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Albemarle board one vote away from establishing affordable housing trust fund

Albemarle County could be just one vote shy of establishing a $10 million program that advocates believe would be a big step toward fighting the area’s affordable housing crisis.

Roughly 1,000 people packed the performing arts center at Charlottesville High School on the night of March 18, rallying for their elected officials to create what’s known as an affordable housing trust fund, a pool of money used solely to finance affordable housing projects.

Three county supervisors — Ann Mallek, Ned Gallaway and Mike Pruitt — sat before the crowd, listening to testimony from community members struggling to find housing.

All three agreed to vote in favor of the trust fund, but they’ll need one more vote on the six-member Board of Supervisors for it to become a reality.

They already have the backing of the March 18 audience, many of whom are members of IMPACT, or Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together, a collection of 26 congregations that have united to solve community problems. March 18 was one of many similarly large events IMPACT has organized since 2007.

As is customary at IMPACT events, each elected official was asked to stand before the audience and answer whether they would agree to make certain commitments.

But just before, Vikki Bravo of Congregation Beth Israel, Charlottesville’s oldest and only synagogue, addressed the crowd.

“To the people here tonight, if you’re willing to be behind the supervisors and support them on this, please stand,” Bravo said on stage as the supervisors sat to her right.

Virtually every person in the audience rose to their feet.

Bravo told the supervisors that was just a sampling of the people favoring a trust fund. There are many more in IMPACT’s 26 congregations, she said.

In recent years, IMPACT has made housing its key focus. It often cites a 2017 study which found that nearly 7,000 people in Albemarle County are “severely rent burdened,” a term used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to describe people who spend at least 50% of their income on housing.

A more recent study conducted in 2020 found that number has eclipsed 10,000.

IMPACT members said they believe an affordable housing trust fund is a realistic method to help alleviate the crisis. Since 2017, the group has posited that the county should follow in the city of Charlottesville’s footsteps and create such a fund. Alexandria, Richmond, Fairfax and others have similar funds.

“Affordable Housing Trust Funds are a national best practice utilized in over 850 communities across the nation. They work by providing ‘gap funding’ to affordable housing developments, enabling the money going into the fund to be leveraged several times over,” reads IMPACT literature on the subject.

Albemarle already has a fund it has used to finance affordable housing projects. According to the county, since 2022 it has doled out $13 million for affordable housing projects and programs, serving more than 3,000 low- to moderate-income households.

Bravo alluded to that fund while on stage.

“To be clear, they have definitely funded some very important things with that money,” she said. “But it’s not strategic or targeted.”

IMPACT is proposing something different. Instead of a general fund that the county currently uses, the group wants a fund that is solely used to finance affordable housing projects. More specifically, it wants the fund to prioritize projects designed for people making less than 60% of area median income, roughly $75,000 a year.

And while the amount of money currently put into the fund fluctuates from one year to the next, IMPACT is asking for the county to inject $10 million into the proposed trust fund annually. When the group first brought this to the county’s attention in 2017, it asked for a $5 million annual contribution; that ask has since doubled as development costs have increased.

An independent governing body would be created to watch over the fund, ensuring that the money is used appropriately.

“Setting up a trust fund with consistent annual funding ensures that housing becomes a priority that can be planned around for the long term instead of scrambling to find funding when opportunities pop up,” Bravo said.

Building affordable housing requires an amalgamation of federal, state and local monies. Without multiple funding sources, developers would be unable to construct buildings and sell them below market-rate value without taking a significant financial hit. Making money available incentivizes developers to build affordable units they likely wouldn’t otherwise construct.

And once a developer can secure money from one source, it becomes easier for them to convince other sources to chip in. IMPACT estimates that for every dollar put into a trust fund, developers get $8 from other sources.

A trust fund could entice a developer to build affordable units in Albemarle; in addition to knowing they’d get that local funding, they’d be able to leverage that money to collect funding from state, federal and other programs.

Sunshine Mathon is the executive director at the Piedmont Housing Alliance, a nonprofit developer that builds affordable units across the Charlottesville area. He says that while in the past Albemarle County has stepped up whenever the alliance asks for funding, the irregular nature of the current system makes it difficult for developers to plan projects.

