But the formulas haven’t changed since 1978, and he said he’s not holding his breath.
“Increasingly, money’s going to places that don’t need it as much as others,” Sullivan said. “People would suggest that’s a problem, and it’s not getting better, only worse.”