Horrible history: New report details racist past, next steps for Charlottesville housing

Activists hope Charlottesville will build new public housing, like Westhaven, pictured above. Photo: Jack Looney Activists hope Charlottesville will build new public housing, like Westhaven, pictured above. Photo: Jack Looney


Charlottesville has an affordable housing crisis: that’s not exactly breaking news. Local activists have been working for years to elevate the issue, and the city government has become more and more responsive. The most recent city budget devotes $31.2 million over five years to various affordable housing initiatives. (The city has announced it will have to delay the budget process and find $5 million to cut to account for the economic effects of the coronavirus.)

The work is far from over, though, as evidenced by a new report from the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition. The Impact of Racism on Affordable Housing in Charlottesville chronicles the past, present, and future of this crisis. (The full 93-page report can be viewed here.)

“More than 50 people have touched this report at some point,” says Elaine Poon, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center and one of the document’s co-authors. “It’s been a pretty big labor of love for the group.”

The report’s most moving component is an extensive survey of residents of historically black neighborhoods in town. Their testimonies lay bare the causes and effects of gentrification: “I work three jobs every day, pay taxes, and can’t seem to purchase a home in a place that is supposed to be an affordable housing area,” one anonymous respondent said.

“The waiting lists for housing are really long. Me and my baby were basically homeless, even though I was working full-time. It took a really long time for us to find anything,” says another.

“The Black population has to move because they don’t make enough to sustain themselves in the city,” says another commenter.

“Sixty years later we are still being treated like we’re prisoners. But our only crime is that we didn’t invest our money, because we didn’t have any money to invest.”

The list of quotes like these goes on and on.

Gloria Beard, who has lived in 10th and Page for 46 years, echoes the anonymous comments in the report.

“You know the price that they put on these houses once they remodel them? If I left today or tomorrow, I could never come back to this neighborhood—which I called mine at one time,” Beard says. “Now it doesn’t even feel like a neighborhood. I come from a time when we knew our neighbors. We sat on the porch and hollered at each other. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

The report includes a section that traces the racist history of the housing crisis over the last century. Charlottesville voted to legally segregate the city in 1912. Once that was declared unconstitutional, individual deeds prohibiting the sale of houses to non-caucasian people became the norm. An early Charlottesville zoning map, which has not changed much in the last 60 years, was drawn by the design firm of Harland Bartholomew, a well-known and influential city planner whose strategies legally entrenched segregation in cities across the nation. In 1964, the city razed predominantly black Vinegar Hill, citing “slum clearance.”

“Charlottesville has a long history of intentionally zoning neighborhoods to segregate based on race and class and to limit the ability of low-income people of color to build wealth through property ownership,” the report says.

“[10th and Page] became a black neighborhood because the white people didn’t want us to live in their neighborhood,” Beard says. “Now here they come, all of them coming, from miles around, out of town, buying these houses.”

Poon says the report will be handed over to the consultants who have been charged with rewriting Charlottesville’s zoning code, and she thinks it will show them the “journey we’ve already been on as a city.” She also says aspiring local activists have often asked her group for “somewhere I can look to catch up to speed” on the thorny and complicated issue, and thinks this report will provide a good starting point.

“People know this information. At this point it’s really just a compendium, just putting it all in one place,” Poon says.

The report’s final section suggests steps that Charlottesville can take to continue to address the issue. Some of them are relatively straightforward—it re-emphasizes that members of low-income communities need to be involved in decision-making about low-income housing. The report also says the city ought undergo an internal staff review of all new projects from an equity lens, and include that information in councilors’ packets about new projects. In addition, the city is urged to define “affordable” more narrowly, targeting relief to those most affected.

At the same time, this huge problem will need huge solutions, and the report asks for those, as well. It advocates for various forms of reparations for black families. It says the zoning code rewrite should include “restricting by-right development to affordable units for extremely low-income people,” meaning in most of the city, all new construction that wasn’t low-income housing would need council approval. The report advocates for pro bono representation in eviction hearings as a way of combating homelessness, and pushes Charlottesville to institute rent control.

Some of these policies, like rent control, will not be possible without state approval or a repeal of the Dillon Rule. “Enacting rent control might be possible in Charlottesville someday, though it will take an immense amount of advocacy,” the report says.

Poon thinks this document can be part of that advocacy. “The community at large needs to understand the why, so that those big picture issues are more understandable,” she says. “When someone reads some of the history, it’s very difficult for me to imagine not wanting dramatic change after reading that.”


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