When longtime affordable-housing activist Joy Johnson hears the term “medium-density housing,” she’s skeptical.
“Medium-density for whom?” she said. “Because a lot of times when those buildings go up, we can’t afford them.”
As Cville Plans Together presents its revised Future Land Use Map draft and holds forums for the public to bring their comments and ask questions, some community members are voicing concerns about the draft’s increased allowance for medium-density housing.
Cville Plans Together is a committee made up of planners from the consulting firm Rhodeside and Harwell who are working on the revisions to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Medium-density housing, as presented in the draft map, defines types of residences that aren’t single-family homes but also aren’t large multi-story, highly populated residential complexes.
Examples of medium-density housing include townhouses, row houses, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.
Much of the city’s current residential land use is taken up by single-family homes or high-density apartment complexes. Medium-density housing is considered by some housing activists to be a more affordable option for residents who may not be able to afford a single-family home but also would prefer not to live in highly populated complexes or public housing facilities.
During a webinar hosted by Cville Plans Together on May 10, Jenny Koch, an urban planner with Rhodeside and Harwell and project manager for the Comprehensive Plan revisions, said most of the changes in the current draft were made after taking into consideration concerns, primarily from housing activists, that the draft that was presented in March put too many limitations on affordable housing expansion and mirrored historical patterns of segregated neighborhoods.
The latest changes include allowing more areas for medium- or “soft”-density housing, after activists called for such density.
However, not all activists see medium-density housing as a solution to the affordable housing crisis.
Johnson, chairwoman of the Public Housing Association of Residents and coordinator with the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, doesn’t think medium-density housing as defined by developers will help low-income residents afford better housing.
“People who made under $30,000 a year still often can’t afford medium-density housing,” she said.
Johnson also said large families especially need affordable housing that allows more space for multiple family members and outdoor yard areas for children to run around in, as opposed to duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.
Johnson said the real issue is that the Future Land Use Map does not substantially address or try to correct the racial covenants of the Jim Crow-era that still influence Charlottesville’s neighborhoods.
“If you go back and look at all of the drafts over the years of land use maps and comprehensive plans and zoning, it is almost the same, maybe a little tweak here and there. It’s traditionally the African American communities where things get built,” Johnson said.
Racial covenant neighborhoods were ones that excluded racial and religious minority groups from living there. While these covenants no longer exist legally, historians and researchers have tracked how there are still patterns of segregation today in Charlottesville as a result of the covenants.
“When you looking at what single [home] zoning is today, it’s really just carrying on that legacy of saying these are the homes that we value in these neighborhoods, and they operate on different criteria than the way that we look at historically Black neighborhoods, in terms of redevelopment and future development,” said Jordy Yager, an activist and journalist who has researched the history of redlining and racial covenants in the city through the Mapping Cville project.
Johnson said as development increases in areas like the Downtown Mall, low-income residents and especially Black low-income residents are concerned they’ll be pushed out of their homes.
“I have a friend that lives on 11th Street and she says she’s so sick and tired of getting these letters from developers who want to buy her property … I don’t think developers are irritating residents who live in the covenant neighborhoods about buying their property the way they do in the African American communities, and so there is some unfairness there,” she said. “Why is it being done in only certain places and it’s not being done in every neighborhood?”
“This is what happened to Vinegar Hill, and it could happen again now,” Johnson said.
Vinegar Hill was a traditionally Black neighborhood that was demolished and leveled in 1965 by the city as part of an “urban renewal” project. More than 500 residents, the majority of whom were Black, and about 30 Black-owned businesses were displaced.
Leeyanne Moore, a resident of Early Street, is concerned that allowing medium-density housing, specifically fourplexes, could bring unwanted changes to her neighborhood.
“[Early Street] is sort of the best that Charlottesville has to offer for people who are not extremely wealthy … it consists of two-bedroom cottages and bungalows,” she said.
Moore said a neighbor brought it to her attention that the revised draft of the Future Land Use Map would allow for medium-density housing development on their street, and she became concerned particularly that fourplex residential structures could be built on the street.
