It had been three years since the city gave $350,000 to Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA) to launch its redevelopment planning process for Friendship Court, and now, in the fall of 2018, the non-profit that owns the 12-acre property was ready to tell city councilors just how much the plan would cost — the plan that will redevelop 150 Section 8 units and add 300 more expensive units to the neighborhood — the plan that city planners are calling the largest they’ve ever encountered.
It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and several dozen people — city councilors, non-profit staff, residents, advocates, the press — filed into City Space downtown to hear the pitch. But there was another agenda on the table that evening as well. Early in the planning process, Friendship Court residents had formed a 9-person advisory committee that’s been the driving voice in crafting nearly every aspect of it. But more recently, as details of the plan began to make their way to the public, residents on the committee started to hear criticism, questioning their decision to add to their neighborhood 150 units priced at 100 percent of the area median income, which for a family of four equates to an income of $89,600 a year and an affordable monthly rent of $2,240. This criticism came as residents on the committee were privately exploring ways to reduce the rents of those market-rate units to be more affordable for lower-income households.
Three residents on the committee sat at a table across the room from city councilors. Holding a microphone for one another, they took turns reading from a letter they’d carefully written to councilors. “We do not want to be an exclusively low-income development. We want a mixed-income community,” they said. “We see the work we are doing as being a part of the solution, and hope our plan and approach offers one example for future affordable housing plans in the city. We want to lead our future, not follow an old outdated model of segregated low-income housing developments.”
In a morphing landscape that rapidly and seamlessly shifts between advocating for one’s own neighborhood and being part of something bigger, the residents were claiming their voice in a long and hard-fought process that has repeatedly raised the question: Who does Friendship Court belong to? Practically speaking. Who is it for? Who is it not for? Who is trying to co-opt it? And how does its redevelopment plan fit into the surrounding city and the dozens of deviating, and at-times, conflicting plans for housing, for commerce, and for opportunities?
In 2014, the city adopted a 271-page document that lays out plans for a Strategic Investment Area (SIA) — a 330-acre swath of Charlottesville south of downtown that the city has deemed “distressed” and wants to redevelop. It’s home to thousands of low-income residents, who historically have not been listened to when considering how the future of their neighborhood will look. The SIA will “build the foundations for economically viable neighborhoods of opportunity and choice within one of the city’s most distressed communities by promoting mixed-income residential development without displacement and employment growth,” the plan states.
After the SIA plan was released, however, some residents who participated in the extensive drafting process said their voices weren’t heard, and weren’t reflected in the lengthy resulting document. Former city councilor Bob Fenwick, the only one to vote against the plan, said at the time, “I encourage you to be skeptical, because you are going to hear a lot of promises. But where are the assurances that those promises are going to be kept?” That skepticism has fed off the city’s history and caused some to worry that current low-income residents will be forced out, one way or another. And though the SIA plan committed to the resident bill of rights that was adopted by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) in 2008, which ensures no existing resident will ever be displaced during any future redevelopment efforts, it also included statements like the following: “The plan recommends that some current public housing sites be converted to mixed-income housing and some remain strictly affordable.”
“You can have an entire office building and as long as it’s got one residential unit in it, it's called mixed-use. That's not solving our housing problem.”— Kathy Galvin
Councilor Kathy Galvin, who has been the SIA’s biggest champion on City Council, says the Friendship Court redevelopment plan is exactly in keeping with the SIA — it has smooth transitions to the surrounding neighborhood, it makes a push for local small business opportunities, it creates an early childhood center, and it has a mixed-income balance of new and existing units. “It’s quite a marvel to see how that worked out,” says Galvin. In recent years, she has focused on a key element of the SIA: zoning. Currently, she says, many of the lots surrounding Friendship Court are zoned as “downtown extended,” which allows developers to construct 9-story tall buildings. Galvin wants the area to adopt a form based code instead, which would allow the city to craft zoning measures that constrain the heights and shapes of buildings, so that Friendship Court residents don’t fall under the shadow of future development.
But, it may be too late. Two 9-story mixed-use buildings are already set to go up along Garrett Street — one behind the ACAC Family Fitness Center, and another behind the Glass Building. Neither are required by code to construct more than one residential unit in each building. “You can have an entire office building and as long as it’s got one residential unit in it, it's called mixed-use,” says Galvin. “That's not solving our housing problem."
Brian Haluska, principal planner in the city’s Neighborhood Development Services, says the buildings will most likely be office towers for lawyers or corporations, with a possible parking garage and maybe commercial space on the ground floor. “It’s the kind of thing where you would hope that the tenants that are coming in there, if they're looking to hire or if they're going to make a big expansion, that they might hold a job fair nearby and say, ‘Hey, this is perfect for the people in Sixth Street, the people in South First Street, all of the developments in there.’ It's a walk across the street and you're at work, I mean that'd be the coolest thing ever,” says Haluska.
One of the lasting effects of economic racism in Charlottesville has been the difficulty for African-Americans to open businesses that thrive. The SIA plan states that, “A critical component of successful implementation of the SIA plan is to reinforce the integration of social and job advancement services and facilities.” But, four years after its adoption, almost none of the commercial businesses surrounding Friendship Court are owned by African-Americans. What’s more, is that residents in Friendship Court don’t frequent many of the surrounding businesses, because they say they’re too expensive and aren’t built with them in mind, or they don’t feel welcome there.
