Temporary housing: Will Friendship Court stay affordable without federal funding?

Amanda Reads, a Friendship Court resident and mother of two, said she never imagined she’d still be living in subsidized housing after 10 years. Photo: John Robinson Amanda Reads, a Friendship Court resident and mother of two, said she never imagined she’d still be living in subsidized housing after 10 years. Photo: John Robinson

When Amanda Reads moved to Friendship Court in 2003, she figured she’d only be there for a few years, tops. Nearly 10 years later, she and her two daughters are still living in a three-bedroom unit in the subsidized housing neighborhood that used to be Garrett Square, with little hope of moving on.

“I’ll be here until I’m able to get back on my feet,” she said. “I hope that I’m eventually gone, and not because they said I have to.”

Like the majority of Friendship Court residents, 32-year-old Reads is a single mother whose only source of income is child support. Unemployed since February, she stays at home with her 4-year-old daughter because it’s easier than spending an entire paycheck on childcare, and she relies on project-based Section 8 vouchers from the Virginia Housing and Development Authority (VHDA), approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to cover the cost of her monthly rent. The contract between VHDA and the owners of Friendship Court, which regulated the monthly subsidies, expires at the end of 2017. If the neighborhood transitions away from affordable housing, Reads said she’d probably be forced to move back in with her mother. A lot of tenants, though, might not be so lucky.

Experts agree that subsidized neighborhoods like Friendship Court are intended to be stepping stones for residents to move out of poverty and into self-sufficiency, but many residents end up relying on the subsidies for decades. Its future as a low-income development is up in the air, and while some think a transition to a mixed-income community could be the answer, others worry that a drastic change could do more harm than good —especially in a city that already has a shortage of affordable housing.

Friendship Court, the four-block apartment complex between Garrett Street and Monticello Avenue, a block away from the Downtown Mall, is jointly owned by the local nonprofit Piedmont Housing Alliance and the National Housing Trust, which partners with local entities to preserve affordable housing. The owners entered a Housing Assistance Payments (HAP) contract with VHDA, which requires them to rent all 150 units of Friendship Court to low-income families. The agreement guarantees federal subsidy vouchers for all residents, who pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. For qualifying non-working families like the Reads, the subsidy covers rent in its entirety.

The contract ends in December 2017, and according to PHA Executive Director Stu Armstrong, the owners signed on for an extended affordability period of 15 years. Friendship Court isn’t going anywhere, he said, but with the tax credits gone and no guarantee that HUD will continue providing funding, it could begin to serve a different demographic. The 15-year agreement says the neighborhood must serve families making less than 60 percent of the area median income.

For a family of four in Charlottesville, that’s about $40,000. The average Friendship Court tenant earns roughly $10,000 per year.

“It would still be defined the exact same legally,” Armstrong said of the term ‘affordable.’ “Just the people living there wouldn’t be given $700 a month in rent.”

NHT President Michael Bodaken emphasized the fact that, regardless of what the future holds for Friendship Court, any changes won’t come up for several more years. The property has a lot of possibilities, he said, but residents shouldn’t panic or move out preemptively.

“The worst possible thing is to get rumors started,” he said.

Bodaken and Armstrong said there’s no reason to alarm anybody by talking about the redevelopment of Friendship Court right now, but collaborating with residents will be essential when the time comes.

“A year from that date, we’ll start having a conversation with the City of Charlottesville and the residents,” Bodaken said. “It’s going to be a long, difficult discussion if we’re going to convert it, and we want to make sure the residents don’t get hurt.”

Democratic City Council candidate Wes Bellamy, who founded the youth achievement program Helping Young People Evolve, spends time nearly every afternoon reaching out to Charlottesville’s low-income neighborhoods. As someone who interacts regularly with parents and children in affordable housing, he thinks the conversation about Friendship Court should start now.

When Amanda Reads moved to Friendship Court in 2003, she figured she’d only be there for a few years, tops. Photo: John Robinson
When Amanda Reads moved to Friendship Court in 2003, she figured she’d only be there for a few years, tops. Photo: John Robinson

“I definitely disagree with putting it off,” Bellamy said. “We have to make sure they’re able to prepare. It’s not that you’re scaring people—just making them aware of what could potentially happen.”

