Two incumbents and one newcomer are running for the three available seats on Charlottesville’s City Council.
This year, there are three seats available and three candidates certified by the Virginia Department of Elections. Incumbents Michael Payne and Lloyd Snook won the Democratic primary election, along with Natalie Oschrin.
No Republican, third party or independent candidates filed to run this year, which means the three Democratic primary winners will be unchallenged in the general election this fall.
Charlottesville City Council members serve four-year terms and are in charge of appointing city management and members of boards and commissions. They maintain public records and make policies about the city’s operations.The three candidates filled out this questionnaire from Charlottesville Tomorrow during the June primary.
What is your vision for Charlottesville 30 years from now? What are the policies already in place, or that you would advocate for, that would get us there?
Lloyd Snook: Thirty years from now Charlottesville will have continued to grow at roughly 1% a year, as we have for the last 40 years. To deal with those people, we will have developed a modern and reliable transit system; we will have used “missing middle” housing development to add more residences for all of those new people; and we will be cooperating with the Albemarle County and the University of Virginia to make it possible to handle that growth.
Michael Payne: In 30 years: Charlottesville is a national leader in taking local action on climate change, affordable housing, and economic inequality. The achievement gap and racial wealth gap are eliminated. Our natural gas utility transitions to clean energy. We’ve created a Regional Transit Authority with reliable bus routes. And opportunity exists for all residents, not just the wealthy few. To achieve this, we need to: Direct our Economic Development Authority to take on inequality as its top goal. Expand the City’s purchase of land for affordable housing and fully implement our Affordable Housing Strategy. Invest in a full climate department that’s directed to implement our Climate Action Plan and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Work with the Regional Transit Partnership to implement the Regional Transit Vision Plan. And every budget cycle, we must consciously make budget decisions that achieve these goals — even if it challenges the status quo.
Natalie Oschrin: It is instructive to look back on the last 30 years, nearly as long as I’ve been in Charlottesville. What’s changed? The population of the city has increased by 15% and Albemarle County by 65%. Residents have been displaced. There is more car traffic. UVA continues to grow. The internet and COVID-19 protocols have prompted a work-from-home revolution.
But much is the same. Sidewalks are still missing, bike lanes aren’t protected, the bus system isn’t as robust as it should be to serve our citizens equitably and provide a consistent alternative to car travel. The poverty rate for families is still about 10%.* Happily, the Downtown Mall continues to be a center of activity, a result of being a car-free zone.
We currently have an opportunity to create a future that can rectify the historic limitations of our city plan. If the population growth trend continues, there will be 80,000 more people in the metro area by 2050. Building homes for the community within city limits will reduce the number of cars on the road and commuters from the county. Connecting sidewalks, protecting bike lanes, and improving bus frequency will bring Charlottesville into a more just and sustainable future.
*Editor’s note: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 23.1% of people in Charlottesville were in poverty as of 2021.
Do you support the proposed zoning changes? How would that new law change Charlottesville?
For more information about the proposed new zoning laws, click this link.
Snook: I support the decision to allow up to three dwelling units per residential lot — the so-called R-A zone. We need to understand that that would already enable a lot of “missing middle” housing in a manner that would not change the feel of the neighborhoods. I am also fine with providing for some medium-intensity zoning in current R-1 zones, but I want to find a way to ration that medium-intensity use in a way that would not result in an entire block or an entire neighborhood of apartment complexes. I think that the “double-density-for-affordable-housing” bonus should be eliminated — such apartments will not be built without major City subsidies that we can’t afford. I have suggested enabling that more intense use on corner lots — both because they tend to be larger and have more road frontage than mid-block lots, and because it provides a built-in way to ration that intense use. One aspect of the suggested zoning rewrite that has gotten less attention is the likely increase in larger multi-family developments. Those changes could lead to significant increases in the number of dwelling units in some neighborhoods, particularly in the University area like JPA.
Payne: Almost half of all renters in Charlottesville are cost burdened. We have a racial income gap where the median Black household earns $39,000 while the median white family earns $86,000. It’s clear: Charlottesville needs to legalize more affordable housing types, including duplexes, triplexes, etc. Charlottesville can’t become just a playground for wealthy young professionals.
