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Charlottesville making strides to end affordable housing crisis, city Realtors, developers and employees agree

The average sales price of a house in Charlottesville is $562,000, but affording that requires an income of $150,000, according to Realtor Roxanne Carter-Johnston.

Johnston sat on a panel Friday morning titled “What’s the Answer to Affordable Housing?” as part of the Charlottesville Tom Tom Festival, a five-day celebration of art, music and ideas in the city.

“Why is it so hard to create new affordable housing?” asked moderator Ashley Davies. “It feels like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain each day.”

One tactic is preservation, something that panelist Waki Wynn likened to a leaky pitcher of water. The water, i.e., the housing, may come pouring out, but there will be a supply problem if there’s a leak in the pitcher.

Wynn said that a scourge on neighborhoods are the postcards that arrive offering to pay discounted prices for homes of older people struggling to maintain their dwelling on a fixed income.

“My objective, and AHIP’s objective, is to put the postcard investors out of business,” said Wynn, as the room — inside the Common House social club in downtown Charlottesville — erupted in applause.

AHIP is the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program, and Wynn, who leads its board, told the crowd that his group helps about 138 families annually. AHIP steps in with repairs for cash-strapped homeowners flummoxed by failing systems, such as rusting water heaters and aging HVAC systems.

Another nonprofit organization with a voice at the table was the Piedmont Community Land Trust, which buys properties and then leases the land for 99 years to struggling homebuyers. The group has done this with 39 homes since its 2008 founding, said Carter-Johnston, who is on the board.

“We’re still learning, but we’re ready to grow,” she said.

James Freas, a former planning director recently promoted to deputy city manager for operations, explained how the city’s new zoning ordinance, which took effect Feb. 19, is designed to do both things: create affordable housing via allowing higher densities and preserve existing affordable housing.

“We started with affordable housing,” said Freas, asserting that Charlottesville is an outlier among cities amending their planning approach.

While a group of well-heeled homeowners is fighting the new zoning with a lawsuit, Freas mentioned that the city council has routinely exceeded its goal of dedicating $10 million annually to affordable housing initiatives. And then he mentioned the facets of the new code aimed at creating supply and lowering cost: more mixed-use districts, allowing multifamily dwellings in all neighborhoods, ending parking minimums and reducing review of residential projects.

He also touted a new rule that demands that all developers of 10 or more units must make at least 10% of the units affordable or pay into a fund.

“Why do we allow them to buy out?” asked an audience member.

Freas said there are several reasons, and a key one, he said, is that the concept of requiring affordable units is still largely untested in the courts, so it’s wise to obtain voluntary cash payments. He said the city gets “a big chunk of money.”

“Huge,” interjected fellow panelist Valerie Long.

A lawyer frequently tapped to shepherd large projects through the various commissions and other reviews, Long denounced the previous zoning.

“It would deter a lot of investment,” Long said. “There were a lot of projects that never got off the ground.”

Long said that a developer of a large project might spend a million dollars on architects, engineers, interior designers and lawyers before the approvals ever come.

A member of the audience, downtown property investor Ludwig Kuttner, hailed the emphasis on increasing the density of Charlottesville.

“If you have more density, then people will walk more, and you get a green city,” said Kuttner.

Another audience member was Realtor-developer Roger Voisinet, who said that he believes that he’s the first person to build a project under the new zoning code: the conversion of a large backyard in the Woolen Mills into three sub-lots.

“It’s got everything they want,” Voisinet told The Daily Progress. “Three new small houses on a back lot nobody uses on a dead-end quiet street. They’re going to sell like crazy.”

Voisinet then said what he won’t do with the original 1,100-square-foot house on that East Market Street property: renovate it. Why not? A builder estimated that the renovation cost, exclusive of landscaping, would be $583,000.


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