More than 3,000 low-income families in Charlottesville are either homeless, struggling to pay for shelter or are living in homes in urgent need of repair, according an assessment completed in April.
On Thursday, the City Council met with the city’s Housing Advisory Committee to address the crisis.
“The urgency is great. Every day that goes by is another day that a family or individual risks homelessness because they can’t afford their rent,” Elaine Poon, managing attorney for Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, said in an interview.
Poon also is a member of the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, which has been pressuring the city to develop a housing strategy focused on extremely low-income residents. HAC incorporated many of the housing coalition’s demands into its presentation to the council.
During the meeting’s public comment section, Connie Rosenbaum, who lives in public housing, asked the city to focus on repairing those homes first.
“Public housing has gone to the dogs. By the time you get some of these apartments built, most of the people my age will be dead,” she said. “We need something done within the next year or two.”
Rosenbaum said she is struggling with cancer and that she is not sure whether she would see improved apartments even within that faster timeline.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker agreed that building new public housing on property the city owns should be the first step. She said that would allow people in the older buildings to move out.
“Then something can be done with the old structures, so new people can go into those. If we commit to that being Phase One, then that will hopefully address what you’re talking about, to where you can — while you are still in this lifetime — be in a house that is safe and modern.”
To make sure the larger housing strategy works better than past affordable housing efforts, CLIHC has pressured the city to engage low-income residents more fully than it has before.
HAC proposed a peer-to-peer outreach effort, which Poon said would be an innovative solution.
“You would hire one person to supervise residents, essentially, and pay the residents to go out and do the community engagement and have conversations with people who are their neighbors,” Poon said. “It’s very different if it’s your neighbor coming to you — and it also puts some resources back out into the community that you keep engaging with.”
HAC presented the City Council a $200,019 budget proposal for the engagement process. Although consultants would compete to provide a slimmer budget, HAC estimated that the consultant would be paid $120,000 and interns would be paid a total of $36,864.
Councilor Wes Bellamy questioned the idea of paying $120,000 to a consultant.
“What if we used some of that budget — or even used that budget — to partner with the organizations that already speak with the populations who we’re trying to get the information from?” Bellamy asked.
Sunshine Mathon, who helped present the budget, said HAC would explicitly invite local organizations to apply to be the consultants.
During the public comment period, Wandae Johnson suggested that engaging Charlottesville’s lowest-income residents would be worth the cost.
“I understand that the council has a history of paying consultant fees and then being chastised for doing so, but the communities we’re talking about serving have been neglected for a very long time,” Johnson said. “The history between the City Council and low-income residents is what should dictate how much you guys are willing to invest in that community outreach.”
HAC member Ridge Schuyler said that Vinegar Hill — one of several urban renewal efforts in Charlottesville that cleared predominantly African-American neighborhoods and devastated the black business community — “echoes in the back of [HAC members’] minds.”
“The best way to avoid the tragedy of Vinegar Hill is to make sure that all of the people who are affected understand what is being contemplated and agree that the solution will benefit the community,” Schuyler said.
The City Council is slated to discuss how to fund the affordable housing initiatives at 5 p.m. Sept. 6 at CitySpace.