Area nonprofits resort to buying a hotel to address local housing and homelessness crisis
This story has been updated to clarify information on AMI and housing affordability, the distinction between TJACH and The Haven, the size of the VSH apartments, and the proximity of the Premier Circle project to a public transit stop.
More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no need to restate the havoc it has wrought so far on billions of lives all over the world. We’ve been living it daily: the isolation, the fear, the sadness, the overwhelming and all-consuming grief.
But this one public health crisis has helped alleviate another across the U.S. and here in the Charlottesville area: homelessness. And what began in April 2020 as an effort to provide safe and secure shelter for a few dozen folks experiencing homelessness (adults and children) for the duration of the pandemic has evolved from a temporary housing fix into a housing solution.
It’s not an easy solution, however, and it’s one that addresses, in a variety of ways, the myriad challenges of finding and building reasonably affordable and safe emergency shelter and housing in the Charlottesville area. It’s a solution that proves addressing complex problems can be done, when there’s time, initiative and money to devote to them.
In March, with the help of a $ million grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA) purchased the 405 Premier Circle property — the Red Carpet Inn — on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County. The site will be used for a yearslong multi-phase project that will aim to solve chronic homelessness and other types of housing issues in the area, starting — hopefully — at the end of this month.
“The strange silver lining of the COVID era is that it has brought new resources — federal resources and state resources — to the question [of how to solve homelessness] and re-frames the concept of homelessness as a public health crisis,” said PHA Executive Director Sunshine Mathon. “Not that it wasn’t before — of course it was before — but it brings a new layer of urgency to it and a recognition in particular that in a community, when someone has COVID or there’s a cluster of COVID cases, it’s not just impacting that subset of the community; it impacts all of us because of the risk of contagion. So it is incumbent on our community overall to ensure that people are as safe and healthy as they can be,” said Mathon, and having a safe place to live — a home — is a huge part of that. And if we as a community can ensure that during a pandemic, why not think about how we can ensure it permanently?
Though each of the five nonprofit groups involved in the Premier Circle project — CACF, PHA, Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH), Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) and People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM) — have been closely involved with local housing initiatives of many stripes for years, the project’s roots are in a grant proposal submitted just a year ago to the CACF by PACEM, TJACH and The Haven day shelter.
Last spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its ruthless grip on the world, the CACF opened a couple different programs to help folks facing unemployment, furloughs, illness, food insecurity and a variety of other pandemic-induced hardships. One, the community emergency response fund, included a household assistance program that distributed a few million dollars to thousands of households throughout the region. The other was a rapid response grant program for local nonprofits, and TJACH, PACEM and The Haven applied for funds to move the most vulnerable people in our community — homeless folks, particularly those with medical conditions — off the streets, out of congregate shelter (i.e., sheltering together) and into commercial hotel rooms for the duration of the pandemic to prevent and reduce COVID spread.
CACF would not have been able to fully fund that particular grant while also funding others, in part because the duration of the pandemic is still unknown. But this proposal raised an important question, said Eboni Bugg, a social worker, therapist, educator and advocate who serves as CACF’s director of programs. “What happens after a year? We have no idea how long it’s going to go on. What’s the real solution to this?“
”The pandemic has revealed the limitations of the oft-used congregate shelter model upon which PACEM, TJACH and The Haven, as well as many, many other shelters around the world rely, usually in colder months to keep people from dying from hypothermia. When dealing with a highly contagious and deadly virus that’s spread through the air, via droplets released and absorbed into the mouth and nose, it’s no longer safe to shelter multiple people together in the usual church halls and rec center rooms. And the groups who usually offer up their spaces for day and night shelter are understandably more hesitant to do so.
Many of the temporary non-congregate shelter options — empty dormitories, certain empty hotels slated for renovations — that these groups looked into were a no-go.
In April 2020, PACEM moved its most medically-vulnerable guests into individual hotel rooms at the La Quinta Inn. (PACEM is a low-barrier last resort shelter that does not breathalyze or drug test and does accept sex offenders into its program.) A few months later, in June, PACEM lost its congregate space at Key Recreation Center and relocated the rest of its guests into the La Quinta, more or less putting the hotel at capacity. PACEM moved its staff to the La Quinta as well, said the organization’s executive director, Jayson Whitehead, and PACEM has supervised that project since, providing not just shelter, but intensive case management services to the more than 60 individuals (a few of them have since been housed, said Whitehead).
This was possible, said Whitehead, only because of money in various COVID relief bills earmarked for emergency shelter, “a category that is quite frequently undervalued, because it’s seen as a safety net, a Band-Aid,” but the reality is that folks need emergency shelter all the time, not just during a pandemic. And, as Whitehead points out, it makes sense for the long-established local low-barrier emergency shelter — PACEM — to run the pandemic emergency shelter operation.
Throughout the pandemic, TJACH has raised money for these purposes, as well.
But the pandemic will end at some point, those federal emergency shelter funds will run out and the folks staying in the La Quinta will have to leave. It’s possible that, at the same time, local churches and rec centers might still hesitate to offer up their spaces for lingering COVID concerns. Where, then, will these folks go?
The ultimate goal is that they’ll graduate into a permanent housing situation (that’s what those intensive case management services are for). But there’s no timeline for that; it happens on a case-by-case basis. And then there are the individuals and families who — unable to find secure housing they can afford (a challenge in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area) or a landlord who will accept a housing voucher or who are on the long waitlist for a spot in public housing — slide into homelessness.
Preventing that movement, from housed to not housed, is another crucial aspect of solving homelessness, as each of these groups understands through their work on the Charlottesville area’s housing crisis, either at the grassroots or executive fundraising level.
“These are people that have a track record of not just having been funded, but having successful programs,” said Bugg. “Housing and homelessness are issues that the foundation as a whole is concerned with, the community is concerned with, and, our staff has been significantly invested in time-wise,” said Bugg.
She notes that all of these organizations —TJACH, PACEM, PHA, and VSH — are long-term grantees of CACF funds. The partnership “was something that made sense” said Bugg.
As CACF, TJACH, PACEM and PHA worked together on a short-term solution, they began to envision a long-term one as well, one that would provide not just a temporary emergency shelter but permanent supportive and low-income housing. They brought Virginia Supportive Housing — the group that runs The Crossings at Fourth and Preston — into the conversation, as well.
After hearing about a few cities across the country buying hotels for exactly this purpose, “we left a couple meetings thinking, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to buy a hotel somewhere,’ sort of jokingly,” said Bugg.
A few months later, that’s exactly what they did.
In September, PHA, TJACH and VSH submitted a project proposal narrative to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors to redevelop the Red Carpet Inn to build 140 units of permanent supportive and low-income housing, as well as one building for commercial use, on the property.
The plans included a request to rezone the property from C-1 Commercial (retail sales and service, residential by special use permit) to Neighborhood Model District (residential mixed with commercial, service and industrial use). The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the rezoning on Feb. 17, and in mid-March, Piedmont Housing Alliance purchased the property from Chris Tyler for $4.3 million, $ million of which came from the CACF.
But a few waves immediately rocked community trust in the project, particularly for folks in the community who are unhoused and precariously housed — the very people the Premier Circle project seeks to help.
Local TV news reports about the immediate aftermath of the sale show a handful of long-term guests of the Red Carpet Inn who’d lived in the motel for months, and, in a couple cases, years, shocked and dismayed to learn that the property had been sold and that they’d have to leave their homes and neighbors on just a few days’ notice.
That should not have been the case, said Mathon. “After months of preparation for the purchase of this site, there was a clear understanding that advance notification was the owner’s responsibility and that the closing would occur by mid-March. This was a motel and we had no legal authority to inquire into the status of the guests without information from the owner,” Mathon wrote in a March 13 email to folks who expressed concern after seeing the news reports. “When we discovered that the owner did not properly communicate to residents that they would need to find a different motel by early March, we were deeply disheartened and frustrated. This miscommunication clearly caused a number of guests unnecessary difficulty and anxiety.
“Once we were made aware that several of the guests had been staying long-term at the property, TJACH began reaching out to them and making arrangements to transition them to nearby and comparably priced motels — at no cost to the guests. This process continued to be frustrated by the owner providing incomplete information along the way, including sharing some new information right at the end of the process,” Mathon’s email continued, noting that TJACH also offered free mental health care to those long-term guests struggling with the transition emotionally. Some accepted the assistance, others did not. “In the end, while we couldn’t address their mental health, they had a nearby, paid-for motel room waiting for them when the owner finally asked them to leave the property.”
“Some of the former Red Carpet Inn guests who accepted assistance in transitioning their motel stay to the Fairfield Inn [on Branchlands Boulevard] already have housing plans in place that will occur within 30 days,” Mathon’s email said. “Some do not have firm plans yet, but they are working towards those. Should assistance with shelter be needed after 30 days, additional assistance to help bridge any gaps to a housing option, or to shelter once renovations are complete, will be available. No one was made homeless during this transition.”
When asked about the transition, former Red Carpet Inn owner Tyler said that these holes in communication were “no fault of anybody — it happened quickly. It all happened rather quickly.”
Long-term guests of the Red Carpet Inn (they’re not technically tenants, as there was no lease agreement) were paying $363 per week for a regular room or $402 per week for a room with a kitchenette. Depending on the month, that’s $1,452 to around $2,000 per month — about the same amount a small apartment costs locally.
But not all of them wanted to live in a leased apartment. And those who might have wanted to could not for a variety of reasons: A previous eviction, bad credit history, criminal history, enough money for one month’s rent but not enough to cover a security deposit, too. Perhaps a landlord isn’t willing to rent to someone who doesn’t have a recent rental history.
“It’s really difficult to get out of homelessness once you’ve fallen into homelessness,” said Anthony Haro, executive director of TJACH. “You have all these barriers stacked up [against] finding a place willing to rent to you, even if you have income — and a lot of people do have income who are experiencing homelessness.”
Providing shelter for people who are experiencing homelessness is one thing, but providing safe and adequate shelter is something else entirely.
The Red Carpet Inn was built in 1987, and more than 30 years later, some of the motel rooms “looked really pretty good,” said Haro, while others were in various states of dilapidation. Some were in poor cosmetic condition, which “is a pride issue,” said Mathon.
Some of the rooms had defective plumbing and faulty HVAC units, which contributed to a variety of structural problems and health hazards, chief among them mold, both hidden and visible, in a variety of colors. Even the rooms that looked fine had some level of mold underneath the wallpaper, said Haro.
Other rooms are in such bad shape, PHA will not be renovating them for the first phase of the project. One room in particular is covered in what Mathon called “virile mold,” its condition so horrendous that the rooms next to it will be closed off, as well. They don’t have reason to believe that anyone was staying in that particular room, but it’s very likely that folks were staying in the rooms next door to it.
“It was really worse than we thought,” said Haro.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Tyler in response to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s question about the poor condition of some of the rooms.
It is a “tragedy,” said Mathon, “that since people didn’t have other options that worked for them, whether that was because of cost, whether that was because of need for wraparound mental health support services, whether that’s a sense of vulnerability, […] they were staying in a motel because there were not options available to them where they felt comfortable or could afford otherwise.”
Phase one of the Premier Circle project is already well underway. Crews are cleaning and renovating 115 former motel rooms that will become a TJACH-led emergency non-congregate shelter fully staffed by PACEM. “It’s a pretty big expansion of what PACEM is,” said Whitehead. Traditionally, PACEM has only had three full-time staff (including Whitehead), and a few part-time staff, to staff their night shelters and provide case management. PACEM will staff this new shelter 24/7/365, so they have to hire “quite a few people,” including shelter directors, shelter monitors and security positions, “just really trying to ensure a safe and secure environment for everybody involved,” said Whitehead.
They’ll also supply the case management piece to help them move on/graduate into permanent housing. Many of the long-term guests of the Red Carpet Inn who’ve been staying at the Fairfield Inn, as well as a number of the PACEM guests who’ve been housed at the La Quinta, will be eligible for space in this particular non-congregate shelter, if they choose to apply.
Phase one is expected to last through June 2023, and near the end of that period, Virginia Supportive Housing will begin construction on 80 permanent supportive housing studio apartments.
Residents of permanent supportive housing, who are mainly single adults living independently, sign leases and can stay as long as they need to, said Julie Anderson, VSH director of housing development, until they move out into the broader community or into an assisted living facility. That’s the “permanent” part, and the “supportive” part comes in the form of on-site case management services such as mental health counseling; substance abuse counseling; community engagement and social support, employment, education and vocational support; as well as transition planning into other housing types or reconnecting with family members.
Anderson said they’re trying to get project-based rental subsidies in as many units as possible, and the county has already awarded them 22 project-based vouchers, which is a start toward subsidizing all 80 units. Utilities are included in the overall cost of the housing, and residents are not expected to pay more than 30% of their income on housing. For someone with zero income, the lowest rent option in a VSH apartment is $50 per month.
