Taking action: Hate rally fuels momentum for new affordable housing coalition

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Friendship Court faces redevelopment, but with pledges to keep its low-income housing.
File photo Friendship Court faces redevelopment, but with pledges to keep its low-income housing. File photo

Neo-Nazis and affordable housing may not seem directly connected, but in the wake of the white supremacist rally on August 12, a new coalition of grassroots activists and nonprofit groups is linking the two in a push for more homes for poorer Charlottesville residents.

The Charlottesville Coalition for Low-Income Housing, formed earlier this year, has gathered significant momentum since the alt-right rally, as key members tie the city’s lack of affordable housing to racism and local white supremacist policies.

“Opposing racism means real action, such as acknowledging that the rapid demographic change in Charlottesville is linked to high rents, inadequate affordable housing stock and limited economic and educational opportunity for low-income communities,” says Mary Bauer, the executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center in an August 22 letter to City Manager Maurice Jones, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas and members of City Council.

Bauer wrote the five-page letter on behalf of the Public Housing Association of Residents, which Legal Aid Justice Center represents, and she demanded answers from the city about why it failed to protect its low-income housing residents, citing a group of armed alt-righters who marched near Friendship Court August 12 and left residents shaken.

The new coalition consists of PHAR, Legal Aid Justice Center, Showing Up for Racial Justice and Together C’Ville. Attorney Jeff Fogel, former planning commission chair William Harris and former NAACP chapter president Rick Turner have also attended meetings.

The group is focusing efforts on educating the public about form-based code, a different type of zoning the city is in the process of adopting within the Strategic Investment Area, a large section of land south of downtown. Form-based code focuses on a building’s size and style, rather than its use. Critics fear the new code could accelerate development, while dramatically changing the appearance, function and occupancy of buildings.

The community affected by form-based code is typically given an opportunity to share its ideas and desires through a public input process, called charettes, which then form the backbone and underlying guidelines for the code.

Elaine Poon, the managing attorney at Legal Aid, says the city has scheduled the charettes for the week of September 11-14, and she worries that if low-income residents are not engaged in the charette process, the eventual form-based code may not have key elements in place that would guarantee the construction of more affordable housing.

“This is a boom time for Charlottesville, property values are going through the roof,” says Poon. Unless steps are taken now by community members, the city’s lowest-income residents may no longer be able to afford to live in Charlottesville in the future, she says.

More than 470 people have signed a Change.org coalition letter to councilors, petitioning them to “stop displacement and expand affordable housing for extremely low-income people,” and noting that the population of African-Americans within the SIA from 2000-2012 has decreased 12 percent—a sign of gentrification.

To help energize residents in demanding their voices be heard, the coalition is bringing an experienced voice from Chicago. Willie “J.R” Fleming is the executive director for the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and the vice president of Black Chicago Development Coalition. For the past eight years, he’s fought against the displacement of Chicago’s low-income communities.

Fleming is coming courtesy of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which coalition member Laura Goldblatt, a post-doctoral fellow at UVA, recently received.

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