On a cold February evening in 2018, a steady stream of people walk into the Friendship Court community center. It’s Claudette Grant’s home base — a large one-story building in the heart of the neighborhood where a consistent series of classes and programs are held with residents. In 2015, residents chose Grant to advocate for them and be the neighborhood’s on-site community organizer. Soon after, Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA), which owns the 12-acre downtown property, hired her, making the role official. That was more than two years ago, when talk about redeveloping the 150 Section 8 homes was still just a whisper.
Now, inside the community center’s main meeting hall, Grant is in the back serving warm pizza to residents as kids shuffle between rows of metal folding chairs. In the front of the room are two large posters detailing the most recent redevelopment plan. The initial master plan, put forward in 2016, was unpopular with residents, so for the last three months a small group of residents has regularly met with PHA staff and designers to revamp it. At the helm of these recent work sessions has been PHA’s new CEO, Sunshine Mathon.
“Every history has a reason for celebration, and, often times, has a reason for anger.”— Sunshine Mathon
Mathon’s in front of the crowd of about 30 people in the community center, wearing a collared button-down short sleeve shirt and tan pants. He picks up the microphone.
“First of all, I want to introduce myself. My name is Sunshine Mathon. I’m the executive director of Piedmont Housing Alliance,” says the 46-year old Mathon. “I’ve been in Charlottesville for the last 6 months or so. For the previous 14 years, I lived in Texas and there I was working for a similar organization, building affordable housing.”
The crowd doesn’t immediately cede the floor — some have never met him — and they continue talking to each other, but Mathon doesn’t shout or try to get control. Instead, he continues his introductory remarks, diving straight into the oft-unacknowledged crux of redevelopment conversations in Charlottesville: the past.
“Every history has a reason for celebration, and, often times, has a reason for anger,” says Mathon. “And I think it’s really important that we acknowledge the history of the past of where we are. I think it helps us inform decisions, and in the future make better decisions.”
Mathon was hired by PHA in the summer of 2017 — six months after the departure of Frank Grosch, the non-profit’s previous CEO. Grosch, who led PHA for four years, initiated the redevelopment process for Friendship Court, securing $350,000 from the city in the fall of 2015 to conduct a market analysis and draft a master plan. Friendship Court is almost 40 years old and falling apart. Inside the 150 units, tiled flooring regularly comes up, paint peels off the walls, upstairs pipes clog, stairs break. It’s old, and maintenance requests have been known to go unmet for weeks, sometimes months, according to residents. It’s in need of serious rehabilitation, or as PHA was considering, and residents were supporting: a complete redevelopment.
Around the time PHA received city funding — in the fall of 2015 — the non-profit organization hired San Francisco-based architect Liz Ogbu to lead them through the community-engagement portion of redevelopment. Ogbu specializes in resident-driven design processes that attempt to address long-standing racial and economic injustices. She focuses on trying to heal the effects of trauma by using physical space, like the redevelopment of a neighborhood. At Ogbu’s direction, PHA helped residents interview candidates for a community organizer position, eventually choosing Grant, whose first action was to hold an election. Ogbu said residents should form their own advisory committee — an ultimate group of nine elected residents and six non-residents that acts as a liaison between the 450 other residents and PHA’s staff, board, and contractors.
Six months later — in June, 2016 — PHA released its first master plan, a 68-page document that floated the idea of adding as many as 490 units to the site, increasing the existing 150 units to a possible total of 640, the majority of them priced for people with incomes six times as large as those of current residents. The resident advisory committee was outraged. Though PHA had promised them zero resident displacement, it was now saying that in order to pay for the cost of redevelopment, it would need to add nearly five times the number of residents, most of whom would lead very different lives because of how much money they made. Residents wondered: was this displacement by another name? In a strongly worded letter to Grosch, residents vehemently objected. “This does not feel like a resident-involved process, which is what we were promised,” they wrote.
Tamara Wright is a founding member of the resident advisory committee and has lived in Friendship Court since 2006. “I don’t want to say anything negative about Frank [Grosch], I think that he did have a lot of positive qualities,” says Wright, a jewelry designer and small business owner. “With Frank, it was more about the numbers, making sure that we had enough market-rate apartments to pay the mortgage, which is what he said. But I think Sunshine [Mathon] is more about giving that whole community-feel, making sure that we don’t feel pushed out of our neighborhood and keeping a balance with the number of units that are going to be here on the property.”
“Now, it is being linked more with a social justice framework and a racial justice framework.”— Liz Ogbu
Ogbu agreed, saying that under Grosch’s leadership, PHA had approached the redevelopment process more from a for-profit developer’s mindset than from a resident-engagement framework. Historically, Ogbu explains, major design and planning decisions in Charlottesville, and throughout the country, have been made by the powerful and wealthy. Poorer residents bear the brunt of these decisions as they’re forced to live in communities not designed for or by them. “I think before, there was sort of like [a philosophy to] provide housing and planning for the poor and marginalized communities because it is the right thing to do,” says Ogbu. “I think now, it is being linked more with a social justice framework and a racial justice framework — that it's not a patronizing thing of providing it for them, but [rather], we should be doing it with them and figuring out how to give a voice to them as part of this process and how, in doing this process, that we can start to disrupt conditions of privilege and power and, particularly, uneven power distribution.”
