The issues of affordable housing and displacement of lower-income residents received considerable attention during the
Charlottesville Planning Commission’s
joint public hearing on January 13, 2009. An applicant, Neighborhood Investments, LLC, sought permission to develop a Planned Urban Development (PUD) on Longwood Drive, a street near Jackson-Via Elementary school predominantly consisting of lower-income rental units. Although several Commissioners considered deferring the application to a later date, the Commission eventually voted 4-2 to recommend denial of the rezoning. Commissioners Jason Pearson and Cheri Lewis were the dissenting votes (in favor of approval), and Commissioner Michael Osteen recused himself on account of a business connection with the developer. City staff had recommended approval of the development.
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The proposed plan was to construct 43 townhomes and renovate 18 existing units in two sections of Longwood Drive, at the entrance of the street and at the very end of the cul-de-sac. Since this was a “concept plan,” details concerning the specific design features of this site were not required. The applicant did, however, make proffers for trail improvements, an open space with tables and a playground, and lines of street trees.
In order to begin construction, the developer would have to demolish 18 units. Of these units, 10 are currently occupied by renters and 8 are vacant. Additionally, renters occupy all of the other 18 units slated for renovation. Since the units proposed for the development are intended for homeownership, there is potential for displacement of 28 renting households. With few affordable rental options in the City of Charlottesville, Commissioner were concerned many of these residents could conceivably be pushed outside of city limits.
The developer addressed this issue with a proffer for 15% of the units to be made available to a household whose income is 60-80% of median area income. Commissioner Bill Emory did not think the language of “made available” in the proffer was sufficiently clear, and several other commissioners expressed that this provision was not adequate mitigation. The proffer for 15% of the total units would result in 8 affordable units, which is not a 1-for-1 exchange for the affordable units lost. Furthermore, the proposed replacements are not proportional. Many of the displaced renters may not be able to afford to purchase the same home even at the proffered rate. According to Longwood Drive property owner Ellen Borwins, who spoke at the hearing, many of these units have multiple families residing in them, making it impossible to know exactly how many residents would be displaced by the project.
This application provoked some fundamental questions about affordable housing in Charlottesville. How can the city provide adequate housing for all income levels while avoiding the clustering of housing types for each income strata into specific areas? One of the merits of the Longwood Drive proposal, recognized by many of the Commissioners, was that it would provide a diversity of housing types for the street. City Planner Brian Haluska, who recommended approval of the plan, ultimately based his decision on this benefit.
“We’re trying to avoid an enclave effect,” said Haluska, “segregating our lower-income families in certain areas, making it the poor side of town.” Yet Haluska was quick to point out that, unless this movement were accompanied by an equivalent effort to incorporate lower-income housing into traditionally affluent neighborhoods, city-wide displacement would occur.
Another question raised was whether affordable housing is best dealt with on an individual basis or at a more comprehensive level. Chairman Jason Pearson questioned whether it is good policy to have “individual applicants try to demonstrate their individual actions to mitigate something that I see as a larger structural problem in the city.” According to Pearson, proffers that developers may attach to applications really only serve as a band-aid.
On the other hand, he suggested a more appropriate approach to the problem would be a “comprehensive and widespread increase in density across the city at large.”
The Longwood Drive plan would increase the Dwelling Units per Acre (DUA) for the site from 7.4 to 13.3. Several of the Commissioners were quick to point out that the requested density was not problematic. In fact, Chairman Pearson suggested, “This might be a site in which even great density than that which is proposed in the PUD may be appropriate.” Commissioner Genevieve Keller agreed in principle, but wanted to be sure that the resulting traffic impact would not adversely affect the neighborhood.
Commissioner Keller and Commissioner Dan Rosensweig wished that demographic and economic statistics for the city were more current, in order to make for informed decisions about the economic viability of housing. Commissioner Jason Pearson wanted more information on how other municipalities have responded to the challenge of gentrification. These Commissioners did not feel entirely equipped to strategically address the issue of affordable housing, a topic that has been highlighted by City Council as a priority for 2009.
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