“Equity” is a word we’re hearing more and more lately. It’s a guiding principle for both Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan updates. It’s an entire beat for one of Charlottesville Tomorrow’s reporters. 

At this point, everyone’s likely more familiar with equality, with the idea of fairness, the idea that everyone should have the same resources. But in reality, and for a number of reasons, not everyone in our society has the same resources, and in order to move closer to achieving equality, we have to recognize that some folks need a bit of extra help so that they can have the same opportunities as everyone else. We have to recognize what those folks need and provide it to them. That’s equity. 

These conversations can be challenging, in no small part because of the vocabulary involved. For instance, what are we talking about when we talk about affordable housing? Colloquially, it’s housing that the average person can afford. But technically, it’s a very specific measure used by government housing programs to determine who is eligible for housing assistance, how much assistance and so forth.

This glossary is intended to promote better understanding of these terms and concepts so that we can all have more meaningful, clear and accurate conversations about equity in our community. 

We’re starting mostly with housing terminology but will expand the glossary as needed to compliment future reporting. 

Want a definition for something that’s not on the list, or clarity for something that is? Email equity reporter Erin O’Hare at eohare@cvilletomorrow.org

Last updated August 2, 2021

Accessory dwelling unit – Usually an apartment within a home (like a basement apartment) or a small additional structure on the land parcel of a home (such as a cottage). ADUs are granted by local governments through provisional use permits.

Affordable dwelling unit – Any home or apartment that has been reserved for tenants that fall within a particular income range, rather than at the market-rate for rent or sales. 

Affordability period – A specified period of time where an affordable dwelling unit is mandated to remain affordable. The affordability period often relates to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) that helped fund the overall development the affordable dwelling unit is part of. 

Affordable housing – While the term has been conflated with low-income housing or public housing (for which it does relate and include), affordable housing simply refers to the affordability of people to live in a certain area. As Charlottesville’s Area Median Income is very high, many area residents do not have enough income to live comfortably in this area. 

Area median income – Area median income (AMI) means that half the households in an area make less than the median income and half make more than the median income. 

Assessments – Sales that take place each year play a role in determining property assessments. The more homes sell for, the higher the assessment can be for other homes in an area. As wealthier people have moved into Charlottesville and purchased homes, this plays a role in the prices rising for everyone in the area.

Bedroom community – Also known as a commuter town, a primarily residential (rather than commercial or industrial) rural or semi-rural area whose residents commute to a nearby city or larger town for work.

Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund – The main purpose of this city-established fund is to provide financial resources for the affordable housing needs of individuals and families who live or work in the city. According to the city’s website, it does so “by promoting, preserving and producing quality, long-term affordable housing options; providing housing related services to low-income and moderate-income housing options; and providing support for nonprofit and for profit organizations that actively address the affordable housing needs of low- and moderate-income households.” It’s funded a few different ways: annual monetary appropriations from the city’s Capital Improvement Program; developer cash contributions via the city’s Affordable Dwelling Unit Ordinance; and repayment of loans made through the fund. Developers can also voluntarily contribute cash to the CAHF instead of building affordable and deeply affordable housing. (See a list of projects it has helped fund, as well as more on developer contributions.)

Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority – An organization founded in the mid-1950s that was eventually responsible for razing the thriving, predominantly Black Vinegar Hill neighborhood in the name of “urban renewal,” and thus the displacement of many Black Charlottesville city residents into substandard public housing projects. The organization also participated in and promoted exclusionary zoning practices throughout the city and often ignored legitimate complaints about living conditions in public housing. In recent years, however, CRHA has focused on empowering residents of public housing through resident-led redevelopment and other projects. The CRHA also oversees disbursement of housing vouchers in the city.

Congregate shelter – In the context of people experiencing homelessness, congregate shelter is an indoor space where multiple people shelter together, such as a community center or a church recreation room. 

Cost-burdened – A household (renting or owning) is considered cost-burdened if it spends more than 30% of its income on housing costs (rent or mortgage plus utilities). Households that spend more than 50% of their income on housing are considered extremely cost-burdened.

