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Charlottesville rezoning critics accused of employing 'dog whistles'

Andrew Shelton wants to live in the city he grew up in.

But he simply can’t afford it.

A couple years after he and his wife realized that, despite their steady jobs, they could no longer keep up with Charlottesville’s housing market, Shelton came to City Hall for a Thursday night meeting where he voiced his support for a proposed rezoning.

He thinks the drafted proposal, which would allow for higher density in the city, could help make housing more affordable for people like him. But others who spoke during Thursday’s public comment period argued that the proposal is ill-advised, thoughtless and even destructive.

“This is a very wonderful place to live,” Shelton told the planning commission and city council, as a room full of people looked on, many waiting for their turn to speak.

“A lot of people want to move here and a lot of them have the money to afford what I would consider exorbitant prices for homes,” Shelton said. “And if they can buy them, I can’t.”

More density means more homes. And proponents argue that more homes means more options, and better prices, for consumers.

While there are areas of the proposal Shelton would like to see improved, on the whole he said he views it as progress.

“I’m not naïve. I understand that a zoning update is not a silver bullet,” he told The Daily Progress after addressing the planning commission. “But I do feel it’s an essential first step to improving this situation.”

Housing in Charlottesville is expensive. On that point, at least, most residents seem to agree. The area’s median sales price during the second quarter was $445,900, according to the latest Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors report. That’s roughly in line with Virginia as a whole, but tens of thousands more than the surrounding parts of Central Virginia.

But the question of what should be done about it, and whether the proposed rezoning would help, divided the room on Thursday night.

The proposal’s opponents worry that increased density will bring more people to the city as well as unforeseen consequences.

Charlottesville does not have the infrastructure necessary to handle a spike in population, they argue. They fear that the proposal’s elimination of parking mandates — which advocates say will help the city transition away from cars and build demand for more public transit — will only make parking in the city more difficult. And they worry that the proposal would significantly increase property taxes.

More density means more crime, pollution and noise, argued one woman. Another argued the proposed changes would damage her “perfect” neighborhood.

“I’m very skeptical that reducing parking in itself is going to get us to a place where you’re actually less dependent on cars,” Johnson Rice said.

“What are you going to do about the storm water? What are you going to do about the schools? What are you going to do about all the other infrastructure needs that increased density brings?” Al Pola asked the commission.

“Part of the charm of Charlottesville are its neighborhoods,” said Eric Gunderson, a Greenbrier resident. “I’m very concerned about how the rezoning is going to shift the character of the neighborhood.”

Critics of the proposal had a slight majority on Thursday night, with some bringing signs they held in the air for commissioners and council members to see.

“Attention! Zoning debacle ahead,” read one sign.

But advocates of the proposal came with arguments and concerns of their own.

Elizabeth Stark, a renter in Woolen Mills, responded to those who claimed the proposal would negatively affect their neighborhood.

“I’m a renter who lives in dense housing and I raise my children here and I love my neighborhood too,” Stark said. “I would love to have more neighbors and better use the land in this neighborhood to accommodate many more people so they can enjoy the river, proximity to downtown and all the amenities that my family and I have enjoyed.”

Doug Turnbull claimed that if Charlottesville does not find a way to make housing more affordable, residents will have to move farther away and drive into work each day, putting even more cars on the road.

If the proposal can make housing more affordable, then those who work in the city could also live in the city. They could walk to work instead of driving in from neighboring counties, and understaffed small businesses would be able to find more job candidates.

“I’d rather have neighbors than commuters,” Turnbull said. “I hope we choose density.”

Multiple advocates conceded that the proposal isn’t perfect but called it an improvement over the status quo.

One of them was Katie Darden, a homeowner who called herself “really lucky” to have bought a home when prices were low in 2011. Even then, she and her husband needed help from family to afford the down payment.

“We’ve seen friends and neighbors have to leave the area because of the tremendously high costs of housing. We really miss them,” Darden said.

She appreciated that many opponents like their neighborhoods as is. But she asked the crowd not to forget about the people who cannot afford any Charlottesville neighborhood.

“For many of them an out-of-control housing market makes it impossible for them to live anywhere near the city, even as they work here and we interact with them every day,” Darden said. “We really don’t have time to get it perfect, so please, let’s not let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

While the evening was largely civil, with most people quietly listening to their fellow residents, there were a some testy moments. One animated rezoning opponent accused the planning commission of falling asleep during public comment and argued they were not paying close enough attention. The Daily Progress did not see any commissioners dozing off.

Murmurs of disapproval filled the room when Liam Keough accused older zoning opponents of using “dog whistles,” subtly aimed political messages intended for, and only be understood by, particular groups.

“We cannot let the privileged desires of older residents outweigh the needs of potentially thousands of new residents, low-income residents and non-White residents,” Keough said.

A number of opponents derided Keough’s comment later on, including Kimberly Hawkey.

“It’s a little shameful you are allowing classist and ageist statements while claiming to be an equitable city,” she told the commission.

Hawkey also addressed what she called “blatant propaganda.”

“This plan does not and cannot guarantee affordable housing,” she said.

She also spoke out against the proposed plan’s allowance of commercial businesses in some residential neighborhoods. Four groceries in the Belmont area have failed, proving that having businesses in residential areas is not a good idea, she said.

“The businesses that have established here are noisy, they take up parking and they have driven out families who can no longer sleep or enjoy their homes,” she said.

A New York Times columnist also joined the conversation.

Jamelle Bouie and his wife have lived in Charlottesville since 2017. They struggled to find an apartment, and although they’ve since bought a home, Bouie said that was only possible because, “I just happen to have an unusually lucrative job for my career.”

He urged the commission to consider recommendations made by affordable housing and racial justice groups, and to modify inclusionary zoning regulations to “achieve deeper affordability.”

Charlottesville’s housing crisis, he said, affects people across the income spectrum.

Bouie noted that many opponents spoke of what might happen if the zoning ordinance passed, and he described some of those statements as “reflexive claims of futility and perversity.”

“But let’s look at what is happening: broad displacement, ruinously expensive prices, increased homelessness,” he said.

Everyone who works in the city should be able to live in it, he said. But the city’s housing crisis has made life difficult for people of many different incomes, including gainfully employed young people who hope to live in and contribute to the city for decades. The housing market has made it so they cannot afford to live in nor contribute to “the community they love and cherish.”

“You should not have to be a New York Times columnist to afford a home in Charlottesville, Virginia,” Bouie said. “That is not right.”

The planning commission is scheduled to have two work sessions this month where commissioners plan to discuss and likely make changes to the proposal. By early October, commissioners are expected to vote on whether or not to recommend the proposal to City Council.

City Council will hold its own public comment session at a later date and may vote on the proposal as soon as late December.


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