Permanent supportive housing has worked well so far in the Charlottesville community. The Crossings at Fourth and Preston, which opened in March 2012 with 60 efficiency apartments, and thus 60 opportunities for permanent and stable housing, is another VSH project partially funded by a CACF grant. That project, which also ran into a few snarls at first, offers 30 units of supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness (i.e., experiencing homelessness for at least a year, or repeatedly, while also living with mental illness, addiction, or another disabling condition), and 30 units of low-income housing, for people making under 50 percent of the area median income.
A Crossings II project floundered for a number of years, for a few reasons, said Bugg, and Premier Circle is a chance to safely and comfortably house those members of our community. The fact that Albemarle moved quickly on the rezoning was particularly encouraging, as that’s not the case in most localities across the commonwealth, Anderson said.
VSH’s goal is that these folks are able to address — with proper support — some of the issues that led to them experiencing homeless in the first place, with the hope that they will not return to homelessness, said Anderson, noting the organization’s success: “Over 95% of our residents don’t return to homelessness.”
During phase two (proposed to run from June 2023 to June 2025), the emergency shelter rooms will reduce from 115 to 44 and VSH hopes its units will be complete and ready to lease. People often ask why it takes so long, said Anderson.
“By the time we’re finished pulling together all of that funding to develop these apartments, we’ll be looking at 20 to 25 different sources,” she said. “It takes a long time.”
Also during phase two, Piedmont Housing Alliance will begin construction on up to 60 affordable housing apartments. “Affordability” is officially determined by a few different factors according to state and federal policy, said Mathon, and not always by what’s realistically possible for residents.
One factor is area median family income, or AMI. In the Charlottesville HUD Metro FMR Area, which includes Albemarle, AMI is $93,900; this means that half of the families in the area make less than $93,900 a year, and half make more. AMI differs depending on household size, though — a household of one has a lower AMI than a household of four, for example — and pricing rental of units “affordably” should reflect a specific family’s income, whether at, say, 40% or 60% AMI.
But that’s just part of the equation, said Mathon. “The other layer is, ideally, people should be spending 30% or less of their income on household-related expenses, and that’s rent or mortgage plus utility costs.”
“Let’s say you are a household who makes 30% AMI [$28,170] , and you’re still expected to spend 30% of your income on your household expenses [$8,451]. That leaves a very small number of dollars on a monthly basis to then afford the rest of your life’s expenses. It’s an effective tool only to a certain extent,” said Mathon, and other factors must be considered, “but it is the tool we have to work with.”
The 60 or so affordable PHA units at Premier Circle will be a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments suitable for a variety of family sizes, and Mathon hopes that they’ll be able to share some resources with the VSH community next door, even though the two organizations offer two different types of housing.
During phase three (projected June 2025 through December 2026), emergency shelter rooms will be further reduced, to about 26, and PHA will complete construction on its apartments.
The final phase (October to December 2026) will include the improvement and sale of a commercial outparcel facing U.S. 29. The sale of that portion of the property — along with funds from PHA’s sale of a second portion to VHS — will go to paying back about $3.6 million to the CACF, so that it can be put toward other projects throughout the community.
That said, PHA and VSH have fundraising work to do for the building phases, and Mathon hopes that whatever goes into that commercial property space down the road will be of direct or secondary benefit to the community on-site.
There are a number of amenities within a half-mile radius of 405 Premier Circle, too, among them a Lidl set to open in 2021, Costco, the Latino Market, Flowers Baking Co., Homegoods, Designer Shoe Warehouse, a 7-11, a few banks, dental offices, counseling services, a laundromat, a couple of vets and two wireless phone service providers. There are more businesses on the other side of U.S. 29, but crosswalks across the busy, 45 mph highway are few and far between.
There is one Charlottesville Area Transit stop within the radius, along the no. 5 route, and Charlottesville Area Transit is working on adding a bus stop about a third of a mile away (CAT is planning to stay fare-free for the next three years thanks to CARES Act and American Rescue Plan money). JAUNT regularly services that area as well.
Like any big project, especially ones that depend not just on government funds but on the whims of donors, things are subject to change. But all parties involved want things to move well and on time, because the safety, the security, the wellbeing of people in our community are at stake.
“You can address affordable housing through subsidies, or through building more affordable housing. We need to do both as a community, and we need to do both as a homeless system of care,” and this is an excellent start, said Haro.
“There’s this beauty of being able to use this [first] as temporary, non-congregate shelter, thus creating some stability for people who are currently homeless while also moving towards that more permanent solution, and where we have direct evidence of it working [in The Crossings],” said Bugg. “Coupled with the understanding [that there are] very few available, affordable units, it was just something that made sense.”