For a decade, Shymora Cooper lived in the Garrett Street area, a half-mile from where she lives today. Her former neighborhood, on Sixth Street SE, is incredibly tight-knit, she says. When she had to run out to pick one of her kids up from basketball practice, without a second thought, she could leave her other children with a neighbor.
“Everyone knows everybody,” says Cooper of the Sixth Street public housing neighborhood built in 1980. “And I enjoyed the fact that my kids felt comfortable enough to be able to go out and play with their friends, because their friends looked like them and they wouldn't be judged because of the color of their skin.” That’s no longer the case, she says.
Two and a half years ago, Cooper and her family built and moved into a home in Burnet Commons III, a neighborhood of 50 homes — 18 like Cooper’s that sold at about $200,000 through Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville’s joint-funding model, and 32 sold by Southern Development with no subsidies at about $450,000 each. Habitat heralds the neighborhood as “mixed-income,” a term that’s been buzzing for a couple decades but that’s gained a special focus over the last 10 years as more developers, housing officials, and non-profit organizations try to combat the concentrations of poverty that resulted from generations of racist housing policies.
And now, Friendship Court residents and Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA) — the non-profit that owns the 12-acre property south of downtown — are about to embark on the largest single expansion of intentionally mixed-income rental housing that Charlottesville’s ever seen. And while the plan has been met with criticism by some in the city who worry it could lead to social or cultural displacement, Friendship Court residents themselves were the ones who pushed for the addition of 300 higher income units to the site. The plan would bring 300-1,000 new residents into the neighborhood, most of whom are likely to make more money than existing residents, whose current median income is $14,000 (affordable rent: $350/month), according to Sunshine Mathon, the CEO of PHA. Of the 300 new units to be added, 150 will be priced affordably for families who make around $34,120-$51,180 (affordable rent: $853-$1,279/month), while the 150 others will be priced at higher rates. Exactly what those higher rates will be, however, has been a primary point of focus over the last month.
Tamara Wright is a founding member of the resident advisory committee that’s led the design and planning process, and has lived in Friendship Court for 12 years. Wright says residents wanted to allow for higher income levels for several reasons. First, if residents start making more money, they want to be able to move out of their Section 8 subsidized unit but stay in Friendship Court, and not have to move somewhere else. Under Section 8 rules, a resident pays 30 percent of their income for rent. “So as your income increases, your 30 percent [payment] increases, which makes it hard to find somewhere else to live because you have to save enough money to be able to do so,” says Wright.
Mathon says that, contrary to some people’s belief, residents will never be kicked out of the Section 8 units in Friendship Court for making too much money. If their income continues to rise, they will eventually reach a ceiling and have to pay the full market-rate price for the unit.
Mathon says this could potentially allow for a higher turnover of the Section 8 units, making them more akin to transitional housing for families most in need of the federal subsidy. “The benefit of having these additional affordable units is that it allows them to move into those units — into slightly higher income units — and then open up those Section 8 units for those folks who then truly need it,” says Mathon.
Further, Mathon also points to the Charlottesville Supplemental Rental Assistance (CSRA) program launched in the fall of 2017 with $900,000 in city funding. The program began as a response to the long list of people waiting for public housing and Housing Choice Vouchers in the city — in July, 2017, there were 1,651 households on the wait lists, which have been closed for years. Mathon says the vouchers issued through the new CSRA program will likely help place more low-income families in the new Friendship Court units priced for households making 40 to 90 percent of the AMI, by helping to subsidize their rents.
It takes a minimum of $35,000 a year for people to live in Charlottesville without any subsidies, according to the recent Orange Dot 3.0 report issued last fall by Ridge Schuyler, the dean of community self-sufficiency programs at Piedmont Virginia Community College. It determined that one in four families in Charlottesville do not earn this much. At that level of income, a person’s affordable rent — 30 percent of their income — would be $875 a month.
