Mailbag: Charlottesville’s housing crisis is self-inflicted

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Behind older homes in the city’s 10th and Page neighborhood, a new student housing complex is nearing completion. Charlottesville is one of Virginia’s least affordable places to live, but making the market more equitable is a tall task. Photo: John Robinson Behind older homes in the city’s 10th and Page neighborhood, a new student housing complex is nearing completion. Charlottesville is one of Virginia’s least affordable places to live, but making the market more equitable is a tall task. Photo: John Robinson

Free market housing

Recently this paper published an article about the well-documented problem of Charlottesville’s housing unaffordability. It claimed that nearly half the city’s population now pays over 30 percent of income on housing, making it Virginia’s second-costliest city.

To a degree this problem exists because many residents here are unemployed or hold low-wage jobs. But it is also because of Charlottesville’s high housing costs. From 2000-2010, average home values doubled to $321,000, with rents rising as well. And while an inflated market has contributed to this, so too have local policies, which, like in other highly-sought-after cities, have prevented supply from meeting demand. To understand how this has lessened affordability here, just look at San Francisco, where I spent much of 2012 studying, and which mirrors Charlottesville’s situation.

San Francisco is a place that outsiders pay dearly to live in, but that existing residents fight to protect. The government has accommodated these outsiders somewhat by allowing mild amounts of new development. But mainly it channels into law the city’s spirit of NIMBYism. It does this with various zoning regulations—from height limitations to setback requirements—that drastically reduce how many units can go on given lots.

Before construction, developers endure multi-year approval processes that address numerous, often unnecessary factors, far in excess of those found in other cities. This adds costs that ultimately get passed onto customers, and sometimes discourages construction altogether.

As a result, San Francisco is America’s most expensive city, and one of a few, writes economist Edward Glaeser, where “because of zoning and other land use controls…the price of housing is significantly higher than construction costs.” This has harmed its poorest residents, who have rapidly been forced to move out; and the environment, since these exiles often just occupy cheaper suburban housing, gobbling up the Bay Area.

Unfortunately the same mentality threatens Charlottesville. In recent years, attempts by various city bureaucracies to stifle housing growth have included:

– The Planning Commission’s strengthening of an ordinance that discourages development on “critical slopes.”

– The unwillingness of the CRHA to redevelop public housing at greater densities, even though this was recommended by consultants, and would add to the housing stock.

– Numerous design rejections by the Board of Architectural Review, which have so frustrated developers like Gabe Silverman that he publicly stated his hesitations about doing future work here.  

– The constant refusal by City Council to grant density increases and/or speed up the approval for numerous developments, including recent ones proposed for Cherry Avenue, Eton Road, Rose Hill Drive, and Quarry Road.

These incidences just exacerbate the broader problems of the zoning code itself, which favors suburbanized, low-density development throughout most the city. What has resulted are the same problems here that have become urban buzzwords in San Francisco—gentrification, displacement, sprawl, and the suburbanization of poverty. This is evident in city population numbers, which since 1990 have increased only by 3,000, while metro Charlottesville has grown by over 40 percent to over 200,000. And it has been most problematic in black neighborhoods, causing councilor Dede Smith to complain that “what we’re losing is our history.”

Yet council’s response to this “severe deficit” (in TJPDC’s words) of affordable housing is the same as in other cities. Having mistaken it as a market failure, rather than the work of their own policies, they have subsidized new housing at taxpayer expense, through a combination of local non-profits, government projects, and a $1.4 million fund. They also demand that builders seeking special use permits make a percentage of their units affordable, even though economists widely agree that this discourages development and increases costs for market-rate units.

What would result if, instead of all this, council merely deregulated land uses in Charlottesville? Even skeptics who agree that this would increase housing still think those units would be unaffordable. But Ed Olsen, a UVA economics professor who specializes in housing policy, said doing this can bring downward pressures on nearby units. The example he used was the Venable neighborhood, where residential homes tend to become subdivided by students, thus pricing out families. When the city rezoned the nearby Wertland area for mid-rise apartments, many students began flocking there instead, easing pressure on Venable. The lesson, he explained, is that “how the city zones properties certainly can have an effect on prices,” sending them up or down based on the permissiveness of given regulations.

This lesson should inspire a looser approach for other Charlottesville areas. Like in Wertland, more housing could be encouraged on West Main, Cherry, JPA, and the aptly-titled “Strategic Investment Area” south of Downtown. Deregulating them, through easier permitting and rezoning for higher density, would relieve the costs of development and encourage more units. Then Charlottesville would be better prepared not only for the ongoing influx of new residents, but for the longtime ones who wish to remain.

Scott Beyer is a Charlottesville native who is writing a book on revitalizing U.S. cities through “Market Urbanism.” He also writes weekly columns on urban development for his blog, BigCitySparkplug.com

Fit the crime 

Imagine how heartbroken survivors of rape and domestic abuse must feel now that the petition to remove Chris Dumler from the Board of Supervisors has been denied, allowing him to resign on his own terms. That Dumler was handed the reins of the judicial process—first with the offer of a plea deal, then with a token sentence served at his convenience, and finally this—illustrates that the courts’ priority was to preserve a man’s career rather than to protect the women he sexually assaulted.

This unwillingness to punish Chris Dumler sends the message to the next woman or girl agonizing over whether to report a sexual assault, that if she stands up to her attacker, our courts will defend him instead of her, especially if he’s a popular white guy. Even if her attacker admits guilt, he’s likely to suffer few consequences, or none at all.

Judging by the actions of many in our community, this traumatized person might also expect to have her integrity doubted every step of the way. She could be accused of having some kind of agenda, or of making it all up, and be subjected to a barrage of cruel comments and harassment on news sites and social media.

If, after seeing all that Dumler’s victims went through, this person is still courageous enough to press charges against the man who raped her, no doubt those same critics will have the audacity to question why she ever hesitated to come forward. But I hope she sees that at least some people understood the seriousness of Chris Dumler’s pattern of violence against women, even if their efforts were in vain. This case makes it clear why so many rapes go unreported.

Russell U. Richards

Charlottesville

  • cm123

    Being voted the ‘best place to live’ around 2000 caused us nothing but heartache, as our town was unabashedly oversold. This helped to drive out many hometown residents. Then, the Real Estate bubble followed the tech-bubble, even as we vocalized concerns over those issues. No surprise.

  • Lifelong Cvillian

    Since you’re someone professionally concerned in this area, I’d expect you to make argumentation when here when you cite “the Planning Commission’s strengthening of an ordinance that discourages development on “critical slopes.” as “an “attempt to stifle growth,”: It may be that this is the real agenda but you don’t make a case, only an unsubstantiated claim.

  • Wanting others to think

    This town in attractive because of the limitations set on what can be done. That is WHY people want to live here. Start building more eyesores of huge apartment complexes and piling in houses everywhere you can get and it will be awful to live here. Everyone might flock in for a bit but then it will just be another drab, ugly overpopulated town.

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