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Charlottesville reassesses how it handles affordable housing crisis

Charlottesville is assessing how to better address the city’s affordable housing crisis after a recent report found the city could be doing more.

Since 2010, the city has invested a total of $46.7 million in affordable housing, according to a report from real estate consulting firm HR&A. The firm was hired by the city to study the city’s process for investing in affordable housing.

“Is that good? The answer is yes. But good is relative, especially because you will never spend enough on affordable housing,” Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders said at Monday’s City Council work session.

The study focused on funding, policy, project viability and efficiency. According to the report, the city has constructed and preserved 1,611 affordable units and served an additional 640 households since 2010.

Sanders said the report showed areas where the city needs to make changes. There is no tracking by the city for how many affordable housing units still exist or for how long they will exist. The city doesn’t have a good internal compliance program or a comprehensive housing policy and has yet to define what it means by affordable housing.

He said the city’s Affordable Housing Plan is a step in the right direction, but that it lacks a consistent message, especially when it comes to the plan’s suggestion that the city put $10 million a year for 10 years toward affordable housing.

“I’ve asked you at different times, do you see that $10 million per year for 10 years as a goal or commitment? I view that as an important distinction. When you look at it as a goal, that means you may or may not hit it and you do your best to get there,” Sanders said. “But if you really consider it a commitment that means it’s non-negotiable. You should be doing everything in your power to hit that number.”

Sanders also said he thinks $10 million is low considering the level of a crisis the city is facing when it comes to affordable housing.

“We already know [members of the public] don’t think $10 million dollars is enough. I did this work. If I were to see what’s going on in Charlottesville and I was on the ground doing the work – no, it’s not enough,” he said. “It needs to be $15 million. It could easily be $20 million because that’s how much of a crisis that we actually face in our community.”

Councilors had differing opinions on whether $10 million is a goal or commitment.

“I view the $10 million as a commitment rather than a goal,” councilor Michael Payne said.

Mayor Lloyd Snook voiced concern about making commitments.

“I’m willing to average, which makes it a goal, but it’s not a commitment for me. Furthermore, we don’t have the authority to bind future councils as a commitment, so to some extent, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to worry about that excessively,” Snook said.

Snook said the $10 million is a “strongly held goal” but cautioned that an unexpected financial crisis, such as the recent pandemic, could make it hard to meet.

“My marriage survived COVID,” he said, “some financial commitments from the city did not.”

HR&A has made several recommendations about moving the city’s affordable housing process forward. Those include changes to the city’s Housing Advisory Committee, creating a Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund committee to oversee the use of the funds, continuing emphasis on projects that will scale production of affordable housing units, expanding affordability levels and better monitoring of how many units are affordable and how long they remain in that category before going to market-rate.

Sanders also suggested the city stop funding housing proposals through the Vibrant Community Fund and move the funding to the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund.


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