Across the street from Friendship Court, at the Gleason, a three-bedroom condo is selling for $1.29 million, a two-bedroom recently sold for $522,250, and a one-bedroom is listed for rent at $2,150/month (affordable for someone making $86,000 a year). One block to the north, at NorCross Station, one-bedroom apartments start renting at $1,175/month (affordable for someone making $47,000) and two-bedrooms at $1,680 (affordable for a family making $67,200). A 2013 study that looked at census data to see how the demographics for the greater neighborhood extending south of downtown have shifted over the previous decade found that more than 400 new white people had moved in, while 180 black people had left.
Alex Ikefuna, the director of Neighborhood Development Services, says this will only get worse if the city doesn’t make some serious changes to invest in affordable housing. “Right now, if we don’t address it, in the long-run the economic development that the city is currently enjoying, low-unemployment rate, is not going to be here, because we’re not going to be able to house people who will be providing employment services to businesses and corporations,” says Ikefuna. “They’re not going to be able to afford to live here, and then if they can’t afford to live here, then the economic development is in jeopardy.”
A recent Housing Needs Assessment commissioned by the city found that at least 3,318 more units of affordable housing are needed in Charlottesville to adequately house its most vulnerable residents — more than half of which would be for people making less than $25,600. More than half of those people, the study found, spend at least 50 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage. And what’s more is that overall, 53 percent (1,750) of the 3,318 needed units would be for people who currently pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing. The study also looked at rental listings on Zillow and Craigslist and found only nine units throughout the entire city that would be affordable to families making $42,650 a year (affordable rent: $1,066/ month).
The Orange Dot 3.0 report found that from 2011 to 2018, rents for a two-bedroom unit in the area increased from an average of $931/month to $1,325/month. That’s a 42 percent increase, but as the report points out, “wages have not increased by 42 percent.” The city’s unemployment rate of 2.4 percent is significantly lower than the national rate of 3.9 percent. Employment experts say this indicates that many Charlottesville residents have jobs, but they simply don’t earn enough to pay their bills and support their families. In crafting the Friendship Court redevelopment plan, of adding more expensive units to the neighborhood, Wright says residents wanted to give themselves an affordable local option to move into, while also doing their part to try and solve the city’s affordable housing crisis.
Another reason for adding more expensive units to the neighborhood, Wright says, is that residents want to dispel the stigmatization that has long been thrust upon Friendship Court (and on Garrett Square before its name was changed in 2003 to try and change that stigma).
“Even for me and my family, my grandmother wasn’t the happiest about finding out that I was moving to Friendship Court,” says Wright, adding that people look at her differently when she tells them where she lives. “People think, on the outside, that everybody that lives here is just poor, just wants to hang out, that they don’t want to have anything else going for themselves, but that’s not the case. A lot of us are educated, a lot of us are starting our own businesses. Some of us are already running our own businesses from our home. But it’s just going to have to take people coming into the community and meeting folks one-on-one and seeing what really goes on here.”
Crystal Johnson has lived in Friendship Court for 13 years and serves on the resident advisory committee as well. She says her children have lost friends because their parents don’t want them hanging out with people who live in Friendship Court. “My kids have seen their friends go from friends, to not talking to them, because there's just this divide that sort of happens over time from the rich kids to the poor kids and it's really unfortunate,” says Johnson. Mathon says he’s heard this desire time and time again from residents. “In particular from the youth on the site, in the advisory committee — that when you have a Garrett Street address, everyone knows where you come from and what your situation is, at least economically,” says Mathon. “And they didn't want to have that stigma anymore. They want to be part of the — they want to see that eroded.”
“To say the only way for Friendship Court to make it, is to bring in market-rate units, is something I will continue to challenge.”— Nikuyah Walker
Mayor Nikuyah Walker, however, says that to try and dispel the stigma by adding wealthier neighbors is like treating an injury without addressing its cause. To have meaningful change, to address the cause of the injury, says Walker, city residents need to work to make stigmatizing their neighbors unacceptable, no matter their income level or life circumstance. But that’s a longer process and goal.
