As Charlottesville officials prepare to vote on a new kind of zoning for the city’s southern downtown area, the long-standing controversy about what the change could mean for existing residents continues.

Charlottesville Tomorrow published an in-depth article on the debate last week. In preparation for the city Planning Commission work session on Tuesday, Charlottesville Tomorrow is publishing the full questions and answers from housing consultant Anita Morrison that were used for the article.

Morrison is a founder of Partners for Economic Solutions and has written housing needs assessments for Charlottesville and the broader region since 2018. 

Background

After roughly two years of public input and study, the Form-Based Codes Institute, DPZ CoDesign and Partners for Economic Solutions have created a draft form-based code for the city’s designated “Strategic Investment Area.”

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The draft form-based code covers a section of the Strategic Investment Area between the CSX railroad tracks and Elliott Avenue.

Credit: City of Charlottesville

The code covers a section of the Strategic Investment Area between the CSX railroad tracks and Elliott Avenue. The section includes rent-subsidized apartments at Friendship Court and is adjacent to the public housing site Crescent Halls. Resident-led redevelopment of these sites has begun and has both local and federal funding.

Form-based code shifts the focus of local zoning laws from what is going on inside a building to its exterior. Advocates of form-based code say that this takes care of the main concerns of neighbors — how big or out-of-place a building feels, how often pedestrians have to watch for vehicles while walking along a sidewalk — while giving developers a more reliable process.

The Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition opposes the form-based code draft as is, partially out of a concern that encouraging development in this neighborhood without a broader housing policy will raise housing prices and displace current low-income residents.

Morrison answered Charlottesville Tomorrow’s questions about the relationship between form-based code, gentrification and displacement by email.

Q&A

Q: Is it possible this form-based code could cause displacement in naturally occurring affordable housing (homes or apartments that are affordable without public subsidy)?

A: The main driver of displacement is rising rents that result from excess demand. Charlottesville’s shortage of housing in the face of rising demand has sparked a rate of rent increases far in excess of the growth in households’ income and their ability to afford these rents. To the extent that form-based codes help to encourage development of vacant properties in a way that is compatible with surrounding neighborhoods, they can spur development of new housing.   

The current processes discourage and block the construction of new housing that cannot be built as a matter of right. By anticipating and addressing the typical design issues that arouse neighborhood opposition, form-based codes can shorten development approval processes and make them more predictable. Increasing the overall housing supply should alleviate the pressures for rapid rent growth.  

Improving a neighborhood with more appealing sidewalks and public spaces, better-designed and better-located open spaces, and new housing can attract new residents who can pay higher rents, squeezing out current renters in naturally occurring affordable units. 

The response to that phenomenon should not be to refuse to enhance these neighborhoods, but rather to increase protections through preservation of and creation of more committed affordable units, increases in number and value of rent vouchers, new construction of smaller units (including accessory dwelling units), efforts to increase homeownership among low- and moderate-income residents, and efforts to help build wealth by supporting local entrepreneurs.

Q: How much naturally occurring affordable housing is there in this region or in the larger Strategic Investment Area?

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The median income of the Charlottesville metropolitan area was $89,600 in 2018.

Credit: Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership

A: Our housing needs assessment found very little naturally occurring affordable housing in the region, the city and the larger SIA. Almost no vacant and available units were affordable to households with incomes below 60% of area median income. More units were available in the surrounding counties, but they often entail traveling long distances to work and services. The high transportation costs associated with those far-flung units create a combined burden of housing and transportation costs.

Q: How much would land values likely rise under the form-based code versus if it develops according to the current zoning?

A: It is hard to predict changes in land values.  Current zoning provides the opportunity for substantial density with no affordable housing, supporting high land values. The requirement for including affordable housing units within new developments will temper the increases in land values.

Q: Is the solution to displacement in zoning? Could one require non-discrimination clauses in new buildings, for example? What tools are outside zoning?

A: See my answer to your first question. Legislation to prevent discrimination based on the source of one’s income or rent would help address the problem of landlords who refuse to rent to households with housing vouchers.

Q: How would the demographics of people living in the built-out SIA compare to the current population?

A: The number of low- and moderate-income households will likely increase as Friendship Court and Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties are redeveloped with more mixed-income units committed at different levels of affordability.  As a percent of total SIA households, the share of low- and moderate-income households will likely decline over time as new market-rate housing is developed. 

 

Read further perspectives from low-income housing leaders, developers and form-based code advocates here.