Bellamy said he understands the fear of displacement, which would be the worst case scenario for Friendship Court. But if tenants are involved with the process and the owners could guarantee a one-to-one ratio of affordable and market-rate homes, a mixed income community “may be beneficial to all.”

“There’s a lot of worry, because nobody here has seen it yet,” he said. “So we have to be able to show the residents that this model will work, and also assure them that it will not be another Vinegar Hill.”

As someone who lived in public housing as a kid and moved into a mixed-income neighborhood with his family at age 9, Bellamy said putting low-income and market-rate homes side-by-side can have a tremendous effect on families.

“I got a chance to see people who had different professions, and it had a good impact on me,” he said. “The things I saw around me motivated me to be the best individual that I can be.”

Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Dan Rosensweig has led the local effort to transform the area’s poverty-stricken trailer parks into mixed-income neighborhoods, and is a vocal proponent for the model. As far as Friendship Court goes, he said the property, with its open space and proximity to the Downtown Mall, is incredibly valuable. He described the parcel as unlike any other in the city and “ripe with possibilities,” and he expects planners would love to transform it in a way that would connect the corridor with the Downtown Mall and surrounding neighborhood. But regardless of its development potential, he said, eliminating its affordability would be a disaster.

“There’s a limited stock of affordable housing in this town,” Rosensweig said. “There’s already simply no place for people to go. We’d be talking about exacerbating what’s already a crisis.”

Armstrong said PHA has no intention of causing any such disaster.

“We committed to these people when we did this deal,” he said. “Our mission is to not ever displace anybody. We could not guarantee that piece of real estate 100 percent, but we’re not in the business of making people homeless.”

If PHA buys it out from NHT and becomes the sole owner, Armstrong said Friendship Court’s rules and overall scope could change for the better. Money from the city’s housing fund, for example, could give PHA more flexibility and more power to be selective, like a “governor’s school of housing.”

“If it was general funds from the city, we might have different rules about subsidizing,” Armstrong said. “If the voucher comes from HUD, there are certain things I can’t demand from you, like getting a job or going through a financial literacy class.”

City Councilor Kathy Galvin, an urban planner who’s been actively involved with the Strategic Investment Area planning, said city funding for Friendship Court might be an option if it came down to it. City Council has allocated housing money to Habitat for Humanity projects in the past, she said, and partnerships with local housing providers is something the city values.

“I don’t see why that wouldn’t be possible,” she said.

Galvin said she often hears from housing residents that they don’t want to be “diluted,” and would rather maintain the identity of a minority community.

“Well, that’s illegal,” Galvin said. “We don’t do racial segregation anymore. But I can tell you, I am committed to keeping that neighborhood diverse.”

Politicians and developers agree that the residents need to be involved in the conversation about Friendship Court’s future. But Galvin said engaging a population that already feels alienated from the rest of the community can be a challenge.

“When people of a whole group feel that way, I think their tendency is to not trust anybody outside of that group,” she said. “I’m not asking you to trust me yet. I’m just telling you that I’m working for you.”

Rhiannon Williams, a 32-year-old mother of three who’s lived in Friendship Court for 17 years, said she doesn’t feel like anybody is working for her.  A 2005 GED  recipient who’s been working toward a psychology degree at Piedmont Virginia Com-
munity College, Williams works part-time as a housekeeper and wants to be a child psychologist so she can move her family into a “nicer neighborhood.” A lifelong Charlottesville resident, she said she has always felt disconnected from the rest of the city, and hates being perceived as a “ghetto woman” because she lives in subsidized housing.

Williams is in the middle of a lengthy custody battle over her daughter, and said she’s been charged by the Department of Social Services with abuse and neglect. She said she can’t help but wonder how the court proceedings would go if court documents didn’t reveal her address.

“I get stereotyped because I’m a black single mother who lives in Friendship Court,” she said.

If found guilty of abuse and neglect, Williams will lose her eligibility to work with children and become a psychologist—then she’s back at square one, looking for a way out of public housing. Uncertainty about what will happen to the neighborhood she’s called home for nearly two decades—for better or for worse—is another layer of worry.

“I guess I’d have to leave Virginia,” she said. “I can’t afford to live anywhere else.”