To address the injury itself — to deal with the affordable housing crisis — Walker is asking residents to keep their plan to add 300 units, 150 of which can be priced for people making $34,120-$51,180 (40 to 60 percent of the area median income, or AMI). But the other 150 units, she says, should not be priced at rates for household who make $68,000 to $75,000 a year (80 to 90 percent of the AMI). The surrounding neighborhood already has plenty of those units, she says. Instead, the second tier of 150 units should be capped at income levels for people making $51,180 (60 percent of the AMI), which would be about $1,279/month in rent.
“To say the only way for Friendship Court to make it, is to bring in market-rate units, is something I will continue to challenge,” says Walker. “To frame redevelopment in that context will only serve the members of our community who can afford market-rate rents. With our current social climate, I would feel comfortable saying that redevelopment, done as currently planned, would displace most low-income residents in less than 20 years.” She added that units priced for low-income people are hard to come by in the city, and once they get repurposed for higher-income people, they are gone from that less expensive market forever.
Hearing her concerns, Mathon says he wanted to be absolutely certain with residents that this added layer of market-rate units was set at the right balance for them. And so last year, after the plan had begun to be finalized, Claudette Grant, PHA’s on-site community organizer for Friendship Court, had individual conversations with each of the nine residents on the advisory committee, who had been talking at-length with their neighbors. “And the consensus was ‘yes,’” says Mathon. “It was unanimous. It was very clear, this is the right balance that people feel comfortable with.”
But, within the last month, Mathon says residents have reconsidered, and now, instead of building 150 units for households making around $89,600 a year (100 percent of the AMI), the committee has unanimously supported reserving approximately half of those 150 units for people making around $68,250 a year (80 percent of the AMI). The other approximately 75 units would be set at affordable rental prices for households making between $68,250 to $75,000 a year (80 to 90 percent of the AMI), according to Mathon. This would provide an added tier to the levels of affordable housing in the neighborhood. “We're building a type of housing that doesn't exist downtown,” says Mathon. “We're not building luxury housing."
Walker says she doesn’t fault residents for wanting higher income units in their neighborhood, a decision she attributes to PHA’s redevelopment process. Walker says that if residents had been provided with a person, or an organization, dedicated solely to advocating for their long-term goals, with no ties or allegiances to PHA — like Grant, Mathon, and Ogbu all have — residents may have concluded sooner that a lower-income ceiling was not only possible, but desirable. “Families at Friendship Court are only presented with options that PHA already finds desirable,” says Walker. “Historically, those types of options usually favor the individuals with the most power.” PHA should have created “a new definition of mixed-income that only favors current families and families at or below 60 percent of our AMI,” says Walker.
“You never know who may come into your life and help change some things in your life for the better and for the positive.”— Angel Turner
Walker questions too whether the architects, the design team, and PHA staff gave residents all available options, even those that would have made life more difficult for PHA — such as significantly increasing the non-profit’s overall debt burden by subsidizing the rents of the highest priced market-rate units and making them affordable for families making 60 percent of the AMI.
Mathon says that, yes, some redevelopment options, such as those that could have undermined PHA’s financial health, were not on the table. But that’s because those choices would have jeopardized the future financial security of the neighborhood and the low-income residents there now, he says. “Regardless of who the ownership entity is, in order to maintain stability and permanence for the residents who call it home, Friendship Court has to financially sustain itself over the long-run,” says Mathon. “All decisions maintain this principle as a central goal.” Further, Mathon says that PHA has dedicated “more organizational financial reserves into the work of redevelopment planning at Friendship Court than it is likely ever to recover, because of its commitment to the residents and their vision.”
And though it was formed before his hiring at PHA, Mathon says he sees the advisory committee as being “exceptionally well-founded.” He points to its makeup — out of 15 total members, a majority (nine) are residents. “They embody a remarkably thorough cross-section of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities,” says Mathon. The other six members include two city officials, the head of a non-profit and a philanthropy, a former resident, and an architect.
