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Charlottesville church looks to build affordable housing units on its property

A local church wants to do its part to help end the affordable housing crisis in Charlottesville by adding housing units on its property.

Park Street Christian Church has partnered with the Piedmont Housing Alliance to build approximately 50 affordable housing units for seniors on the church’s property.

The church is part of the Disciples of Christ denomination. Colleen Swingle-Titus, Park Street’s pastor, said she started thinking about the potential to build affordable housing at the church when she was attending a denomination-wide conference in 2015.

A speaker at the conference called on pastors to lead their congregations in serving their communities.

“I said I wished we could do more, but we’re a really little congregation,” Swingle-Titus said.

Swingle-Titus was attending the conference with another pastor who had served in Charlottesville in the 1980s and 1990s. He told her he had tried to start an affordable housing project but got shut down.

“I said, ‘my gosh, we have all this land, we could really help people.’ And so that kind of planted the seeds,” she said.

Early on, Swingle-Titus wanted to pursue her idea, but she was concerned the church wasn’t financially stable enough to support such a big project. Then about two years ago, a congregant introduced her to Bruce Wardell, principal and founder of BRW Architects. After Swingle-Titus presented her idea, Wardell thought there was potential to make it happen, and referred her to Sunshine Mathon, executive director of Piedmont Housing Alliance.

The church met with the PHA, as well as a group in California that has worked to build affordable housing units on the campuses of other Disciples of Christ churches. Swingle-Titus said the church ultimately decided to work with the PHA because of its staff’s understanding of the local community. Together, the church and the PHA began creating a plan for affordable housing units.

“We have the basic framework at a schematic level of where buildings would be situated, the general scale of buildings, generally speaking, the number of units, but there is still a lot of work to do on the civil engineering side to nail down exactly the footprint of the buildings and everything else,” Mathon said.

Mathon said the team is trying to remain cognizant of the visual impact of the buildings on neighboring communities. The current plan is to build about 50 units split between two, three-story buildings.

“What we are trying to do is to minimize as much as possible the visual impact of multi-family buildings on the site,” he said. “The site is relatively large, it’s somewhere in the realm of seven and a half to eight acres, but a lot of the site is wooded and has slopes. And so we are staying outside of the critical slopes, but utilizing the slopes we can build on to our advantage so that they are set down and behind the existing church.”

The PHA will lead the financing process.

“We will be going out for low-income housing tax credits, seeking funding from other local sources such as the state housing trust fund,” Mathon said.

The PHA is applying to the city to rezone the property.

“The rezoning is being led by us, but it is a true partnership with the church, in part because the church itself will stay a church still doing their function and they want to be good neighbors and create opportunities for affordability, on their vacant land,” Mathon said.

“We didn’t want anything huge and institutional. We didn’t want to have a giant concrete building,” Swingle-Titus said.

She said she understands the concerns of community members who are wondering about traffic and the visual impact of more development.

“We all have that sensibility, so I don’t judge folks that are worried about how this might impact their neighborhood. Those are valid concerns, but we’re going to do our best to be good neighbors and also help people that really, really need our help,” she said.

Another component of the project is a proposed intergenerational activity program. The church would host activities for seniors living in the units and children in the church’s existing affordable preschool ministry to get to know each other.

“There are studies showing that intergenerational activities between senior adults and preschoolers is mutually beneficial for both populations,” Swingle-Titus said. “We’re going to be able to serve two populations that need to be served.”

Swingle-Titus said a major goal of the church is for the construction process to be environmentally sustainable.

“We’re trying to be as green, as sustainable, as we can be here. We have [Mathon’s] vision and respect for this mature tree canopy and disturbing it as least as possible,” she said.

Swingle-Titus said the church values inclusivity and social justice, which was the major catalyst in pursuing this project.

“It seems silly for churches to just kind of hoard our gifts rather than share them if we’re supposed to be good stewards,” she said.

Swingle-Titus wants to see more churches focus on the needs of their communities.

“I just think that we’ve gotten it all wrong … when churches turn everything inward, then, to me, they’re missing the whole point,” she said.

“If you’re a person of integrity and compassion, and you have two hamburgers and you see someone that’s hungry and you say, ‘but I might get hungry later’ and you keep it, you’ve missed the point.”

In 2019, the City Council unanimously voted to rezone 750 Hinton Ave. from residential to neighborhood commercial so Hinton Avenue Methodist Church could create a 15-unit apartment building called Rachel’s Haven.

The project’s namesake, Rachel Lewis, died in 2016 from breast cancer and ministered to people with developmental disabilities.

The complex is planned to have four to six units set aside as independent housing for people with developmental disabilities, according to the church.

A group opposing the rezoning had filed a petition in Charlottesville Circuit Court asking a judge to overturn the city’s decision, but ultimately filed a non-suit, meaning they would drop the case but may pursue it again later.

The Hinton Avenue church also is working with the Piedmont Housing Alliance in applying for low-income tax credits.


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