As voters cast their ballots in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, they will be choosing from five candidates to fill three seats on Charlottesville City Council.
They include Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook and councilor Michael Payne, both running for reelection, as well as city social services assistant Dashad Cooper, wedding sales manager Natalie Oschrin and former councilor Bob Fenwick.
While the general election is in November, a Republican has little chance to win a seat in the sapphire-blue city. For all intents and purposes, Tuesday’s primary will determine who will sit on City Council.
In advance of the election, The Daily Progress asked each candidate to answer six questions regarding the concerns of Charlottesville residents and how their planned policies will address them.
Staffing shortages have plagued City Hall. What can be done to fill those positions?
Snook: We can control three things relevant to the staff shortages — who the city manager is, whether councilors try to micromanage city operations and how much we pay our employees. We got off to a good start by choosing Michael Rogers as our interim city manager; he has brought stability at the top of the administration. We as councilors have largely respected the essential aspect of the council-manager form of government by allowing the professional city manager to run the government. Staff members have told us how much they have appreciated it that Council and the city manager have been functioning the way we are supposed to — “staying in our lanes” is the phrase often used. And we have increased pay, with a 6% raise for virtually everyone. We are hiring a lot of new police officers, fresh from the police academy. We have hired two deputy city managers, a new city attorney, directors of neighborhood development services and public works, and a new police chief, and they are all excellent. We still need to hire some key middle managers, but by and large the staffing shortages are easing. We need to make sure that our permanent city manager is as committed to stability, that Council continues to respect the function of the city manager and that our pay remains competitive.
Payne: While significant progress has been made, staffing shortages remain a challenge for city government. Vacancies — combined with high levels of staff turnover — have hamstrung our ability to follow through on affordable housing, local climate action and other vital policy goals. The ultimate impact is felt by the citizens of our community who need our government to be efficient and effective. Two critical actions are necessary: We have to increase our wages and benefits so that all positions within the city government pay living wages that are competitive in our regional economy, and City Council needs to foster an environment where working for city government is considered a positive, team-oriented, mission-driven career that makes Charlottesville City Hall an employer of choice. Choosing the right permanent city manager and building strong relationships with our senior leadership team will be critical.
Fenwick: It’s just not a happy place to work. People just aren’t getting the service from City Hall that they should be getting, and unfortunately city employees are getting the brunt of that criticism.
They need to be paid as much as they’re supposed to be paid. When I was on Council previously I made the motion to have city employees paid according to federal minimum wage guidelines, and we passed it. It was easier than I thought. But the city manager is tasked with implementing policy, and he found way to get around minimum wage by designating some people full-time and pay them what they’re supposed to, and designate others as part-time. If you’re serious about keeping people, you’ve got to stop that.
If it were a happy place to work, they’d be telling their friends to sign up.
Oschrin: It’s important to point out that City Council sets policy and that hiring staff is the responsibility of the city manager. City Council does hire the city manager, however, and I’m excited to see how that search turns out. In addition to making the city run, the city manager sets the tone and culture of the staff, and the turnover at the top over the past several years has likely made it difficult to foster that community within the team. I’ve spoken with former city employees who remembered when the city used to strive to be the “employer of choice,” so reinvigorating that sense of pride and urgency will help. Funding for positions and raises for certain current staff were approved in the latest budget cycle, so that’s a positive step in the right direction. Where City Council can make a difference is by working towards big solutions that make it more affordable for city staff to live in the city where they work, and get to work safely.
Cooper: First, look at the root of the problem of why employees seek employment elsewhere: cost of living, wages and not enough viable housing options.
At the beginning of year, the city completed a classification and compensation study that is looking at 225 jobs and comparing salaries to other localities and private employers in the area. When elected, I will look at the budget for next year and see how we can start to allocate some funds in order to start the process of raising the wages for some positions, until we can fully fund each of those jobs included in the study.
How can city council make housing more affordable?
