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Albemarle officials briefed on affordable housing issues
Ron White and Stacy Pethias
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Credit: Sean Tubbs, Charlottesville Tomorrow
Albemarle Housing Chief Ron White (left) and Charlottesville Housing Program Coordinator Stacy Pethia (right)
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Sean Tubbs | Tuesday, September 20, 2016 at 9:27 p.m.

Representatives from several housing organizations spent Tuesday evening explaining to the Albemarle County Planning Commission how each is doing its part to address one of the region’s most pressing issues.

“We would like to essentially put some focus on the affordable housing that’s proposed in the county’s Comprehensive Plan,” said Commissioner Pam Riley. “We’d really like to foster greater regional cooperation and provide more opportunities for affordable housing.”

The Comprehensive Plan calls for the county to “provide affordable housing options for low- to moderate-income residents of Albemarle County.” Another objective calls for cooperation with the city of Charlottesville “to provide a range of housing types that support various incomes, age and levels of mobility.”

However, the region’s high quality of life and affluence have caused both the cost of land and the cost of construction to skyrocket.

“Land costs and construction costs and development costs are putting the ability of builders to build an affordable unit … closer to not being [possible],” said Ron White, the county’s housing chief. “There’s a pretty significant incline in the trends for the cost of construction in the county, and that’s land and development costs.”

White appeared before the commission with several of his colleagues to talk through the problem and to identify solutions.

Earlier this year, Charlottesville’s City Council and the Albemarle Board of Supervisors signed a series of memorandums of understanding, including one that addresses affordable housing.

Stacy Pethias, Charlottesville’s new housing coordinator, said the biggest program in the city is the affordable housing fund.

“Since 2008 we have produced and assisted the development of approximately 163 affordable units,” Pethias said.

The head of the Albemarle Home Improvement Program said her nonprofit seeks to keep families in existing houses through rehabilitation assistance.

“What we do is provide critical home repairs to families in Albemarle and Charlottesville,” said Jennifer Jacobs, AHIP’s executive director. “We see ourselves as preservers of existing affordable housing stock.”

Jacobs said the organization also seeks to target key neighborhoods.

“We just found that we in the county got a big grant to renovate 30 houses in Alberene over the next few years,” she said.

Another organization helps build new housing stock with the assistance of future residents.

“We help families learn skills to build their home and to take care of their mortgages,” said Dan Rosensweig, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville. “In this way, we’ve served about 200 families in the community who are now homeowners.”

A relatively new entrant into the affordable housing scene had the chance to talk about its efforts.

“We make housing affordable to low- and moderate-income families at less than 80 percent of the area median income by removing the cost of the land from the cost equation,” said Frazier Bell, chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Community Land Trust.

So far the land trust has five homes in its portfolio and another one awaiting closing. Habitat currently is working with the land trust to build two homes on Cleveland Avenue in the city.

“It’s not for everybody but it’s another tool for affordable housing,” Bell said.

Bell said prospective families must go through financial counseling to determine eligibility, and that is a service that the Piedmont Housing Alliance offers.

“Our mission is to create housing opportunities and create community through education and development,” said Shelley Murphy, the PHA’s director of program services.

Murphy said one of the obstacles to more people becoming homeowners is bad credit. She said PHA has had little luck with a program targeted to get people to purchase homes in the city’s Orangedale neighborhood.

“We’ve got 10 to 15 people who could go in there but they have to clean up their credit,” Murphy said. “The qualifying that’s necessary to pay mortgages is a barrier because people are typically not ready.”

Albemarle and other Virginia localities had one potential tool taken away earlier this year when the General Assembly passed legislation that changed the proffer system. Albemarle had required that either 15 percent of new units be designated as affordable or that a developer pay a cash proffer, but that system is no longer in place.

White said the cash proffer system was one of the county’s biggest affordable housing policies.

“Over 1,000 housing units and approximately $1.5 million in cash contributions were accepted,” White said. “Development of these units has been relatively slow, with only 20 percent constructed to date.”

White said that without the proffer system it is possible the county will work more closely with community partners.

“Working with Habitat and the land trust are two opportunities we can use where they have to have their own financing mechanisms,” White said.

Rosensweig recommended commissioners pursue a broad-based solution of tools to create affordable housings because different families have different needs. He said there is no one solution to the affordable housing issue.

At the end of the meeting, some commissioners said they are hopeful that community partnerships will continue to grow and that there will be more awareness of the complexities of housing prices.

“These are issues that really need to be daylighted in a broader manner,” said Tim Keller, chairman of the Planning Commission.
 

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