With Friendship Court, PHA wanted to be part of a rapidly growing national conversation around resident-driven development. Housing organizations across the country — from Minnesota and Alabama, to St. Louis and Pittsburgh — are experimenting with what it looks like if residents themselves make the decisions that shape the details of their future neighborhoods — the width of the streets, the total number of units, the layout of their bedrooms, the distance between a parking space and their front door. Usually, developers make these decisions. And in Charlottesville, that historic norm has been one mired in racism, classism, and discrimination. To try and do things differently would take a longer conversation.
Five months after residents wrote Grosch with objections, he left PHA. (The year before, according to tax filings, he made $148,857 at PHA.) Six months later, Mathon was hired. Ogbu recalls, “I think by the time Sunshine came in, there are a lot of people who [were] more than ready to have that conversation about what happened — and not necessarily re-legislating the past, but—what needs to happen to move forward? What are the things that people don't like about it? And what are the things that they want?” Grosch declined to comment for this article.
“The fault of planners and architects forever has been — and I say this as an architect by training — is that we, architects and planners as professionals, as ‘experts,’ tend to think that [we] know what the solutions should be.”— Sunshine Mathon
When Mathon was hired — in the summer of 2017 — he saw two forces at play, he says. Ultimately, each one had the same goal, but they were asking different things of him. One part was asking him to hurry up, to hit the ground running — redevelopment plans had stalled in the six months PHA searched for a new CEO, and they were at risk of losing momentum if he didn’t take action soon. But the second part was that Mathon also knew he needed to build relationships with residents, to take the time necessary to build trust, to listen to their stories and desires “with the biggest ears I could possibly develop.”
By October, under Mathon’s direction, the resident advisory committee and Grant were meeting every two weeks with Grimm and Parker, the architecture firm they’d selected the year before. Sometimes they’d meet at the community center in Friendship Court, but more often they’d venture over to Grimm and Parker’s offices on the second floor above the Wells Fargo bank on the Downtown Mall. The Mall is just three blocks from Friendship Court, but many residents say they don’t feel comfortable or wanted there. Ogbu would join by video and residents said they slowly began to feel that their opinions were not only being sought, but respected and valued. Every meeting, they were paid $150 each. They worked with scaled models, made site visits to other mixed-income communities in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., and helped design every last detail of their future neighborhood.
“We worked really hard to make sure that all of the residents feel comfortable,” says Wright of the final designs. In addition to building the trust between staff and residents, Mathon says they had to build the “knowledge base” among residents, who had not gone to school for planning or architecture, and foster “their understanding of how a site comes together so they could make informed decisions.”
“The fault of planners and architects forever has been — and I say this as an architect by training — is that we, architects and planners as professionals, as ‘experts,’ tend to think that [we] know what the solutions should be,” says Mathon. “I think the narrative that has emerged over the last decade or two is that, bottom line, people want to have the same choices that everyone else has. They want to choose what schools they go to. They want to choose what jobs they want to be near. They want to choose how close they are to their family. They want to choose the types of housing to live in, whether they want to be a homeowner or renter. People want choice and deserve choice, and fundamentally what Friendship Court ideally will become is an emblem of that opportunity for choice, and hopefully as a template for all the work that the city needs to do as a whole.”
Fearing social or cultural displacement, residents wanted an even split of: 150 low-income units, 150 middle-income units, and 150 higher-income units. The median income for current residents of Friendship Court is $14,000 a year, and many feared that adding too many wealthier neighbors to the area would displace the lower-income residents.
“There was a feeling of social displacement and the community that people know and in some ways love would be gone and take over by a differing set of social norms and a different level of accountability,” says Mathon.
This division of units by income is the definition of an intentionally mixed-income neighborhood. It has some people deeply concerned, because though this type of community has had success in other parts of the country, it has yet to thoroughly work in Charlottesville. Its supporters say that it could also be a way to potentially help integrate the deep income — and often racial — divisions that have always existed in the city .
150 x Section 8: Both the old and new master plans called for the preservation of the 150 Section 8 units. In July, 2018, PHA received a 20-year renewed extension from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) of the Section 8 vouchers attached to each of these units, guaranteeing them for families who make less than $25,600 — 30 percent of the area median income (AMI). (Affordable rent: $640/month)
150 x Affordable: The old plan only called for 80 of these units. In the new plan, using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), the neighborhood will add 150 units for people who make between $34,120 and $51,180 (40 to 60 percent of the AMI). (Affordable rent: $853-1,279/month)
150 x Higher Income: This was the biggest push for residents. The old plan proposed building as many as 370 units priced affordably for people who make $89,600 (100 percent of the AMI) (Affordable rent: $2,240/month). But under the new plan, residents reduced this number to 150 units, and recently they have supported lowering the rent prices for these units, dedicating approximately 75 to people making about $68,250 (80 percent of the AMI) (Affordable rent: $1,706/month), and the other 75 units priced as affordable for people making about $75,000 (or around 85 to 90 percent of the AMI).
