Charlottesville is expected to purchase two vacant properties in the city’s Belmont neighborhood for $4 million with the intention to use the site in some way to help the city’s rising homeless population.
Despite local media reports claiming the property will be converted into a homeless shelter, City Manager Sam Sanders told The Daily Progress he is not making that promise. Exactly how much of the site would even be dedicated to homeless services is still yet to be determined.
“It was simply an overstatement of what will happen next,” Sanders said at a budget forum at Carver Recreation Center on Tuesday. “I did not intend to communicate that I’m building a shelter. That is not what I’m proposing to do. I’m planning to make an impact in homelessness as an intervention.”
The plan to purchase the properties at 405 Avon St. and 405 Levy Ave. was first and foremost about bringing the land under city control so that Charlottesville could then decide what to do with it, he said.
“It will be homeless-related, because that’s a site for me to put shelter beds," Sanders said. "It won’t be that exclusively."
A city document from Monday’s City Council meeting claims that the purchase would be a good opportunity for “affordable housing development.”
“This acquisition supports the City Manager’s commitment to homelessness intervention as it could become the site of a facility that serves to meet that need among others,” the document reads.
While the city is not committing to a shelter, after the purchase is finalized, it will be conducting a “comprehensive assessment” of homeless service needs and a feasibility study on what it would take to operate a shelter 24/7, 365 days a year. Once completed, the city will have a better idea of what can be accomplished.
“No one today can tell me how many shelter beds we need. That’s a problem. So I can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a shelter with 50 beds in it on that site,’ because what if the number is 100?” Sanders said. “I don’t want to build 50 and then later they say, ‘Sam, you didn’t do enough. We need 100.’”
Sanders said he is certain about at least one thing.
“What I know is it’s going to be very expensive,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a complicated project, because what I’m thinking about isn’t a traditional building that does just one thing. It’s probably going to be three or four things.”
The $4 million required to purchase the property will be taken from leftover funds the city received from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act. Whatever the city chooses to build on the site after that will require additional funds which would need to be approved by Council.
Councilor Michael Payne told The Daily Progress it is premature to say the site will be a shelter, but that he wants the site to help the unhoused in some way.
“Whatever is able to provide maximum services on that site is what I’d hope to see,” Payne said. “We know one of the critical gaps in our housing market is we don’t have a year-round permanent shelter that could be a site where people are able to come in at any time of year and not only get shelter but get connected with services and with getting permanent housing.”
“Obviously that would be a fantastic thing,” Payne said.
Councilor Brian Pinkston said using the property to build a shelter would be a priority, but that it is not guaranteed.
“It could be a community center, a clinic, for all I know a visitor station for people coming into city,” he said. “A lot of things could be at the site. But we have to own it first.”
“I’m kind of waiting to see what Sam comes up with in terms of different options,” Pinkston said, while adding that he believes the city does need a shelter.
Although the city’s Salvation Army runs a shelter and is preparing to undergo an expansion that will roughly double its beds, it currently does not have enough beds for the area’s homeless population, and is considered “high barrier,” meaning difficult for people to get entry.
Homelessness has been on the rise in Charlottesville over the past half-decade. Between 2018 and 2023, the number of people in Charlottesville who fell into homelessness grew by 25%, according to the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless, which coordinates and leads collaborative efforts to address homelessness.
While both Pinkston and Payne said they have not received much negative feedback on the proposal to convert the land to affordable housing or homeless services, pushback to housing proposals is not unknown in the Belmont area.
In 2019, Hinton Avenue Methodist Church wanted to rezone land in the area from residential to commercial so that it could construct a 15-unit apartment building, a third of which would be dedicated to tenants with developmental disabilities and roughly a fifth of which would be made affordable.
Some neighbors opposed the project, christened Rachel’s Haven, with more than 30 filing a lawsuit against the city later that year. The suit argued nearby residents would “suffer the effects of this capricious and arbitrary decision.” The lawsuit was dismissed. Construction was slated to begin this year; no units have yet been built.
It is unclear if whatever the city proposes at the Avon-Levy property would face similar pushback.
Pinkston said he believes the site could be a real opportunity to make progress toward helping the city’s homeless population. He pointed out that the Haven, a day shelter that opened its doors on Market Street in downtown Charlottesville in 2010, was originally under consideration to be both a day and night shelter, but opposition in the neighborhood prevented that from happening.
“From my perspective, we can’t as a community say we’re committed to solving the problem and not actually do something about it,” Pinkston said. “Folks complain about people sleeping on the Mall at night. We have the opportunity to do this right.”
He said he likes the Belmont location for homeless services because it’s not directly on the Downtown Mall, a high-traffic commercial center and tourist attraction in the city, but it is close enough that people could access it easily.
“We’ve got to quit just talking about things like homelessness, kicking the can down the road, and actually do something,” he said. “If we don’t take the opportunity now to get this, then I think we’d really be making a huge mistake.”