Snook: We need to distinguish between two different problems — “affordable housing,” which we define as housing for those making less than 60% of the area median income, and “housing affordability,” which we define as making sure that there is adequate housing inventory available for middle-class people making 100% of the AMI or more. For the poorest of our residents, the best answer is to subsidize the expansion of complexes like Westhaven. The second-best answer is to have the Housing Authority buy housing units that come on the market when those units are already “affordable” for people making less than 60% AMI. We have done that recently by buying the Dogwood Housing portfolio, preserving about 75 units of affordable housing. For the middle class, we need to increase the number of housing units that they can buy or rent. The current zoning rewrite seeks to do that by permitting construction of “missing middle” kinds of housing — townhouses, duplexes and small apartment building (4-8 units, perhaps). The bottom line is that demand for housing in Charlottesville continues to grow because it is a nice place to live, and that means that unless the housing inventory keeps up with the population growth, housing prices will continue to rise. So let’s build more units, to try to hold down the inflation in housing prices.
Payne: There is no one, easy answer for making housing more affordable in Charlottesville. But some of the critical actions City Council must take include: creating a land bank and acquiring land for affordable housing; expanding our local community land trust; investing in resident-led redevelopment of public housing; establishing an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires new developments to include affordable housing at 60% of area median income and below; legalizing more affordable housing types such as duplexes and triplexes; expanding real estate tax relief programs; and demanding the University of Virginia pay property taxes. Over the past three years, we’ve directly invested at least $10 million annually for affordable housing — we need to not only maintain that commitment but expand it to match inflation. Our Affordable Housing Strategy includes all of these policies, but we have to actually fund and implement them.
Fenwick: My wife and I came down here 50 years ago, and we couldn’t afford it so we had to move out to Albemarle County for three years. Eventually I bought an abandoned house in the city and I built it up, and that’s the only way we could afford to live here.
We have a lot of single-family homes, and the zoning proposal wants to pack more people into high rise buildings. The current plan is so difficult to understand and work through. It’s not going to give the community what they think they’re going to get.
So to make housing more affordable, just be honest about what you’re trying to do with zoning proposal. If it were up to me, I’d stop the current proposal right now. All it is is a power grab by some developers. They’re cutting citizens out of the process.
Oschrin: There are two ways to bring down housing costs overall. One is to make your area undesirable, resulting in depopulation and lower prices. The second is to build more homes in alignment with demand. Naturally, I prefer option two. Of course, since building takes time, and since we are so far behind in creating supply, it will take a while for markets to even out. That’s why we need resources to keep people in homes or allow them to enter the housing market in the meantime. In Charlottesville, there are subsidies and rent/tax relief programs available, and groups like Habitat, CRHA, Piedmont Housing Alliance, and the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program address other needs. The city’s $18 million commitment to affordable housing programs in the latest budget is a great step in the right direction. However, while there can be subsidies all day long, if there aren’t enough homes, people will be left out. So we need to build more homes so there are more opportunities and more choices for individuals, young families, multigenerational families, workers, single parents, roommates and the aging population. Upzoning allows more and varied homes in neighborhoods in a way that benefits availability, affordability and equity.
Cooper: Continue to allocate funds to affordable housing and look at the rezoning after it’s approved later this year, so that we can look at what we can make more affordable. Implementing renovation of West Haven will be a boost to affordable housing in Charlottesville. We can also enforce inclusionary zoning policies, so that when developers start to build housing they can include a percentage of affordable units in each new or remodel residential projects. Another thing we could do would be working with Piedmont Community Land Trust to ensure land can be leased to potential homeowners at an affordable rate to ensure long-term affordability.
What is your plan to reduce Charlottesville’s recent spike in violent crime?