Charlottesville has pledged $10 million annually for affordable housing programs over the next 10 years.

“When we consider doing a project in the city versus the county, the city has made an explicit commitment to spending on affordable housing annually,” Mathon said.

That’s a critical distinction. Not knowing what county money will be available when “constrains how we view or where we pursue projects, because that funding is crucial to making a project possible,” Mathon said.

All three supervisors attending IMPACT’s event March 18 answered “yes” to all three requests posed to them: to push for a fund to be voted on by the end of the year, to push for a prioritization of housing at or below 60% area median income and to push for an annual allocation of at least $10 million.

“I think these are abundantly reasonable sets of requests,” Pruitt told the crowd after pledging his support. “I think $10 million is a very sensible starting point. Charlottesville has a third of the people of Albemarle and about half the budget, and they’re doing $10 million. So I don’t see why we can’t at least match what a much poorer community is doing.”

Gallaway said he had been attending IMPACT meetings for several years, regularly supporting its trust fund proposals.

“I don’t mean for this to come across the wrong way, but I’m really hoping next year I have a different question to answer,” Gallaway said to laughs and cheers.

Mallek said she wants to create the fund so that the county can have specific goals and methods of making housing more affordable.

“That’s what this work has to be clarifying this year: How it will work, and what the criteria will be to make sure that the investments are going to benefit the people who need it most,” she said.

Pastor Liz Emrey of New Beginning Christian Community called the event “wonderfully successful,” noting that often the elected officials do not answer yes to the questions asked of them.

“Not only is it great that we got yeses, but it’s great that we got yeses to such specific asks that we can clearly follow up on,” Nava Khurgel of Congregation Beth Israel told The Daily Progress.

But even with the commitments made, the board is still one vote short of actual action. If the trust fund has any shot, Gallaway, Mallek and Pruitt will need to be joined by at least one of their colleagues.

Three empty chairs were placed by the supervisors on stage, one of many ways in which IMPACT organizers reminded their audience that county supervisors Diantha McKeel, Jim Andrews and Bea LaPisto-Kirtley were not in attendance.

While LaPisto-Kirtley is currently out of the country, Andrews said he had a previously scheduled meeting with the Agriculture-Forestry District Committee, a body on which he is the sole board representative.

If the trust fund supporters are going to get a majority, they will likely have to sway LaPisto-Kirtley or Andrews. McKeel does not appear to support the proposal, instead advocating for the current funding system.

“At this time, I prefer flexibility within our budget that allows us to respond based on the community’s needs, circumstances, and available financial resources which can change dramatically from year to year,” McKeel told The Daily Progress in an email. “I will continue to work with the developers in support of affordable housing proposals and with the neighborhoods to accept the density those proposals require.”

Andrews is open the idea but not yet committing one way or another. He told The Daily Progress he believes the county must do more to promote affordable housing and that any further commitments should be data driven and a prudent use of taxpayer dollars. He wants more details on how the proposed fund would operate before making a decision.

"I don’t know enough about that independent governing body and other terms of the trust to make a commitment as to when that concept could be realized," he wrote in an email. "That is not a ‘no’ vote. It’s an ‘I don’t know enough yet’ about the specifics."

"Raising much larger amounts for an affordable housing trust fund must be balanced against other essential needs, including basic fire and safety and other essential government functions," Andrews continued.

The large turnout on March 18 was impressive, but Pruitt would like to see similar engagement at county board meetings.

“I often get concerned that, especially in Albemarle, we don’t have nearly as much public pressure put on at a steady pace, and it makes me worry that we’re not always responsive enough to what I see as urgent public demands,” Pruitt told The Daily Progress.

He gets a dozen or so emails or phone calls from constituents daily, and they rarely concern housing affordability. If voters regularly put as much pressure on their representatives as they did at the IMPACT event last week, Pruitt suspects action would have been taken years ago.

“I feel it’s very easy to forget what the needs of the poor are in our community because they’re not the people who we hear from as much because they’re not the people who can come out to a 1 p.m. board meeting to speak,” he said.

Supervisors will be hosting town halls to discuss the upcoming budget this coming Thursday as well as April 8 and 10.


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