City looks long-term for affordable housing

City looks long-term for affordable housing

Since 2006, the number of affordable housing units priced under $100,000 in Charlottesville dropped by over 300, from 479 to 144 in 2008. During that time, the city’s focus on affordable housing has shifted from providing housing to middle-class residents to addressing the lack of low-income housing and its homeless problem. From that focus, two solutions are emerging that could fundamentally change the way the city tackles its affordable housing problems.

Previous coverage:

Housing authority readies for redevelopment
Faces challenges of how to handle public housing

“In the last five or 10 years, we’ve become more aggressive at addressing the need for moderate-income, work-force housing,” says Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris. “Where we haven’t invested hardly anything is the 0 to 30 percent area median income.”

This comes at a time when the 376 units of city public housing are full, with a waiting list 875 people deep.

The city will commit $2.4 million to affordable housing this year, $1 million of it from its Economic Strategic Incentive Fund. One of the projects that Norris calls “our best opportunity” is the redevelopment of public housing into mixed-income housing.

Last year, the city spent $50,000 on redevelopment master planning, and Norris says he expects to spend more this year. The $300,000 proffer from the condo project on the corner of West Main Street and Ridge/McIntire Road is designated for redevelopment.

But talk of redevelopment brings with it memories of Urban Renewal. The city plans to take groups of people to other cities that have tried similar redevelopments. Norris, though, says that many were built without enough resident involvement and, rather than integrating the community, served to displace the public-housing residents.

“To me, if we do nothing else but run with this project—which is a huge project—the potential is tremendous,” says Norris. “There’s a lot of fear from residents that we’re going to come in and pull a Vinegar Hill on them, and I understand that. We’ve got to make sure there’s full resident participation.”

Norris says that the city must shift its focus on affordable housing to a longer-term view. This includes addressing the city’s growing homeless problem, particularly chronic homelessness and the working poor living in temporary shelters, and not just looking at the middle class.

Mayor Dave Norris says that the city must shift its focus in affordable housing to those earning less than 30 percent of area median income.

“Now things are different,” says City Councilor Holly Edwards. “We’re recognizing the need to stabilize our homeless and to create a system of economic justice, where people have opportunities for housing.”

Edwards talks about the need to get the homeless off the street, then address whatever issue may have forced them there. One way to do this would be to add single room occupancies (SROs). SROs function essentially as long-term transitional housing, giving one person a room in a larger building for a minimal rent, usually 25 or 30 percent of their income or a fee of $25 until they are in a more stabile situation. Many have on-site social services.

Norris calls SROs “the answer to homelessness.” The city is looking to partner with a nonprofit group called Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH), which builds and manages SROs. It doesn’t, however, pay for them. The city will consider funding requests from VSH and is currently trying to identify a site for a possible SRO. The zoning is equivalent to an apartment building.

The cost to the city, though, is hard to determine at this point, since it is dependent on the number of units. Norris says that a VSH project in Norfolk came in at a little under $100,000 per unit. Charlottesville’s number of long-term homeless, says Norris, is relatively small.

“It’s a few dozen people,” he says. “We know them all by name.”

Edwards says the focus of an SRO must be specific to address that population.

“In order for it to be really effective,” she says, “it needs the social support in place. Is an SRO a home, or is it transitional living? Let’s call it what it is from the very beginning. But let’s not build an SRO if we only want people to be there six months and then move.”

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