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Affordable-housing activists want changes made to city's draft land use map

As the city of Charlottesville revises a draft future land use map, activists want to see changes made to create more opportunities for affordable housing and to try to eliminate racial boundaries.

The future land use map is a part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which is a guide for local land-use and other big-picture decisions that was last updated in 2013. The zoning code hasn’t been substantially revised since 2003.

Officials started updating the plan in late 2016, but the process was partially derailed by a push to focus on affordable housing in the fallout of the 2017 Unite the Right rally. It came to a halt the following year when the city decided that updating the plan and zoning code was too much for Neighborhood Development Services staff, who said they already were overworked.

The consulting firm Rhodeside and Harwell Inc. received a $926,000 contract in October to finish the update, which is expected to wrap up by the end of this year. A final plan is now anticipated no later than June, followed by a zoning rewrite.

Dan Rosensweig, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville, said he is concerned about how the city’s current zoning is still based on segregated neighborhoods of years past.

“What we have right now is a historical relic of intentional segregation. Our Comprehensive Plan and future land use map are based on existing zoning, which essentially realized and encapsulated crystallized patterns of segregation that were enforced through racial, religious-restrictive covenants,” he said. Rosensweig also is a member of the city’s Housing Advisory Committee.

“Most of the houses that were built in the pre- and post-World War II era in Charlottesville were built with restrictive covenants. If you were African American or Jewish, you weren’t allowed to live there. Obviously, those rules are no longer valid. But it created a pattern that was essentially calcified,” he said.

Rosensweig wants to see a map that deviates from these patterns.

Sunshine Mathon, executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, said a lot of these issues come from the fact that more than 60% of the map is dedicated to exclusionary single-family zoning.

“This is representative of the racist practices that have created this infrastructure in the first place, and that is across the realm, from federal policies that began almost a century ago starting to segregate where people can live and then incentivize and capitalize white families to be able to access the homeownership realm at the exclusion of Black families and other families of color,” Mathon said.

Mathon said the land use patterns that began with federal legislation and policy were reinforced by state and local government policies, as well as the real estate industry.

“As we look to the future with the re-envisioning of what the land use map could be, we absolutely have to put that issue front and center. This moment in time, like no other in recent memory, is a once-in-many-generations opportunity to re-envision a future for the city that is truly inclusive and truly reflective of our aspirations to be an equitable community,” he said.

“But the only way we’re going to do that is by confronting the existing patterns of land use and starting to dismantle those in some way to provide the opportunity for wealth creation and wealth building across all spectrums of our city.”

A concern that members of both the Planning Commission and Housing Advisory Committee have brought up is the height limit on buildings.

“There are some pretty restraining caps on height. We’d like to see that loosened so that we can truly get more innovative topologies, like duplexes,” Rosensweig said. “The draft calls for things like a two-and-a-half-story maximum in low-intensity residential areas, and that’s going to preclude forms of future-forward-type housing. So we’d like to see that relaxed.”

Mathon emphasized that Charlottesville’s housing crisis is complex.

“There are thousands of people in the city of Charlottesville who are paying far more than they can afford for the housing that they live in,” he said.

“Ideally, a family or household should be paying no more than 30% of their annual income towards housing costs. And there are thousands of families who are paying more than 30%, and there are many, many of those who are paying more than 50% of their annual income on housing costs because the cost of housing is so high here in Charlottesville,” Mathon said.

He said there is not one single solution to fixing this situation.

“[The housing crisis] requires a broad bevy of interventions and supports to address that,” Mathon said.

“On the one hand, we absolutely need to be laser-focused on the creation of more long-term affordable housing options that are truly affordable to families in need. And on the other end of the spectrum, we need to be also pushing the lever to find ways to improve and increase people’s incomes so they can afford what’s out there now, and then everywhere in between,” he said.

Both Mathon and Rosensweig said they want to see more of a focus on medium or soft density in the land use map, which currently has restrictive density allowances. Rosensweig said that while across the country most neighborhoods are either high density, with buildings that have lots of units, or low density, with single-family homes, a focus on medium density would allow for other forms of housing, such as townhouses or duplexes.

“One of the suggestions that we have is that we prioritize, as much as possible, existing buildings and existing structures so that increases in density come through addition and not demolition,” Mathon said.

“There is value in particular in neighborhoods that are historically lower income or neighborhoods that are historically Black neighborhoods. We don’t want to create a condition where we increase the allowable density on those lots and then there’s displacement pressure and gentrification pressure to redevelop those lots.”

Jenny Koch, an urban planner from Rhodeside and Harwell, is the project manager for the future land use map. Koch said the draft map has been presented to the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable and the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition for feedback, in addition to the Planning Commission and Housing Advisory Committee. Koch and her team will revise the draft, taking this feedback into consideration, prior to presenting an updated draft to the community.

“The land use map itself is tied to policies and strategies in the affordable housing plan and the rest of the Comprehensive Plan,” Koch said. “There’s a list of different characteristics or different considerations that we want to make sure were incorporated into this land use process, and the overarching one is to ensure that there were equitable opportunities for access to housing options throughout the city.”

“There’s a lot to consider and balance, and overall we are focused on looking at how we can provide these affordable housing opportunities throughout the city, with a focus on equity.”

“That is really sort of the guiding light that we are trying to use, and we appreciated that several of the folks we talked with mentioned the ways they think we can be more supportive of that equity aspect. We are taking that really strongly into consideration as we make revisions,” she said.

Koch said that pop-up forums will be announced in May for community members to voice their opinions on the revised draft of the land use map.


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