We also need to prevent working class communities from being displaced and evicted to construct luxury housing. And we need to advance environmental protections and expand our tree canopy, public areas, and greenspace.
If done right, our zoning rewrite can achieve this. We can incorporate protections for working class neighborhoods through the ‘sensitive communities’ overlay, require affordable housing at 60% of Area Median Income (AMI) or below to get built through Inclusionary Zoning, protect tree canopy through a tree ordinance, and expand deeply affordable housing through intentional investments. There’s more work to be done, but our zoning changes can accomplish these goals while legalizing housing for residents such as nurses, teachers, and firefighters to become homeowners and find places to rent in town.
Oschrin: Yes, there are many things to be excited about in the suggested policy, though I reserve judgment for the final iteration.
First, by not requiring parking minimums, the city is thinking ahead to a less car-centric future, which is necessary to reduce pollution and curb climate change while making a quieter, safer, and more walkable/bikeable city. This can mean lower building costs and more square footage for people to live in instead of store cars. And since the city can be more walkable/bikeable, the need to have a car will simultaneously be reduced.
Next, adjusting zoning codes to allow a little more freedom means that builders aren’t forced to supply the most expensive housing. Single-family exclusionary zoning requires the most expensive cost-per-unit building possible and has kept American cities underdeveloped and segregated for decades. The homes we build now are part of the catching up we need to do to make the city more equitable, livable, and affordable. If we don’t change anything, we’ll continue to see relatively affordable houses flipped into McMansions — what the current zoning ordinance supports, and what’s been plaguing neighborhoods for the past lifetime.
Do you believe we need more affordable housing? If yes, how specifically would you propose to address it?
Snook: Yes. Truly affordable — meaning under 60% AMI — housing will always require some subsidy, and I don’t see how we can do that except in large projects. So we need to continue to redevelop places like Westhaven and Friendship Court. I have not yet been persuaded that the Inclusionary Zoning proposal is actually going to result in an appreciable number of units, but maybe it will.
Payne: Absolutely. The number one problem Charlottesville faces is the lack of affordable housing that’s forcing long-time residents and working class families out of our community.
There’s no one easy answer. But some of the critical actions City Council needs to take include: expanding our purchase of land for affordable housing (such as the City providing funding for Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s acquisition of Dogwood Housing); investing directly in affordable housing providers, with our investment in Friendship Court (now Kindlewood!) as a model; expanding on resident-led redevelopment of public housing at Crescent Halls and South 1st St., to include resident-led redevelopment of Westhaven; expanding our local community land trust; creating a year-round homeless shelter; investing in more Permanent Supportive Housing (as is happening at the former Red Carpet Inn site); demanding UVA pay property taxes; creating a land bank; and legalizing more affordable housing types such as duplexes and triplexes.
Our goal should be to create a housing ecosystem where every resident not only has access to decent housing — but also has the ability to move into home ownership and build a future for their family.
Oschrin: Of course. There are two ways to bring down housing costs overall, one is to make your area undesirable, resulting in depopulation and lower prices. The second is to build more homes in alignment with demand. Naturally, I prefer option two. Of course, since building takes time, and we are so behind in creating supply, it will take a while for markets to even out. That’s why we need resources to keep people in homes or allow them to enter the housing market in the meantime. In Charlottesville, there are some subsidies and rent/tax relief programs available, and groups like Habitat, CRHA, Piedmont Housing Alliance, and the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program (AHIP) address other needs. The city’s $18 million commitment to affordable housing programs in the latest budget is a great step in the right direction. However, while there can be subsidies all day long, if there aren’t enough homes, people will be left out. So we need to build more homes so there are more opportunities and more choices for individuals, young families, multigenerational families, workers, single parents, roommates, and the aging population. Gentle density and upzoning allows more and varied homes in neighborhoods in a way that benefits availability, affordability, and equity.
What is Council’s role in reducing gun violence in Charlottesville? What would you propose doing?
Snook: We have already taken an important step — hiring a Police Chief who is fully engaged on this. We can fund — and have funded — programs like the BUCK Squad and some youth summer programs. At my suggestion, we allocated $200,000 for unspecified violence prevention efforts; I trust that the City Manager’s staff will bring us some ideas.
Payne: No resident deserves to live in a neighborhood where they fear for their own life and children are scared to walk home from school.