Snook: Violent crime has spiked in the last year or two, after a decadeslong decline. The overall problem is that people have increasingly come to believe that the “normal” response to an argument is to pull out a gun and start shooting. Shooting someone has come to be seen as “normal.” That is a systemic problem nationally, not limited to Charlottesville. Most of the increase in adult shootings fall into one of two categories — adults with private beefs and disputes relating to drug activity. Groups like the BUCK Squad have seemed to do a good job on trying to mediate some of the private beefs, and better community policing seems to be making a difference on other illegal activity. Notice that arrests have been made on all of the recent shootings — the community is getting fed up with the violence as well, and they see it as a communitywide problem. Then there is the problem of teenagers shooting. These incidents can be attributed to the fact that too many teens are able to get their hands on guns, and when they feel scared, they pull out the guns. We have teenagers carrying guns because they think they need to do so to protect themselves from other teens who may be carrying guns. We need to find a way to reach these kids with youth activities — from sports activities like summer basketball and water sports to programs to plug kids into programs at PHAR or Live Arts or other productive places.
Payne: No family deserves to live in a neighborhood where kids are scared to play outside and walk home from school. Last budget, we funded almost $400,000 for gun violence prevention efforts. These included evidence-based policies to reduce violent crime, such as: job and internship programs for youth like the Community Attention Youth Internship Program and the Public Housing Association of Residents Youth Program; mentorship for at-risk youth; and violence interruption groups. But there’s significantly more action needed to expand these programs, combined with investments in street lighting and good public infrastructure within every neighborhood and community policing that has the full buy-in of local neighborhoods. And while we take action locally, we need to continually demand state government enact meaningful gun control legislation and invest in mental healthcare.
Fenwick: Get out in the community. Let people see you and talk to them. They know who the bad actors are in their neighborhood and they’ll tell you if they trust you. You’ll catch some grief, but no one forces us to run for Council.
Police have to be paid — and I think they are — paid decently. Cops don’t need to be harsh tough guys; they need to relate to people in the neighborhood. Local police need to continue the education of deescalation.
Oschrin: Recently, there have been incidents of gun crime in our town. While crime remains statistically very low, gun violence has a visceral negative effect on everyone, no matter where it is in town. Small solutions, like improved street lights, can have a big impact on street safety. But for longer-term solutions that get at the root cause of violent crime, the city must invest in addressing the underlying causes of instability, like housing and food insecurity. Affordable housing, food access and emergency financial assistance will increase community safety. Good neighbors help each other. Rehabilitation and diversion programs for incarcerated individuals will give them tools needed to reduce recidivism.
I support the commitment to alternative ways of managing safety within the schools and keeping schools gun-free zones. I support investing in activities like sports, arts, clubs, job training and after-school programs that can give young people support, mentorship, skills and hope. Reaching for a gun means you don’t think you have a real future, and that shouldn’t need to be the case.
Our citizens deserve a safe space and a safety net, with resources focused on prevention instead of reaction.
Cooper: We must address the root cause of the recent violence, which starts with poverty, lack of mental health resources and no positive role models in their lives. We must continue to support Police Chief Michael Kochis and community engagement. As a council member that grew up in poverty and lived in high-crime target areas, I believe the community seeing me walk side by side with the chief will not only encourage community engagement, but also build trust within the community. We need to invest in youth programs that provide at-risk youth opportunities for education, job training, mentorship, and recreational activities. As I have said over the campaign trail, it takes a village to raise a child.
What’s the biggest road block keeping Charlottesville from thriving?
Snook: That is a more difficult question than it might seem at first. The reality is that Charlottesville has been thriving — for probably 75% of residents. It is not thriving for the poor or for those on a fixed income who are trying to stay in their homes as real estate taxes rise. For those people, we need to continue to work on rent relief and tax relief programs, as we are permitted to do under state law. We need to make sure that our “social safety net” is in place for them.
