On June 9, 2009, the Charlottesville Planning Commission voted 3-2 to recommend a change in the City’s zoning ordinance to allow for Single Room Occupancy (SRO) facilities to be built in more locations throughout the City. While the facilities could conceivably be constructed today, the zoning change would clear the way for them to be located throughout the city with on-site support services.

City Planner Ebony Walden addresses the Planning Commission

SRO facilities are seen by many, including Mayor Dave Norris, as a “permanent solution” for the homeless by providing low-cost rental units. In anticipation of the zoning ordinance being approved, Council voted on May 18, 2009 to give Richmond-based Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) $125,000 in start-up funds to find a location to build a 60-unit SRO facility somewhere within the City limits.

“Our City Council vision, comprehensive plan and consolidated plan all point towards creating more affordable housing options for all of Charlottesville residents,” said City Planner Ebony Walden. “Providing a zoning classification for SRO facilities is a means by which the City can encourage alternative affordable housing options.”

Walden said a developer could build single-room facilities under existing regulations, but an apartment complex with 60 units would require more parking than necessary for housing for low-income and no-income individuals. The draft ordinance under consideration by the Commission included the following provisions:

Walden said she had received many public comments from residents concerned that being located nearby an SRO facility would decrease the value of their property and would attract an “unwanted segment of the population.” She said she had sent a letter to all of the City’s neighborhood association presidents.

Only one person spoke during the public comment period. Colette Hall of the North Downtown Residents Association said her organization wanted the units to be open to Charlottesville residents first, an SRO facility must have a resident director, and bathrooms should be provided with each unit.

Planning Commissioners Cheri Lewis and Michael Osteen were both opposed to the requirement that mandated that only one person per room. Osteen asked Walden why she felt this regulation was necessary.

“Seventy percent of homeless people are single people, so this type of housing is really for single adults,” Walden said.

Lewis said she was certain that not allowing couples to share an SRO unit would be a violation of federal housing rules against discrimination. She understood that VSH’s business model only supported single-occupant rooms, but that the City’s zoning ordinance should allow more flexibility if another SRO-builder submitted an application. Osteen said the 30% of homeless that are not single would be discriminated against if the zoning code prevented them from living in an SRO with a spouse or friend. He said that at a minimum, 15% of SRO units should be open to married couples or other partnerships.

“I think [the ordinance] is unnecessarily restrictive,” Osteen said. “I understand the primary discussions came from a client who has a business model that works for singles and I applaud that. But I think that there are other models out there.”

Commission Vice Chair Michael Farruggio brokered a compromise, and the Commission settled on Osteen’s idea that up to 15% of units in an SRO facility could be open to two people in one room.

Commissioners Cheri Lewis, Michael Osteen and Michael Farruggio

Another point of discussion was whether each unit should have its own bathroom and kitchen. Commissioner Mike Farruggio was adamant that this requirement be left in, and pointed out that VSH would only build units with those amenities. Lewis reminded Farruggio that the Commission should not be tailoring an ordinance just for VSH. She said the zoning ordinance should allow a food preparation area, but not require it.

“There may be some redevelopment or readaptive opportunities here where the units really can’t be retrofitted to have kitchens within them,” Lewis said. She reminded the Commission that the recent report of the joint City-County task force on affordable housing recommended the possibility of converting old motels to SRO units. Osteen warned that the Department of Housing and Urban Development might not subsidize the cost of each SRO unit if they contain both a kitchen and a bathroom.

“Section 8 financing of low-income housing really says a studio is a one-room unit that must contain a kitchen and a bathroom,” Osteen said. “An SRO unit is not required to have either one although [it] may have one or the other. They set a threshold amount they will pay for these units. All the [cost] on that is not going to get paid for… So if we’re looking for a model that’s going to pay for a unit, we need to have the most affordable unit that is being subsidized.”

Commissioner Genevieve Keller said because a goal of an SRO is to give homeless people a way to find their independence, a bath and a kitchen would be required. The Commission’s debate at times got somewhat heated as they debated government subsidy levels. Farruggio tried to broker another deal and suggested 15% of units could share bathroom and kitchen facilities.

“This is the area where we seem to have the most disagreement,” Farruggio said. Lewis objected to altering the ordinance on the fly as a Commission. Eventually, Farruggio said there was a majority leaning towards requiring both a kitchen and a bath and a motion was crafted to reflect that consensus.

During a discussion of how close the SRO facilities should be to bus lines, University of Virginia Architect and ex officio Planning Commissioner David Neuman suggested requiring proximity to transit, given that bus lines can change unexpectedly. He said JAUNT could serve SRO facilities in any location in the City if need be.

When it was time to vote on the motion, Lewis said she was disappointed that she could not vote in favor of the ordinance. Osteen also said he could not support the ordinance because it was not broadly defined.

“As much flexibility in the unit type would allow the greatest success and utilization [of SRO’s] in the community,” Osteen said.

Commissioners Jason Pearson and Dan Rosensweig were not present for the meeting. The draft ordinance will come to Charlottesville City Council at a future meeting.