There’s no one easy answer for solving the scourge of gun violence, especially when the state and federal government refuse to enact meaningful gun control legislation.
But City Council can pursue evidence-based solutions including: investing in mentorship programs for at-risk youth; supporting initiatives for youth, including internship and job programs; investing in neighborhoods to improve street lighting, public spaces, and basic infrastructure; funding violence interruption groups; and investing in true community policing that has the support of neighborhoods.
We’ve taken action on these areas recently by funding almost $400,000 for gun violence prevention programs in our FY24 budget — in addition to funding for youth programs — but substantially more work remains to be done.
Oschrin: Any life lost or affected by gun violence is too many. We have to address both facts about safety and feelings about safety. Though data shows there is less violence and other crime overall, if people don’t feel safe in their homes, streets, parks, and schools, then we need to work on that as well. Small solutions, like improved street lights, can have a big impact on street safety. But for longer term solutions that get at the root cause of violent crime, the city must invest in addressing the underlying causes of instability, like housing and food insecurity. Affordable housing, food access, and emergency financial assistance will increase community safety. Rehabilitation and diversion programs for incarcerated individuals will give them tools needed to reduce recidivism.
I support the commitment to alternative ways of managing safety within the schools and keeping schools gun-free zones. Infrastructure investment includes student well-being and enrichment activities like sports, arts, clubs, job training that can give students support, mentorship, skills, and hope.
Our citizens deserve a safe space and a safety net, with resources focused on prevention instead of reaction.
Charlottesville Area Transit manages public transportation and City Schools buses. The department does not have enough drivers to fill all the routes. Is fixing this a priority for you? If so, how would you begin?
Snook: Pretty much every city and county in the Commonwealth — and probably nationally as well — is having this problem. The easy part is to say, “We increased pay from $17 an hour to $21 an hour, and we are willing to go hire to fill the spots.” That puts us in direct competition with Albemarle County for what may be a limited number of qualified applicants. I think part of the answer may be to go to smaller buses that don’t require CDL operators to drive, and then we may be able to keep our drivers and offer better service.
Payne: Absolutely. Reliable transportation remains a crisis for too many families.
Charlottesville needs to provide the highest wages and benefits in the region for bus drivers to ensure we’re competitive in attracting drivers. We recently approved collective bargaining, which will hopefully attract drivers.
And we need to work with the School Board to expand the Safe Routes to School initiative — including funding for more crossing guards and reducing speed limits — to ensure that all kids who want to walk to school can safely do so.
It’s not an immediate solution to the school bus driver shortage, but we also have a unique opportunity through the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to acquire electric school buses so kids have an environmentally friendly way to be driven to school.
Oschrin: We need to be able to pay bus drivers enough to cover the needs of the school and students. We also need to ensure that students who can and want to walk or bike to school have safe choices for those activities too. Safe streets are a significant part of my platform. This requires investment and collaboration from the City and the state transportation department to build sidewalks and roads that are safe AND pleasant, so using them as a biker or walker is an attractive option, especially for kids and families. Becoming less car-centric is a big cultural shift, a long-term goal that hopefully we can achieve in the short term. Expanded walk-to-school zones, public awareness campaigns, better signage, and protected paths for walkers and bikers are all needed and worthy. Council recently approved speed cameras near Buford to help walkers and crossing guards, however if the car is already speeding, the ticket is reaction more than prevention. We need traffic calming as well, so the car has less of a chance of driving dangerously in the first place. I am motivated to address intersections and biking/walking routes all over town like this to give kids the freedom to safely get to school.
What is your position on raising or lowering tax rates in Charlottesville?
Snook: I voted against the tax increase that Council adopted in April 2022. I do not favor changing the tax rate. When we dropped the tax rate from $1.11 in 2003 to 95 cents by 2009, we stopped with a lot of necessary maintenance. I don’t want to make that mistake again. So — not in favor of either tax rate increase or a tax rate decrease.
Payne: Rapidly increasing housing and utility costs are overwhelmingly the largest contributors to the high cost of living in Charlottesville. Too many families are being driven out of Charlottesville by rising housing costs (including dramatic increases in assessments), which makes it imperative to expand our existing tax relief programs.
