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City Council backs proposal to improve approach to affordable housing

Charlottesville plans to revise several policies and regulations to improve its approach to addressing affordable housing.

The City Council held a work session Thursday to discuss zoning regulations and policies connected to affordable housing.

City staff provided several recommendations to create zoning incentives for affordable housing and better administer and replenish the Affordable Housing Fund.

Housing coordinator John Sales said the city set a goal for 15% of all units in Charlottesville to be affordable by 2025. Right now, he said, there are 2,196 units, which is 11.7%.

Over the past 10 years, the city has allocated about $24.6 million from the Affordable Housing Fund. That money has led to 297 new units and rehabilitation of 699 existing units.

The city’s existing zoning ordinance and approach to affordable housing has some benefits, such as programs for homeownership and supporting low-income housing tax credit developments.

However, the city’ Comprehensive Plan doesn’t have any centralized policy to address housing needs; the zoning ordinance doesn’t provide appropriate incentives for affordable units; and projects are approved at varying lengths of times of affordability.

Sales said the Affordable Housing Fund also has several shortcomings, primarily that it’s a grant program.

He noted that federal and state programs that work in a similar way are loan programs so that the fund is continuously replenished and grows.

“It reduces the amount of money that has to come directly from the budget,” Sales said.

He said there’s also no consistent plan for how projects receive funding.

“The city has invested $25 million and we have not solved that issue,” he said. “It’s something that we can’t wait to do.”

City officials and community members have been anxious to take big steps toward addressing the city’s housing needs and have expressed dismay that the Comprehensive Plan update has ground to a halt.

The plan, which is a guide for local land-use decisions, was last updated in 2013, and the zoning code hasn’t been substantially revised since 2003.

The plan update started in 2017, but likely won’t finish until the end of the year. The city awarded a $926,000 contract to Rhodeside and Harwell Inc. to finish the update, which the consultant expects will take at least a year. Rewriting the zoning ordinance would take another year.

“Right now, we seem to be in a place where everybody is waiting for something to happen,” Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson said. “We don’t need to wait for an updated Comprehensive Plan to talk about administration of affordable dwelling units.”

Staff recommended allowing accessory dwelling units anywhere throughout the city by right. Property owners would be allowed to have as many as three accessory units as long as one is affordable as a rental for 20 years.

The proposal would remove the requirement that an owner live on the property with an accessory dwelling unit; make loans available; reduce setback requirements; and eliminate additional parking requirements.

Staff also recommended amending the zoning ordinance to incentivize so-called middle-housing, such as duplexes and townhouses that are a stepping stone between apartments and single-family homes.

Staff recommended revising the Affordable Housing Fund to be a revolving loan program and creating an affordable dwelling unit program that would oversee regulations.

Under the proposal, the 22-member Housing Advisory Committee would be revised to a 10-member panel that would advise Sales on administering the affordable housing program and establish regulations, such as rental and sales prices for projects that received city funding.

Councilor Sena Magill advocated for a member of the revised committee to have expertise in climate change.

“The city has set a pretty ambitious climate goal,” she said, referring to a goal to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Councilor Michael Payne was hesitant to eliminate the Housing Advisory Committee. He backed the new advisory group, but said a policy committee is a benefit.

“If we totally get rid of the HAC, we are significantly reducing the community’s ability to generate housing policy and have input on housing policy beyond city staff,” he said.

Councilors had questions about some of the specifics within the proposal, but generally supported moving forward with the ideas.

City Attorney John Blair said staff would bring forth a resolution at the council’s March 2 meeting that would refer the proposals to the Planning Commission.


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