The new plan reduces the number of overall phases from seven to four (with the promise to have all current residents housed by the end of Phase 3), and reduces the overall construction timeline from 13 years to 7 years. Historically, the longer a construction timeline extends, the greater the chance that residents might be displaced, because who wants to live in a construction site? By building the first 106 units in Phase 1 on the empty green space that spans the length of Sixth Street SE, the redevelopment process can move current residents into their new homes before they demolish their old ones to make way for the construction of Phase 2. In past redevelopment projects in other parts of the state and throughout the country, if residents were forced to move to a temporary unit while their permanent housing was being constructed, only a small percentage (15 to 40 percent) of them actually made the second move to their permanent home. Further, by reducing the total number of years of construction, PHA reduces its financial risk of construction costs fluctuating drastically, of the financial or housing markets crashing, or of tax credits losing value.
The old plan only had apartment buildings as the final home type for every future residents. But the new plan creates a mixture of apartment-style buildings mixed with townhouses as well. Residents did not want to lose the townhome-style feel that many of them have today, which allows them to walk through their front door and be immediately outside. It allows for their kids to come in and out more easily, for them to keep an eye on their kids more easily, and for them to carry groceries in directly from their cars.
The redevelopment team considered building only townhomes, and not doing any apartment-style units, but according to Mathon, residents realized that “you couldn't actually get the number of people on site, add the additional affordable housing…that the residents felt was necessary and still also replace all the existing units… In order to get at some of the need for additional density on site, some of it had to be that multifamily apartment style…The other balance to that too is that for many families whether they might be seniors with mobility issues or families where there's somebody with mobility impairments, having elevator access to units and units all on one floor makes a huge difference.”
In the new plan, residents felt it was important to create different income tiers for different homes, so that if they began making more money, they could move into a more expensive unit, but not have to leave the neighborhood. “For those folks who feel stuck in Section 8 housing because they can't find other housing, if their income does increase and they can't find other housing in the region or in the area that they can afford — 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.
“As a city, we don't just need additional 30 percent AMI units, we actually need those additional [40 to 60 percent AMI] units [as well]…So if we provide opportunities for folks to move into 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent AMI units, it actually begins to move people up that spectrum and open up those other units that are desperately needed.” One thing residents are still concerned about is whether PHA can help prioritize current Section 8 residents moving into the units reserved for families making $34,129 to $51,180. Will it be first-come, first-served, with a waiting list? Mathon says PHA has to abide by fair housing laws, and is still working out those details.
The new plan puts all three income tiers — low-income/middle-income/high-income — into each of the first three building phases. By doing this, residents aim to mix the income levels throughout the neighborhood, and not segregate them by geography within the neighborhood. Mathon says this decision goes towards greater attempts by residents to de-stigmatize how they are viewed by people outside of Friendship Court.
“They wanted to have a situation where people are walking down the street and they have no idea whether that unit’s a market-rate unit. Is that unit a subsidized unit? Is that a heavily subsidized unit? They wanted to erode that stigma,” says Mathon.
Residents and PHA agreed that the new redevelopment plan needed to include the construction of an early childhood center in Phase 1, so that residents can benefit from it as soon as possible. It will be on the ground floor of a building in the center of the neighborhood, and on the second floor will be PHA’s permanent on-site offices. PHA staff and the resident advisory committee are meeting and engaging, in much the same process as the redevelopment conversations, to discuss who should lead the center, and they are slated to have a plan sometime in early 2019.
Mathon also said that PHA would like for the center to be a job creator that pays at least a living wage as well, noting that in Virginia the average hourly wage for preschool teachers is less than $12/hour, which at a full-time salary is less than $25,000 a year (Affordable rent: $625/month).
“We don’t want to be in the position of creating jobs that are poverty-levels jobs,” says Mathon. “That doesn’t make any sense. And how do you build a business model that serves low-income families who can’t pay very much for childcare, if anything, and still allows us to pay teachers a living wage, not just living wage, but a wage that is decent? That is a nut we have not yet figured out how to crack. But that’s a piece of [the redevelopment plan].”
The new plan’s design calls for green spaces and a large central park that may be city maintained, not only for residents but for outside neighbors and community members as well. The new plan also aims to reconnect the neighborhood to the surrounding area with streets and pathways, making it walkable, and not isolated.
“Many have expressed to me… a desire to be reconnected to the city as a whole [and not] doing it in a way where they feel like their community is chopped up and where the road pathways don’t feel safe for the kids,” says Mathon.