County of Albemarle Office of Housing – The department’s website says it best: “Strives to increase opportunities for all county residents to secure and maintain decent, safe, sanitary, accessible and affordable housing with special emphasis given to those residents least able to obtain it. The primary focus of the Albemarle County Housing Department is to assist people with securing rental housing and paying rental subsidy through voucher programming.” 

Deed restriction – Also known as a covenant, a contract embedded into the legal document of a deed that limits what can and cannot be done on a piece of land. Some deed restrictions are not legally enforceable (see “racial covenant,” below), and they generally do not supersede zoning codes.

The Dillon Rule – The Dillon Rule limits local government authority on certain matters and defers to state government for permissions. This ends up affecting things like creative solutions to housing.

Displacement – This occurs most often when developers seek to redevelop an area or neighborhood into something new and existing residents have to leave permanently or temporarily. 

Downzoning – Decreasing zoning density in a neighborhood. For instance, rezoning a neighborhood’s parcels from multifamily residential to single-family residential.

Emergency shelter – An immediate place for someone experiencing homelessness to stay while they reestablish housing.

Eviction – Removal of a tenant from a rental property. Once a landlord issues an eviction notice to a tenant, the landlord must take it to court in order to have a judge issue an official eviction judgment. However, many tenants pack up and leave upon receiving the notice and before going to court, in large part because they cannot afford representation. Tenants who show up to court are less likely to have a judge issue an eviction, particularly if they have legal representation. If someone has an eviction on their record, it will be more difficult for that person to find a landlord to rent to them.

Exclusionary Zoning – The use of zoning ordinances to exclude certain types of housing and land uses — and therefore certain types of people, either based on race, ethnicity, religion or income — from neighborhoods. 

Food insecurity – This refers to both neighborhoods and people that have less access to food by means of income or accessibility to grocery stores. For instance, a family or person who does not own a car or live near reliable public transportation — and thus cannot easily get to a grocery store — is food insecure. Similarly, a family or a person whose income does not allow them to purchase sufficient food is also food insecure.

Form-based code – A land development regulation that is meant to result in predictable built results, considering physical form above land use.

Gentrification – The process by which the character of a neighborhood changes due to the arrival of more affluent residents and businesses. It often drives up the price of home sales, rent, property taxes, and overall cost of living. Gentrification disproportionately affects people living in historically lower-income neighborhoods, as well as Black, brown, elderly, and disabled people who are often displaced from their homes and neighborhoods as a result of this process.

Housing choice voucher – A housing choice voucher is a type of government assistance that eligible individuals and families can use toward paying rent or mortgage costs for the housing of their choice. Currently, HUD offers a variety of housing choice vouchers, including one for homeless veterans, one for family unification, one for homeownership and more, all usually disbursed via local (independent but HUD-governed) housing authorities. (Here’s how housing programs work locally.)

Housing instability – This could mean any number of things alone or in combination, such as moving frequently, struggling to pay rent or utility bills, facing discrimination when trying to find housing, overcrowding, poor housing quality and more.

HUDThe Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the U.S. federal government department responsible for creating and enforcing national policies and programs pertaining to housing needs in the U.S., such as fair housing laws and housing assistance programs.

Income levels – The following terms can mean many things, but we’ll define income levels here in terms of housing, per HUD’s guidelines. Income limits are adjusted for family size (the larger the family, the higher the income limit), and are determined by area median income and subject to adjustments for areas with particularly high or low incomes.

Low-income: 80% of the median family income for the area

Very low-income: 50% of the median family income for the area

Extremely low-income: 30% of the median family income for the area

“Area median income” means that half of the families in an area make less than that amount, and half make more than that amount (therefore it is not an average). To put this in perspective locally, the Charlottesville HUD Metro FMR Area (which includes Charlottesville city and Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson counties) has an area median income of $93,900. What would that mean for income levels for a family of four? 

Low-income: $74,950/year

Very low-income: $46,850/year

Extremely low-income: $28,100/year 

These amounts are used by HUD and local housing authorities to determine, among other things, whether or not an individual or family are eligible for housing assistance programs. Usually, “low-income” refers to all three levels of income mentioned above.

Landlord risk reduction programs – These programs, usually government-funded, intend to offer additional protections to landlords willing to rent to tenants with limited income, a criminal record, or prior eviction, with the hope of incentivizing landlords to rent to people who are thus more vulnerable to housing instability or homelessness. The programs can help landlords recover funds lost via unpaid rent, damages to the physical space, etc., beyond the security deposit.

Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) – A tax incentive for developers and individuals to either construct new or acquire and rehabilitate existing affordable rental housing for low-income (including very and extremely low-income) individuals and families. 

Low-income housing – Often conflated with affordable housing and public housing, low-income housing is related to both of those, but it refers specifically to housing affordable to people at the low, very low and extremely low-income thresholds (explained above).

NIMBYism – A colloquial term refers to a person who opposes development in their neighborhood, with the acronym standing for “not in my backyard.”

Non-congregate shelter – In the context of people experiencing homelessness, an indoor space where people or families stay at least somewhat separate, such as a hotel or a shelter with individual rooms.

Permanent supportive housing – A type of residence, usually an apartment building, where adults living independently sign a lease and stay in their home as long as they need to, either until they move out into the broader community or into an assisted living facility (hence “permanent”). These residences also offer on-site case management services such as mental health 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 (hence “supportive”). Permanent supportive housing is different from assisted living. A local example is The Crossings at Fourth and Preston. 

Poverty – The U.S. Census Bureau is tasked with measuring poverty, and it’s a rather complicated measurement process, as the Census website lays out. But in general, the Census Bureau says it “uses a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty. If a family’s total income is less than the family’s threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty. The official poverty thresholds do not vary geographically, but they are updated for inflation. … The official poverty definition uses money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or noncash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps).

Private housing – A form of housing in which the property and building are owned by an individual (or individuals), a private developer or by a nonprofit organization. Privately-owned housing can be publicly subsidized via the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program and other similar programs.

Public housing – A type of housing owned by a (usually local) government authority, such as a housing authority, and meant to provide eligible individuals and families with low, very and extremely low-income; as well as seniors and people with disabilities with safe, satisfactory housing. 

Racial covenant – A legal contract embedded into the deed of a property that prevented sale or rental of that property to a person or people of a certain race (usually Black, Asian or Jewish). These types of deed restrictions became common in the U.S. in 1926, when the U.S. Supreme Court validated their use, and people used them to keep neighborhoods whites only. In 1948, the Fair Housing Act outlawed enforcement of such covenants, though because it is difficult and expensive to legally remove the covenants from deeds, they still remain on many property deeds, including many here in the Charlottesville area, as the Mapping C’Ville project has shown.

Rent control – Though rules and regulations on this differ based on locality, rent control policies are generally government-determined maximums of how much a landlord can charge a tenant for rent. (Also called rent regulation.)

Rent stabilization – Similar to, but different from, rent control. Rent stabilization policies set percentage-based (rather than amount-based) rent increases based on that locality’s cost of living, rental market, and other factors. 

Special Use Permit (SUP) – These permits grant special uses outside of what a parcel of land is zoned for. An example would be a developer seeking an SUP to build say a duplex or fourplex on a parcel that is zoned for one home. 

Subsidized housing – A type of housing, public or private, in which the government assists with housing costs, generally for individuals and families of moderate and low incomes (low, very low, extremely low), through a variety of programs.

Upzoning – Increasing zoning density in a neighborhood. For instance, rezoning a neighborhood’s parcels from single-family residential to multifamily residential.

Workforce housing – Housing (of any type, for ownership or rental) that is both affordable to moderate- and middle-income workers and close to their jobs.  

YIMBYism – A colloquial term referring to a person who supports development in their neighborhood, with the acronym standing for “yes in my backyard.”

Zoning – Classifications for land use in an area. Different types of zoning specify how dense a neighborhood can be, what types of homes or apartments can be built, or if an area is for commercial use and construction, like shopping centers.


I was Charlottesville Tomorrow’s government reporter from 2019 to 2022. Thanks for letting me be your resident nerd on how local and state governments serve us. Keep up with me @charlottewords on Twitter. If you haven’t yet, consider subscribing to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s FREE newsletter to get updates from the newsroom on the things you want to know.

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