But the verdict on mixed-income communities is still out, for some. Cooper says living in hers has had its downsides. She says that her kids are judged harshly by their white neighbors because they’re African-American. In part, she says, that’s because people in her neighborhood stay in their bubbles. “I don't know ninety-five percent of my neighbors,” she says. “I don't know their names, I don't know their children. What I don't like about living here is you lose the sense of community and building relationships with your neighbors.”
One of the neighbors Cooper does know is Angel Turner. Like Cooper, Turner is one of the inaugural families to move into the mixed-income community. She lives just several doors down, and also grew up in Charlottesville, living in public housing before moving to her new home. She now works as a homeowners services associate at Habitat and says though the neighborhood isn’t perfect — what neighborhood is? — after two and a half years, she does feel like it’s home. And though she mostly knows her Habitat neighbors, Turner says she socializes with three of the market-rate families as well, and doesn’t worry about her son going outside to play with his friends.
“For me, I found my piece of community members that I associate with, where we can help each other out as far as the kids are concerned,” she says. Turner says she understands people’s hesitation about being around people who aren’t like them, but she tries to encourage her neighbors to go beyond that. “Because blessings come in disguises,” she says. “You never know who may come into your life and help change some things in your life for the better and for the positive.” That goes both ways, she says.
Burnet Commons is one of six intentional mixed-income neighborhoods built by Habitat in this area. Executive director Dan Rosensweig says mixed-income communities work, but not immediately — they take time to cultivate.
“American housing policy for more than a century has really pushed us towards segregated neighborhoods,” says Rosensweig, pointing to the Garrett Street area, which, before urban renewal, had more low- and middle-income black and white families living next to each other than today. “We’re getting used to living together again. And the early years aren't always easy, because there are a lot of — there's often cultural conflict from people that just aren't used to living [next to] each other. What I can tell you is that, over time, it works fabulously.” Rosensweig says most intentionally mixed-income communities have “a honeymoon period,” and then “the rubber hits the road because you have to figure out how to live together.” He says he doesn’t know any other way to bridge the racial divide, other “than to live among each other, and to know each other, and to do the hard work to actually come to understand each other. I honestly don't know any other way.”
Turner agrees, saying, “If you can, try to be a mentor in your neighborhood… between your neighbors, and see if you can all sit down and talk about these things and be open about it,” she says. “Agree to disagree, and let that go forward.”
Wright says she has no illusions about people getting along immediately after moving into the redeveloped Friendship Court, and that true harmony may be a generational shift. “It may take a little bit longer for us here in Charlottesville,” says Wright, who recalls walking her children back home from school on Avon Street and passing by a white woman with a dog. The kids started playing with the dog and Wright and the woman struck up a conversation. “And she’s like, ‘Oh do you live in the neighborhood?’” Wright recalled. “Yes ma’am, I live right down the street in Friendship Court,” Wright responded. The woman said, “Oh really? And you speak so well.” Wright says the woman might not have even realized how racist and prejudiced the comment was. “Even though some people are racist, they really don’t even know it,” says Wright. “It takes certain situations, certain things to take place, for them to kind of realize that they are or that they do have issues with being this close to a black person.”
Councilor Wes Bellamy, a supporter of the redevelopment plan, says he grew up in a mixed-income community in Atlanta, and he thinks they work well. “We had our housing projects torn down and built over,” recalls Bellamy. “And one part of our neighborhood was intentionally mixed with the multitude of different people. You had professors from Georgia Tech, you had folks who just were living in public housing from around the way — a lot of us were all mixed together having to live together, having to get to know each other. I saw the benefits of it. I got a chance to meet people who I normally wouldn't interact with or normally wouldn't talk to.”
Bellamy says that in order for a lasting positive change to be had in a place like Friendship Court, current residents and incoming residents must agree that this is something new they are creating together. “We have to be very intentional, with the folks who move in there knowing that this isn't their neighborhood — or the folks who've been living there, this isn't their neighborhood,” says Bellamy. “It's all of our neighborhood and everyone has an equal say and an equal voice.”