Payne: Charlottesville’s greatest challenge is the rising cost of living and our extreme lack of economic mobility. Income inequality is pushing out longtime residents and creating a city where the workers who are the bedrock of our community — teachers, nurses, firefighters, restaurant workers, bus drivers, etc. — can’t afford to live in Charlottesville, even though it’s the place they call home. Charlottesville will lose what makes it a great community if only wealthy young professionals can afford to live here.
Fenwick: How senior staff at City Hall views citizens. They don’t appreciate us complaining even if we have some expertise in the area which we complain about, so that’s one reason they shuffle us off to lower staff people who take the brunt of the anger after a while.
This is nothing new. It’s a management thing. They don’t think our opinion is worth much. They’ll hire an outside consultant for a million dollars to give them the answer they want.
Oschrin: Charlottesville is already a place to thrive, especially for those with means. So I am pushing for policies that will make it more possible for everyone to thrive, to close the $47,000 racial wealth gap, school achievement gap and reduce displacement. That means affordable housing, transportation options and safer streets.
But the affordable housing crisis has to be the number one issue. When our teachers and nurses can’t afford to live in the town that they serve, when we can’t attract applicants for city jobs because they can’t afford to move here, when many Black residents were stripped of their homes in the 1960s and never made whole, when the median house price is well over $400,000, when 60% of residents have to rent (many of them rent-burdened), then that has to be the most pressing concern. We can’t pretend that Charlottesville is a “great place to live for all of our citizens” when we have a lot of work to do to truly make Charlottesville a “world-class” city. It starts with housing.
Cooper: There are many roadblocks hindering Charlottesville from thriving, but I believe the biggest one is affordable housing. The rezoning will take some time to implement and carry out, but it is a step in the right direction towards Charlottesville becoming more affordable. If we tackle housing correctly, this will create more opportunity to focus on transportation, educational opportunities and economic inequality.
When you talk to voters, what issue are they most concerned about?
Snook: I get the most questions about violent crime, and second is the rezoning proposal.
Payne: I hear most frequently about our rapidly rising cost of living; the need to ensure every student can thrive in our public schools; taking local climate action and expanding green space; creating a more usable public transit system; public safety and opportunities for youth; and the lack of truly affordable housing.
Fenwick: When I first started my campaign in April it was taxes, zoning, public safety, in that order. Now it’s more zoning, taxes, public safety. Once I declared I was going to run, people started calling me a lot, and they were really upset with the zoning proposal.
Oschrin: When out canvassing, as soon as a volunteer or I mention sidewalks, folks’ faces light up. Sidewalks aren’t a luxury, they should be thought of like a utility, like power and water. We’ve been promising connecting sidewalks for decades, it’s time to do them. The five-year projection for sidewalk funding has dropped from $1.9 million to $400,000, about an 80% cut. One explanation I’ve heard for the cuts to sidewalk funding is that we don’t have the staff to plan and build the sidewalks, but that’s no excuse — if staffing is an obstruction, we need to hire more people and allocate more of them to high-priority work like building out a usable sidewalk network. Sidewalks also need to be pleasant, so using them is easy, not a chore. Designing and funding pedestrian walkways with street trees will add investment into our tree canopy, protect pedestrians and improve the streetscape.
Something we must keep in mind as we become more intentional about making the city safer for bikers and walkers is equal protection and enforcement of these safety laws. In general, pedestrian and bicycle victims of car violence are disproportionately Black and Brown, and laws policing movement, like jaywalking and speeding, have been applied subjectively to target minorities more frequently. So when we build safe bike lanes and sidewalks, and install traffic-calming measures, we must make sure that neighborhoods across town see the benefit, not just whiter or wealthier areas. And bike lanes need to be discussed as ways to increase freedom of movement, not as a tool for gentrification.
Cooper: From knocking on doors I’ve learned the majority of voters want affordable housing, to address the spikes in violent crimes and want transparency within city government.
Are you happy with the current zoning proposal?
