Commissioners discuss ways to increase affordable housing at their May 9, 2017 meeting Credit: Credit: Sean Tubbs, Charlottesville Tomorrow

For the second time in six weeks, the Charlottesville Planning Commission has been briefed on ways to use local government funding to help increase the number of affordable units in the city.

The city’s Housing Advisory Committee has been working to prioritize a list of recommendations made in early 2016 by the Robert Charles Lesser Company.

In March, the Planning Commission held a work session on the topic and asked the city’s housing coordinator to come back with more information about some of the prioritized recommendations.  

“One of the biggest questions [they] had asked was in terms of developer fee waivers to encourage affordable housing development and what those would look like,” Pethia said. “I looked at the fee schedule for [Neighborhood Development Services] and looked at waiving the building permit and site plan review fees because they are the largest fees associated with the process.”

Pethia said the city can already offer to waive connection fees to water and sewer.

“If combined, that would come out to be about $5,000 per unit,” Pethia said.

Another recommendation from the HAC was to use $900,000 from the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund to help the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority create its own voucher program similar to Section 8 housing paid for by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“They currently have about 133 vouchers that they are unable to issue each year due to the limited amount of federal funding,” Pethia said, adding it is hard to find out how many additional families the $900,000 would help cover.

“That’s a really difficult number to figure out because I don’t know who is on the waiting list and the voucher payments that the housing authority would make really depends on income a family has and what size unit they would be moving into,” Pethia said.

Pethia said another complication is that localities are not allowed to mix local funds in with federal funds for the voucher program.

“The city would have to create its own rental assistance program that CRHA could manage and draw people from their waiting list,” Pethia said. “There is no limit to who can apply [for vouchers] but when it comes down to qualifying they can go up to 80 percent of the area median income but housing authorities tend to choose the families most in need.”

Commissioner John Santoski, who is also the executive director of ARC of the Piedmont, said Virginia is currently transitioning away from providing institutional placements to the disabled and those with special needs.

“There’s a real push on providing alternative housing types for those individuals so there’s a push at the state level to go back to localities and find out what priorities the elderly and disabled for accessing Section 8 and housing choice vouchers,” Santoski said.

Pethia said she did not believe there was a priority for those demographics but there could be with political will.

“The housing authority would just need to amend its administrative plan,” Pethia said. “If the city creates its own voucher rental assistance program, we would have the opportunities to determine our own priorities. Current city residents could be one of those.”

Another recommendation is to create an overlay district in the zoning code to create incentives for affordable units.

“You would choose areas within the city that you wanted to focus affordable housing development on,” Pethia said. “I think we would prefer some mixed-income simply because you don’t want to end up with a concentration of low income households in one area. It couldn’t be that you came in and built 51 units with only one affordable unit.”

While the commission had been asked to provide feedback on specific recommendations, their conversation became more general in nature.

A section of the city’s Comprehensive Plan calls for increasing the amount of supported affordable units to 15 percent of the housing stock by 2025, but the city is currently supporting about 10 percent of the units that are affordable to families making less than 80 percent of the annual area median income.

To support that effort, City Council voted to double the amount of funding that goes to the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund. The council has contributed $7.8 million to the fund over the past five years, but the budget adopted in April would increase that contribution to $16 million over the next five years.

But how will the use of that money be effective and for whom?

“It seems to me that we just have an affordability crisis in the whole city,” Santoski said. “It’s not just low-income. At this point we haven’t really seen any real affordable units built whenever a new development comes before us, mainly because the developer is going to make more by paying into the affordable housing fund and then pocketing what they make on the other units.”

Santoski asked if the city could pay the developer the difference between market rate and units that would be affordable within a certain price range. Pethia said she would be open to the idea.

“We would have to figure out how to make it work,” Pethia said. “The housing fund cannot be used for private developers so we would have to create some partnerships between private developers and nonprofit organizations.”

Pethia said one way to do that might be to set-up a low-interest revolving loan fund.

Commissioner Lisa Green said city residents would be concerned about subsidizing private development, but Santoski said the current system is not working.

“We’re just going to keep seeing developments come in and they’re going to pay in to the affordable housing fund but we’re not going to get affordable units built,” Santoski said.

Santoski also said the city needs to hold itself to a high standard. In 2009, Council agreed to sell two city-owned parcels on Ridge Street to Southern Development to create the so-called William Taylor Plaza. One section of the property will now be a hotel and the other will hold a 27-unit apartment complex at market-rate.

“Here’s a perfect opportunity in a [planned unit development] that we approved to put all that mixed-income [units] into that property,” Santoski said. “If that’s all market-rate housing, then there was our opportunity. That was city-owned land that could have something different done on it. We blew it.”

Commissioner Genevieve Keller said she wanted the two groups to communicate with each other.

“I really wish the HAC would engage the planning commission more in recommendations that affect land use and zoning and I think it’s really critical that message get delivered to Council,” Keller said. “We should have an informed recommendation that we send to them.”

The Housing Advisory Committee next meets on May 17 at 12:00 p.m. in the NDS conference room in City Hall on Market Street.