The third, and final, reason Friendship Court residents want to build units at a higher price level, they say, is to integrate the neighborhood, socially, financially, and racially. By having neighbors with higher incomes, the hope is that the oft-unspoken social networking bonds that help people get jobs or get into college or get help with a project, will be more readily available. Traditionally, in Charlottesville, these networks have thrived primarily in high-income and white circles.
Resident Crystal Johnson says she supported adding the 300 higher-income units to the neighborhood because she wants kids to have access to a diverse set of role models. “There are very real choices that you need to make, even from a very young age, that if you never know that those options are out there how are you going to know to make those choices?” says Johnson. “If you don't see better, how are you going to know to do better? You’ve got to find that example around you.”
But Mayor Walker, who has worked with people experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues, says wealthy people too have harmful behaviors. “So that doesn't mean that just by having those individuals live next to you that there won't be an issue,” says Walker. “But if there is an issue you better believe they're going to be taken care of and you will not be.”
“If you live next door to a judge, do you think that you will have dinner with that judge at Farmington?”— William M. Harris
William M. Harris, Sr. is a former planning commissioner in Charlottesville, an urban planning professor and UVa’s first dean of African-American affairs. Harris says he hopes he’s wrong, but if history is to be any guide, these are misplaced aspirations — the high income and white circles of power and influence will not open to lower-income residents simply because they live nearby.
“If you live next door to a judge, do you think that you will have dinner with that judge at Farmington?” he asks. “If you live next door to the chief of police, do you think you will have an opportunity or an occasion at the private level to talk to him or her about police behaviors toward young African-American males? The complete answer is ‘no’ in every case.”
Cooper too fears that the isolation and disconnection from her neighbors that she’s come to experience in Burnet Commons III will also take place in Friendship Court. She worries that this could lead to current residents moving out. “Some people do not do well with change,” says Cooper. “So when you start to feel uncomfortable with your surroundings around you, then you look for other avenues so that you could feel that you’re wanted or feel that you live in a place where people look like you.”
These social and cultural differences can get uglier too, says Walker, who has been raising the issue since before she was a candidate for city council. In an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow in 2017, Walker pointed to the differences of people in high-income and low-income circumstances. For example, disagreements might arise, she says, about when it’s acceptable to call the police, or involve child protective services — two local agencies that affect African-Americans negatively at disproportionately higher rates than white people.
“We're going to have more police involvement, more Department of Social Services involvement,” she said. “And right now, the Charlottesville police department and the Department of Social Services are having some major issues based on racial and discriminatory practices within their departments. So even if we get this right in terms of being able to build, and have everybody on board with that, we haven't fixed the social issues, the class issues, that we have in our city.”
Mathon says he knows this huge change will be hard — both for current residents and their future neighbors, as well as PHA staff — but it’ll be worth it. And PHA, he says, will be at the epicenter, helping to lead those longer and daily conversations about what living together actually entails. “There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this proposed structure of integrating the community is insufficient on its own to achieve success,” says Mathon. “Success will require, not just people living side by side, but tenacious, thoughtful efforts to seed and cultivate cross-cultural understanding and respect.”
At a meeting in October at a Neighborhood Development Services conference room in City Hall, Mathon spoke to 15 interested residents — nearly all white — who live or work in the surrounding area, about what redevelopment will entail. Friendship Court residents weren’t so much worried about being physically displaced, he told the group, “but there is the significant risk of social displacement and psychological displacement. So there is a lot of work ahead of us to figure out how to help people co-exist, and still be able to maintain — not just assimilate in one direction or the other, but co-exist — maintain their own culture and identity, and have respect for other people’s cultures and identities. So, what social norms are on site, what the social expectations are on site, there is going to be a lot at the management level [that will be done] to provide opportunities for education, commingling, getting to know each other so that it can happen as smoothly as possible. But it will — there will be mistakes along the way.”