The six candidates vying for the empty seat on Charlottesville City Council made their pitch to the public on Monday night.
The field of 20 applicants for the post vacated by Sena Magill’s abrupt resignation earlier this year was pared back last week. It now includes former council members Kathy Galvin and Kristin Szakos, former school board member and University of Virginia administrator Leah Puryear, current school board member Lisa Larson-Torres, nonprofit programs director Alex Bryant and winery wedding sales manager Natalie Oschrin.
It was Oschrin who offered perhaps the boldest action plan at Monday night’s City Council meeting.
“My generation is looking at an uncertain future,” said Oschrin, a 2011 UVa graduate now working at Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards in Albemarle County.
Oschrin, who said she was suffering through a bout of COVID, was broadcast into the meeting via Zoom.
“My mission is to champion access to work, schools, commerce and services by pushing for even more homes in mixed-used areas to be built within city limits and for improved public transit, pedestrian and bike routes so that getting into a car is not the default strategy for reaching any destination,” she said.
Oschrin called for eliminating parking minimums from the city zoning code, “upzoning everywhere” and building more on empty land.
“Increasing supply is the key,” said Oschrin. “We have to do big things.”
The city and the surrounding area have been struggling with a housing crisis for years. More than 3,300 households in the Charlottesville area have unmet housing needs, according to a 2020 report from the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition. The city said last year that it had spent nearly $50 million on affordable housing since 2010, but the crisis has persisted.
How the city allots that money and how the housing crisis is resolved has divided residents, City Council members and candidates Monday night.
Architect and former City Council Member Galvin voiced support for some of the Oschrin’s goals and the city’s work but criticized others, including aspects of the city’s affordable housing plan which – in addition to calling for a $10 million annual investment in housing programs – also calls for upzoning large swaths of the city.
“We can’t simply assume that increasing density is the be-all, end-all,” said Galvin.
Galvin was among the candidates who did not respond to a survey for candidates from the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition.
Only three did: Oschrin, Szakos and Larson-Torres.
Lakeshia Washington with the coalition, who appeared electronically at Monday’s meeting, thanked the three that did respond. But she also reiterated the group’s pleas for assistance, saying that the cost of living in Charlottesville has been pricing out many residents. The median income in the city is $31,161 per year, according to the latest census figures. The average cost of a single-family residence in the area is about $400,000, according to the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors. The annual salary needed to afford a $400,000 home is about $165,000, according to fintech company SoFi.
“A lot of residents are scared and nervous,” Washington said.
Washington’s group has called for the upzoning of several historically white neighborhoods to allow for the construction of more multifamily projects.
Upzoning of any kind has attracted heated debates in the past.
Larson-Torres said she’s ready for those “uncomfortable conversations for the good of our community.”
“Are we truly committed to equity and transformation?” Larson-Torres asked rhetorically.
Racial and economic equity were recurring themes among every candidate who spoke on Monday, particularly Puryear, who heads UVa’s federally funded Upward Bound program, now called Uplift UVA, which assists first-generation college students.
Puryear emphasized her work fostering diversity and inclusion at the school and beyond.
“We must hear what our community is saying,” said Puryear. “I will practice effective listening.”
Szakos said the same.
“I believe,” Szakos said, “I’ve earned a reputation as someone who tries to listen to everyone.”
Szakos, who served on City Council from 2010 until 2017 and was vice-mayor from 2014 until 2015, describes herself as a journalist, freelance writer, editor and grant writer.
Bryant agreed that the person who takes Magill’s seat on council should be responsive to the public. Originally from Richmond, he has helped organize a number of local festivals over the years, including Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, and worked for other prominent event-organizing groups such as the Tom Tom Foundation and Ix Art Park.
Bryant said that by channeling the public’s input, a new councilor could help transform Charlottesville in much the same way Richmond has transformed in recent years.
“The citizens are the only legitimate fountain of power,” said Alex Bryant, a festival organizer. “It is their energy that did what I naively believed was impossible in Richmond.”
While the candidates did most of the talking on Monday, actual interviews with City Council will be conducted behind closed doors this coming Friday, according to the city.
A successor will be named on Feb. 21, Mayor Lloyd Snook has promised.
“It’s going to be a difficult decision,” Snook said on Monday, “but that’s what we’re here for.”
Snook also took some time on Monday to explain the how the field of 20 original applicants was winnowed down to just six – a process that some called out for its lack of transparency.
Snook said he made individual calls to council members in order to trim the applicant list. With just 45 days to decide on a final candidate, he said, time was of the essence.
“We had been expecting five or six applicants,” Snook said. “And, lo and behold, we got 20. And so I asked everybody please send me your top four, five, or six choices.”
The mayor added that many of the 14 rejected candidates still intrigued him and he may be inviting some of them to lunch.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know more of them better,” he said.
Magill, who was in attendance Monday night, received a plaque honoring her three years of service on council. She took the time to thank the candidates competing for her seat.
“I want to thank everyone who stood up and put their names forward to fill my shoes for the next 10 months,” she said. “I really appreciate it.”
Magill appeared before the council dressed in an outfit reminiscent of the uniforms worn by the crew of the on the science fiction TV series “Star Trek.”
“I was actually going to come tonight in my pirate garb to remind you to be a little bit silly and to be little bit weird and to embrace the weird,” she said, “but I couldn’t get the bodice lined up right.”
This story has been corrected to say Lisa Larson-Torres responded to a candidate survey from the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition.