Albemarle’s Planning Commission is working to improve the way the county can best provide affordable living choices to its residents.

The commission’s recommendations will be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors later this year as it considers changes to the 2005 Affordable Housing Policy and whether to make it part of the updated Comprehensive Plan.

Current policy sets expectations for the development community as to the affordable housing support its members will need to include in a rezoning request. At a minimum, Albemarle expects 15 percent of new homes to be deemed affordable or for the developer to provide an equivalent cash contribution.

“It’s pretty much the developer’s decision,” said Wayne Cilimberg, Albemarle’s director of planning. “They craft the proffers based around what they interpret the policy to be and, in discussions with staff, what we’ve indicated what we could look at.”

Proffers are the voluntary contributions made by a developer to mitigate project impacts and to help gain the support of local officials for a rezoning request. They may include cash, open space, transportation improvements, school sites, but always some contributions toward affordable housing.

Albemarle’s housing director, Ron White, told the commission at a work session earlier this week that recent cash proffers for affordable housing have been used either as down-payment assistance or to repair existing affordable housing units. Since the policy was approved, $476,809 has been received and of that amount, $411,385 has been invested for those purposes.

“If you want to look at a comprehensive affordable housing goal, it’s not just creating new units, but also, in some way, maintaining the existing stock,” White said.

Housing refurbishment in the county also has been paid for through community development block grants. This year, a $700,000 block grant was appropriated to the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program and the county to rehabilitate, repair and upgrade about 25 homes in Crozet’s Orchard Acres.

“Cash in lieu [of housing] is important if it can be directed to rehabilitation activities similar to what Albemarle Housing Improvement has done over the years,” White said.

However, some view the use of proffered funds to rehab homes as unfair to new-home builders and a contributor to higher home prices.

“When this policy first came forward, I was quoted as saying you just made housing more expensive for 85 percent of your buyers,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum. “The monies that come for affordable housing come from new-home buyers.”

“If you are sitting in a home that is being refurbished by AHIP through a community development block grant that’s being funded by new-home buyers and there’s no deed restriction, your house gets improved and you sell it … you have won the lottery,” Williamson added. “Great program, [but] it’s the wrong bucket of money to take it from.”

In response, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s Jeff Werner said the market would dictate housing prices more than added costs a developer pays for affordable housing.

“[Developers] used to say, ‘If only you would let us build more [houses], we could make housing affordable,’” Werner said. “We’ve got 8,000 and some units [in the county] that have been approved, and they’re not being built.”

The disruption of the housing market also has limited construction of new affordable housing. Most of the 1,167 proffered affordable units have not been built and White has used the flexibility in the housing policy to apply cash proffers toward filling and maintaining existing homes.

“The proffer system is not in the Comprehensive Plan,” White explained to the commissioners. “It ends up looking a little bit different in every one of the proffers that are done and I don’t know if we can get to a point of standardizing that, but certainly we want to look at the practical side, as well as the overall Comprehensive Plan.”

Williamson cautioned against further changes without more information.

“Where would each commissioner place Albemarle County’s affordable housing efforts, and is the system broken?” Williamson asked. “Is the affordable housing proffer broken, and if it is, what part of it is broken and how do we fix it?”

On that, Werner agreed.

“I think we need a more sincere conversation about this,” Werner said. “We need facts, and figures, and we need a really honest and sincere conversation,”

The county will convene an Affordable Housing Policy Working Group to provide guidance and consideration to potential changes. Don Franco and Richard Randolph agreed to represent the commission in the group.

“The intention of the group’s work, and ultimately the product that comes out of that, is to bring … the guts of a policy recommendation for the Comprehensive Plan section regarding affordable housing,” Cilimberg said.

The working group will meet in early July.