“Hell no! It’s expensive,” says Marissa Turner-Harris, a Friendship Court resident and community activist, when asked whether she goes to ACAC. Turner-Harris works four jobs and runs a non-profit diaper service for parents. Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who lived in Friendship Court for seven years, agrees, saying she had a membership at ACAC but was struck by how few other black people went there. “If you walk into ACAC, you will see people at the front desk [and] a lot of the cleaning staff are black, and then everybody else in the building, besides a few here and there, are white,” says Walker. “It's like its own private little country club.”
Across the street, in the IX complex, is Three Notch’d brewery, which says it employs about 75 people at that site, one of the largest employers in the area. Some employees are from the neighborhood, says company president Scott Roth. But of the 22 people showcased on its website as part of “Our Team” none are black. When brought to his attention, Roth said the website was outdated.
Shymora Cooper has lived in the neighborhood for more than 13 years. “I have been to some of those places and a lot of the people that look like me is in the kitchen,” says Cooper. “I'm quite sure they're not making enough money to be able to live in Charlottesville, it's just not set up that way. It should be, if you really want to do true inclusion, but it's just not.” Kitchen positions typically pay between $10-17/hour.
Roth says the issue of pay and staff diversity for Three Notch’d is “extremely important.” “Our staff is like family,” said Roth in an e-mail. “And our young company has expanded on the principles of civic responsibility and freedom of expression. We are proud of our diverse and loyal staff, and understand that offering a living wage is paramount to creating a foundation upon which to build our business. Our employees are the best in the business and we compensate each of them accordingly. We are humbled and excited to be a growing employer in vibrant downtown Charlottesville, specifically the Garrett Street and Friendship Court communities.”
The Friendship Court redevelopment plan uses Phase 4 to try and tackle this economic piece. It’s the final phase that will front Second Street SE and Garrett Street, and is slated for completion in 2027. It will include a series of commercial spaces and opportunities that residents want to prioritize for their immediate neighbors. Separately, PHA is in the process of hiring someone to be an on-site economic coordinator for the neighborhood. City Council recently funded [TOIO LINK: 04-essay-image-02] the position with $75,000, which will also help launch a Community Wealth-Building program to connect residents with existing employment programs and outside job opportunities.
Residents and PHA agree that the redevelopment plan needs to prioritize the construction of an early childhood center in Phase 1. It will be on the ground floor of a building in the center of the neighborhood — on the second floor will be PHA’s permanent on-site offices. PHA staff and the resident advisory committee are currently meeting and engaging, in much the same listening process that was done for the redevelopment plan, to discuss who should lead the center. They are slated to have a plan in place in early 2019.
Mathon says that PHA wants the center to be a job-creator 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. “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.”
There’s another significant change afoot in Friendship Court. Over the last five years, refugees arriving through the International Rescue Committee have been resettling in the neighborhood. Zafar Khan estimates there are at least 30 refugee families there now. Originally from Afghanistan, Khan moved to Friendship Court in 2015 and has served as the only refugee on the resident advisory committee for the last three years. “There has to be somebody from this community to be involved in all of those issues and concerns that people have,” says Khan.
Initially, with talk of redevelopment, refugee families were concerned that — having fled for their lives from all across the world — their new homes were now in jeopardy, says Khan. But through Khan’s work on the committee, their concerns have largely been assuaged, and he says most families will likely stay in the new neighborhood after redevelopment. “People will have more chances for new jobs, and people will have new hope for doing new things in their life with new houses,” says Khan. “These things really affect people.”
When residents talk about their neighborhood, those who have grown up or spent much of their lives in Charlottesville still call it, “Garrett.” In part, it’s a habit, a reflex — how people still call what’s now Greenstone on 5th, “Prospect” — but more than that, it’s a way of retaining ownership over what’s theirs in the face of what it’s becoming. The name was changed with the support of residents in 2003 when PHA and the National Housing Trust-Enterprise Preservation Corp. bought the property. Supportive residents at the time said they were tired of being stigmatized by the rest of Charlottesville because of where they live.
“That land has been paid for and purchased off the backs of [their ancestors]. The government grants that fueled its original development in the 70’s, it's what paid for the land. And so they, technically, if it was a fair system, would own it.”— Nikuyah Walker
Councilor Wes Bellamy says he thinks that page is turning, where residents are now beginning to have their voices heard in a real and tangible way. “We want to ensure that we're not creating enclaves of social poverty, but also we're not just allowing people with the multitude of wealth [to] just build these massive structures around people who don't have as much, to make them feel uncomfortable in their own neighborhoods and we have to continue being vocal about that,” says Bellamy, adding that councilors have sent a strong message to developers “that community engagement is not something that you just may want to do, this is something that you're going to have to do."
When asked, ‘Who does Friendship Court belong to?’ Mayor Nikuyah Walker took a longer view of the land in question, looking back to the days before urban renewal wiped out the largely African-American neighborhood, and even to the time before that, when African-Americans were enslaved there by Alexander Garrett. If PHA is serious about empowering residents, she says they should move towards a co-operative model where residents have some ownership of the 12-acre property. “That land has been paid for and purchased off the backs of [their ancestors],” says Walker. “The government grants that fueled its original development in the 70’s, it's what paid for the land. And so they, technically, if it was a fair system, would own it. It wouldn't be for a non-profit to be able to dictate where and when and who and how. And so individuals would have more say, and there should be just the acknowledgement that they only have the land in their possession because of the laws at the time.”
Mathon agrees with Walker, saying that, “within the constraints imposed by the standard, and unavoidable, funding models for redevelopment, we absolutely are exploring how to layer in a creative financial structure, which directly acknowledges and responds to this history.” What that will end up looking like, Mathon says, is still unclear, “but creating a such a solution is a high priority.”