The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing and adopt a new housing policy at its meeting Wednesday.
Some in the community say the focus should be on those with incomes lower than the limits currently proposed, while others say enacting some of the recommendations without incentives for developers will cause less housing to be built overall.
Albemarle’s current affordable housing policy was established in 2004 and was tweaked during the 2015 Comprehensive Plan update. The policy defines affordable housing as safe, decent housing, with housing costs that do not exceed 30% of gross household income. It sets the expectation that, at minimum, 15% of all units developed under a rezoning or special-use permit should be affordable for people at or below 80% of area median income.
Area median income is currently $93,700 per household, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 2019, the board supported moving forward with a process to update the county’s affordable housing policy using county data from a regional housing study and needs assessment.
The proposed housing policy contains objectives aimed at increasing the overall housing supply; increasing the supply of affordable and workforce housing; preserving existing housing and communities; providing community engagement; fair housing and community equity; homelessness and special populations; and sustainable communities. Each objective contains multiple strategies.
One proposed change in the policy is increasing the percentage of all units developed under a rezoning or special-use permit that should be affordable from 15% to 20%.
“That was really based on data that came out of the housing needs assessment and analysis of current census data, and 20% of the moderate-income households in the county are housing cost-burdened,” said Stacy Pethia, the county’s housing policy manager.
A household is considered to be cost-burdened when it pays more than 30% of its gross income for housing.
According to the staff report, the staff is recommending that implementation of the new affordable housing requirements and definitions be delayed until July 1, 2022, for most areas of the county, to give developers time to adjust to the new guidelines, as well as give staff time to address regulatory issues and incentives.
Albemarle is one of a handful of localities in the state that can implement an affordable dwelling unit program ordinance, which Pethia said could include regulation of the prices of affordable rental and for-sale housing units; the establishment of minimum affordability periods; standards for amounts of cash in-lieu of affordable unit payments by developers; and first right of refusal of for-sale affordable units in the county.
“I think the biggest advantage is that it gets away from the proffer system where developers don’t have to proffer affordable units to a mandatory provision of affordable units, or paying into the housing fund,” Pethia said. “Either way, it’s a win for the county and for the community who needs housing.”
The draft policy proposes that affordable housing would be for those with incomes no greater than 60% of area median income for renters, adjusted for household size, and no greater than 80% AMI for homebuyers.
The maximum sales price for affordable housing would be $204,100 or less, based on current numbers. That number is based on 65% of the federal HOME Program’s one-unit purchase price limit for existing housing for Albemarle, which changes annually.
A new category of workforce housing would be for households with incomes between 60% and 100% of AMI for renters and between 80% and 120% of AMI for buyers.
The maximum sales price for workforce housing would be $209,950 or less, currently. That number is based on 65% of the federal HOME Program’s one-unit purchase price limit for new housing for Albemarle, which changes annually.
The minimum affordability period for affordable owner-occupied units in the new draft policy is defined as remaining affordable for at least 40 years, while the minimum affordable period for renter-occupied units would be 30 years.
Currently, the typical affordable period for renter-occupied units in Albemarle is 10 years for new developments.
Over the last 10 years, 351 total proffered affordable units have been built. Of those units, 96 were for-sale and 50 were purchased by income-qualified households, and 255 were built as rentals. All of the rentals are currently occupied by income-qualifying households, Pethia said.
Approximately 798 to 1,076 proffer units have yet to be completed, depending on how many units are built in upcoming, already approved developments.
To help better advertise affordable housing units when they’re available, the Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership launched an affordable housing locator service and resource website late last year at porchlightva.org. The new draft policy also calls for partnering with local organizations to promote access to affordable homeownership opportunities.
Some in the development community have come out against the proposed changes for affordability periods and income limits, saying that they place “unworkable burdens” on developers and builders and will result in fewer rezonings. They have said that reducing regulatory barriers needs to happen at the same time as these changes in required affordable housing amounts and prices.
“If that burden goes into effect before any of these regulatory barriers are removed, then I don’t think that you will get affordable housing from the development community,” said Valerie Long, with Williams Mullen, who has represented some developers in the rezoning and special-use process, at a Planning Commission meeting. “I think that will tip the scales in favor of having projects be developed by-right, at density levels that are completely inconsistent with the designations in the Comprehensive Plan.”
In an email to the Board of Supervisors, Chris Henry, president of Stony Point Development Group, said the proposed policy is creating a much higher hurdle to meet the affordability requirements of a rezoning.
“Remember that a developer needs to opt into the affordable housing plan by electing to pursue a rezoning,” he said. “The county’s goal should be to make that process attractive enough that nobody would ever build by-right.”
The policy recommends identifying a package of developer incentives other than bonus density to encourage development of affordable and workforce housing, and it’s a priority action item for the next one to three years.
Henry suggested that numerous incentives “should be considered and documented in the plan,” including significantly increasing bonus densities, fast-tracking project review and approval, waiving all review fees and providing real estate tax abatement that mirrors the term of affordability, among other ideas.
Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, in a letter on his website, said the Board of Supervisors should endorse the concepts of the plan, but should “postpone implementation until a full vetting of necessary incentives can be developed and formally adopted as part of the plan.”
“Absent the incentive half of the prescription, this aspirational plan, like the one before it, will fail,” he said. “It will drive landowners to develop under the existing low-density zoning rather than a diversity of housing product as envisioned by the Comprehensive Plan.”
But some, like the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, say the affordability requirements should be lower than 60% of area median income.
“Given the results of the county’s own findings of the demographics and higher need for targeted approaches for very low-income households in the county, we believe that affordable housing should be defined as ‘housing serving 50% AMI or below, with priority given to families at or below 30% of AMI,’” the organization said in a letter to the board. “While affordable housing in general is an issue in the county, this group is most acutely and direly affected.”
Both the coalition and members of Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together have advocated for the county to create a housing trust fund, which the policy recommends be created as a priority action item. As part of setting up the fund, the county would identify the target market, target partners, the overall purpose to be accomplished with the fund, funding sources and an application process.
Pethia said that after the board adopts a new policy, her next steps will be to work with the developer community to discuss incentives to have them solidified in the next year, finalizing a housing trust fund application and creating a Housing Advisory Committee.
“If we were to adopt an affordable dwelling unit ordinance, and the board adopts the policy with the recommended affordability levels, and affordable rents and sale prices, then finding ways to help support developers in being successful and helping us meet our goals is really important to me, so that’ll be one of the first things I do,” she said.