Nonetheless, taxes play a role in increasing the cost of living. The taxes Charlottesville has the legal authority to implement by the General Assembly are all regressive*. City Council needs to fund critical priorities, but we should first seek to cut any spending that doesn’t actually benefit the community and only increase taxes as an absolute last resort for funding vital needs in our community. If they happen, any tax increase MUST be paired with a significant expansion of our tax relief programs so that working class families aren’t burdened.
And every year, City Council needs to lobby the General Assembly to authorize Charlottesville to implement progressive taxes that tax the wealthiest residents most able to pay, not working class families.
*Editor’s note: A “regressive tax” is one that is applied at the same rate to everyone, which means it takes a larger percentage of income from people who earn less money.
Oschrin: We have to fund our schools and infrastructure, but we need to make sure we raise revenue responsibly. Short-term tax relief by lowering taxes overall will make it harder to fund future projects and address deferred maintenance. I know the property tax assessments have risen sharply the last two years. The city does provide tax and rent relief programs, especially toward veterans and low/fixed income residents, and can do a more proactive job of making these programs known and accessible.
But considering expenses for folks on a whole leads to some longer-term solutions as well. Cars cost money to own and operate; a metro area that prioritizes cars means that folks must buy them to keep up or get ahead. This is a fixed hidden tax on residents that hits lower-income folks harder, so it’s also an issue of equity. Reliable, frequent and pleasant public transit and pedestrian alternatives ease that financial burden on all of our neighbors. Also, housing scarcity drives up housing assessments, so allowing more homes in city limits will provide an opportunity to ease the individual’s tax burden.
The University of Virginia pays no local taxes. Do you support implementing a program to collect money from the university?
Snook: We have no power to “collect money from the university.” I wish that we did, because what typically happens with property near the university is that it gets developed and then the university buys it and takes it off the tax rolls. That situation is about to repeat itself with the property along Ivy Road. If the General Assembly would give us authority to do it, I would be in favor of it.
Payne: Yes, 100%.
UVA is a main contributor to the affordable housing crisis in Charlottesville and UVA continues to expand its student body at a rate of about 1% annually. It’s unacceptable that UVA doesn’t pay property taxes. Because of UVA’s tax exempt status, Charlottesville misses out on about $15 million a year in revenue. That would be enough to fund our entire affordable housing strategy, or renovate every building in our public school system. UVA must enter into a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program to support the Charlottesville community, especially in the context of their $1.9 billion annual budget and $14.5 billion endowment. PILOT programs are something universities across the country have implemented.
UVA must pay its fair share and help support affordable housing and schools. I’ve advocated for UVA to pay property taxes for years, and the UVA Student Council recently passed a resolution calling on UVA to enter into a PILOT program. While City Council can’t legally require UVA to enter into a PILOT program, I would use my platform as a City Councilor — in addition to all available leverage points — to demand UVA pay its fair share and support our local community.
Oschrin: Yes. While I acknowledge that the university is a driving economic force, there are a couple of ways I want it to be a better neighbor. First, I want to push for a PILOT program to collect funds from the institution since it does not pay taxes on most of its land. If taxed, UVA would pay the city about $15 million, a mere fraction of their nearly $5 billion operating budget. UVA Student Council has written a memo to support PILOT, and variations of it have been implemented in college towns like New Haven, Ithaca, and Philadelphia. City Council cannot legally compel UVA to enter into this type of agreement, but enough noise and local support could help it gain traction. Next, I want UVA to invest their considerable funds toward directly building more housing for students, faculty, and the staff that keep the institution functioning. If housing and parking are daily difficulties, then they should build housing close enough so commuting via car isn’t necessary.
More resources about the three candidates for Charlottesville City Council
As you get ready to vote, here are some key dates and links from the Virginia Department of Elections:
- Sept. 22: First day of in-person early voting at your local registrar’s office.
- Oct. 16: Deadline to register to vote, or update an existing registration. You can also register after this date, and on election day, but you will vote with a provisional ballot, could take longer for officials to count because they will verify your eligibility.
- Oct. 27: Deadline to apply for a ballot to be mailed to you. Your request must be received by your local registrar by 5:00 p.m.
- Oct. 28: Voter registration offices open for early voting.
- Nov. 4: The last day of in-person early voting at your registrar.
- Nov. 7: Election Day
Need to know if you’re eligible to vote? Here are resources from the Virginia Department of Elections.