“If you saw our street, you would realize that would completely ruin its charm, ruin its streetscape, ruin the neighborhood profile,” she said.
Moore also voiced concerns that Cville Plans Together doesn’t have a full understanding of the city or its history, specifically because Rhodeside and Harwell is based out of Alexandria.
“All of us recognize there are some things that the consultants who are hired from Alexandria and came to Charlottesville don’t recognize because they don’t live here. And then there are possible solutions that could be explored that could address the problems that everybody recognizes rezoning Charlottesville will not fix,” she said.
Moore suggested that the city could distribute vouchers to low-income residents to help them afford the cost of existing housing as opposed to building more residential complexes.
Moore attended a pop-up forum hosted by Cville Plans Together at the IX Art Park Farmers Market on May 15, and she and a neighbor brought their concerns to a member of the Cville Plans Together team.
“We were talking specifically to one individual who was taking notes, but he did have to acknowledge that he had never been on our street. He had not actually seen the vision of what a medium-density, four-story apartment building would do to our streetscape,” Moore said.
Johnson noted that while Cville Plans Together hosted multiple community pop-up forums, none of the events that were held in person was held in traditionally low-income communities.
Johnson said she was disheartened by community members’ responses during some of the public webinars to increasing affordable housing in the Future Land Use Map draft.
“People keep saying, ‘not in my backyard!’ They don’t want affordable housing in their neighborhood. It’s very concerning to them because now you’re going to have poor people living in there. You might have a person of color, or you might have somebody who was homeless, or someone with a mental issue,” Johnson said.
“People don’t want somebody that is of a different culture, or a different way of thinking, living beside them. They will let you come and clean their houses, though. You can work for them but they don’t want you to live beside them,” she said.
Johnson, Yager and other affordable-housing activists worked with the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition to create an online petition asking Cville Plans Together to “stop Black residents from being displaced and priced out and create more deeply affordable housing in exclusionary neighborhoods.”
“The campaign is really critical to mobilize a lot of folks that maybe hadn’t had their voices heard, maybe hadn’t come to these meetings, or been aware of the whole process altogether, to say here’s how you can make your voice heard and here’s what we can do about it,” said Yager.
Lyle Solla-Yates, a member of the city Planning Commission, said that while the Future Land Use Map should work hand-in-hand with rezoning, it doesn’t always.
“The Future Land Use Map and the Comprehensive Plan generally is a vision document, a guidance document. It’s saying, what do we want, and more or less how do we get there. It is not perfect,” he said.
While some people misunderstand the Future Land Use Map as rezoning, in actuality, it is a guide that informs the Planning Commission of what kind of zoning changes are possible.
“The zoning is where we move from vision to dull, specific code. That’s where we get legal, which is important. But if we get the Land Use Map right, we’re in a better position to get the zoning right,” Solla-Yates said.
Solla-Yates said the process of moving from the Future Land Use Map to the rezoning process is long and complicated.
Once a final draft of the map is completed by Cville Plans Together, it will go before the Planning Commission. The commission can choose to make recommendations or request another revision. If no revision is needed, then the map goes to the City Council for its consideration.
“If it’s right and they approve it, then we can get into real zoning, then we can get details like, where are there slopes we need to be concerned about, where are there safety issues, where’s the topography working with us, where’s it going against us. And that’ll give us a really fine-grained code, which can be used to propose buildings,” Solla-Yates said.
Solla-Yates said the Planning Commission aims to have the update of the city’s zoning code done in 2022 if at all possible and assuming there are no delays due to additional revisions.
“Ideally, we want to deliver for people. We’ve had quite a few delays because of COVID. And we want to get this done,” he said.
Consultants with Cville Plans Together have said the revised map draft is not a final draft and will be further revised, especially after receiving more community input.
“This is not the final map. We’re going to take in all of the public engagement and our feedback that we’re receiving,” said Ronald Sessoms, one of the planners with Rhodeside and Harwell, during the May 10 webinar.
Cville Plans Together will hold its final public forum to review the map draft at 6 p.m. Tuesday via Zoom webinar. Interested participants can sign up for the webinar by going to tinyurl.com/282m2sv5.