As he seeks election to a second term on City Council, Mayor Dave Norris (D) has championed the use of a new model of housing for the homeless called single-room occupancies (SRO). These units would be low-rent studio apartments that would allow qualified applicants a place to stay with some level of support services.

However, the Charlottesville zoning code does not currently have any categories or districts that would allow such a facility to be constructed within City limits. On April 20, 2009, the City Council directed the Charlottesville Planning Commission to study the code to evaluate possible amendments. A week later, the Commission spent two hours educating themselves on the topic.

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They were assisted by representatives from Virginia Supportive Housing , a non-profit organization that was incorporated in 1988 to build SRO units in the greater Richmond area. Since then, the organization has expanded into Norfolk, Petersburg and Portsmouth. Now they are seeking locations on which to build a 60-unit SRO somewhere in the Charlottesville area.

The Planning Commission hears the presentation from Virginia Supportive Housing’s Candace Streett (in blue)

“All of our tenants sign leases and they pay rent,” said Candace Streett, Deputy of the Housing Division at Virginia Supportive Housing. “They pay 30% of their income on rent with a minimum of $50.” The rest of the funding comes through housing subsidies provided by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development and other entities. Subsidies for each unit go down as tenants’ incomes rise. Streett said the facility might be configured so that only 40 of the rooms are for the homeless, but the other 20 would be for other people interested in living in a studio apartment.

The organization also provides support services on-site and manages the property. Tenants enter into their units through a central hall by which they have to pass a manager on duty. The front desk would be staffed for 16 hours a day, but a property manager would live on site. Streett said the set-up is similar to what you might find in a nursing home. In this case, though, she said 90% of tenants move out after 3 to 4 years because they are able to improve their incomes.

Tenants are selected through references from agencies that deal with the homeless, and there are waiting lists in each community. Each tenant is interviewed twice by the property manager.

“They’re going to see if the individual wants to make a life change and is going to be willing to live in a community,” Streett said.

“Basically what we’re talking about is providing a studio apartment with a full kitchen and a full bath,” said Allison Bogdanovich, the Director of Housing Development for Virginia Supportive Housing.

In Charlottesville, Streett said VSH would prefer to do new construction rather than rehabilitation of an existing building so that there can be an opportunity to create an energy-efficient structure to keep utility bills down. The site must have good access to public transportation, a grocery store and jobs.

“There are a couple of sites that have been proposed, and we’re weighing everything in terms of how close to all of that as well as the cost,” Streett said. She is estimating it will cost at least $8 million in capital costs to get the SRO off the ground.

Bogdanovic said the City would need to make sure that the project could be compliant with Charlottesville’s zoning code, which is why the Planning Commission is being asked to study possible amendments.

Streett said the project could not go forward without support from the community. She said that she would be willing to speak with neighborhood associations and residents surrounding the selected site in order to allay any concerns.

“Before we do an option to purchase [the site], we will contact the neighbors,” Streett said. “We’ve met one-on-one with neighbors before on our properties in Norfolk and Virginia Beach to make sure they understood what we were talking about and answering any questions… We do not want to find in a public hearing on the zoning that we have a couple of individuals who are very unhappy.”

Commissioner Genevieve Keller asked if there was enough demand for more than one SRO facility. If not, perhaps it would not be necessary to amend the City’s code for a one-time facility. City Planner Ebony Walden said the City should amend the code in order to support and encourage the creation of an SRO facility, even if VSH was not involved.

There was also talk during the work session about the role that Albemarle County might play in assisting with the SRO. Bogdanovic said the County could be a source for Section 8 vouchers. Streett said she would like to see the project be a regional one.

“Homelessness doesn’t have boundaries,” Streett said.

“But Virginia does, unfortunately,” said Commissioner Rosensweig.

Bogdanovic said she was confident that Albemarle would be receptive to the idea.

Left to right) Commissioners Mike Farruggio, Dan Rosensweig and Jason Pearson

Chairman Jason Pearson asked Streett to comment on a proposed zoning text amendment drafted by Walden to see if it would suit the needs of VSH. She said requiring a special use permit would give the City a chance to make sure that a property manager is in place, and that the facility would not have too much of an impact on the neighboring community. Bogdanovic said she thought the ordinance should be flexible enough to allow the VSH or another SRO organization to find a suitable site.

Commissioner Mike Farruggio said he wanted to make sure that there were individual kitchens in each unit in order to reduce the possibility of conflict between residents. He said he was generally supportive of the idea, but expressed concern about potential impacts on neighborhoods. Farruggio didn’t want the ordinance, which would require a property management agreement, to become too lenient.

Commissioner Genevieve Keller asked if there were any possibility that a private sector developer would be able to operate a similar facility. Streett said if the target audience was students, there might be someone willing to take a risk. But she added that her non-profit provides support services, which are expensive and not profitable.

After a discussion on the finer points of Ebony Walden’s draft zoning text amendment, Pearson summed up his views.

“I feel like there are many possible solutions to the social challenges we face,” Pearson said. “My sense is that there is a type of solution that has emerged over the last 20 years called an SRO that has a typology… Do we want to introduce this into our community, and if we do, what do we do from a planning perspective to get it to happen?”

Planning Manager Missy Creasy said that question had already been partially answered by Council’s decision to initiate the study. Ebony Walden will now edit her zoning text ordinance based on the Commission’s feedback in advance of a future public hearing.