Snook: Am I happy with it? No. Do I think the efforts are headed in the right direction? Yes. First, let’s be clear that the “current zoning proposal” is still very much a work in progress. The consultants produced a very detailed draft — three modules, more than 200 pages — that elicited a lot of comments. After all of the public comment, the draft has gone back to the consultants, and they have promised us an almost final draft by the end of July. I think it is highly likely that the July draft will be very different from the draft that was rolled out over the past four months. Second, we need to understand the three different pieces of the proposal that affect residential density. The first provided that every residential lot could take up to three dwelling units. The second created three different residential zones — R-A, R-B and R-C — with different densities permitted in each. An R-A lot could take up to three or four dwelling units; an R-B lot could take up to six units; and an R-C lot could take up to eight units. The third piece called for allowing double density on any lot if all of the apartments were “affordable” units. So as R-A lot could take up to eight units; an R-B lot could take up to 12 units; and an R-C lot could take up to 16 units. Let’s look at those three parts of the plan, in sequence. I am in favor of the three-units-per-lot provision. That provision would, all by itself, make this one of the most progressive zoning ordinances in the commonwealth, or in the nation. I am concerned that although residential zones could accommodate a few R-B or R-C lots, no one thinks that it would be a good result to have an entire street of six-unit or eight-unit apartment buildings. We need a way to ration those higher-density uses, and perhaps one way to do it would be to say that corner lots could take higher density. Corner lots tend to be larger than lots in the middle of a block, and they certainly have more road frontage. I have asked the consultants to think about how to create some rationing device for the higher density uses. Overall, I want us to go back to what we were told two years ago to expect — that higher density would come to residential neighborhoods in “house-sized” buildings. Maybe we need to place a limit on the size of these residential buildings — perhaps limit the buildings to 4,000 square feet. Almost all houses in Charlottesville are less than 4,000 square feet, so that limit would result in buildings that could look very much like every other house on the block. The bottom line for me is that there are circumstances under which this plan could be very good.
Payne: The current zoning proposal includes positive changes such as legalizing more affordable housing types like duplexes and triplexes, requiring affordable housing at 60% of AMI and below in new developments, and cleaning up our extremely outdated code. But it is still in draft form and significant changes are needed before it’s ready for adoption. Some of these changes include: ensuring new units aren’t just used for Airbnbs; strengthening environmental protections for trees, critical slopes and floodplains; preventing working-class renters from getting displaced for luxury housing; and creating mixed-use districts that allow longtime local businesses to thrive. Under our current zoning we see continual teardowns to build luxury housing, woefully inadequate environmental protections, almost half of all renters in Charlottesville are cost burdened, and we have a racial income gap where the median Black household earns $39,000 while the median White household earns $86,000 which creates enormous disparities in our local housing market. If done right, zoning can address these vital issues while legalizing more affordable housing types for nurses, teachers, restaurant workers and other members of our community who are getting pushed out of Charlottesville.
Fenwick: No. The developer’s proposal has not had a sufficient response to the citizens’ concerns. The last 10 years in Charlottesville has been biggest building boom in the city. Developers are not wanting for lack of good construction, and yet what we heard is “We need more density because that’ll address affordable housing.” But it won’t. It never has. When you put up big building there’s a level of service a city has to provide. There are a lot of peripheral expenses the proposal doesn’t bring into play.
Oschrin: There are many things to be excited about in the suggested policy, though I reserve judgment for the final iteration. First, by not requiring parking minimums, the city is thinking ahead to a less car-centric future, which is necessary to reduce pollution and curb climate change while making a quieter, safer and more walkable/bikeable city. This can mean lower building costs and more square footage for people to live in instead of store cars. And since the city can be more walkable/bikeable, the need to have a car will simultaneously be reduced.
Next, adjusting zoning codes to allow a little more freedom means that builders aren’t forced to supply the most expensive housing. Single-family exclusionary zoning requires the most expensive cost-per-unit building possible and has kept American cities underdeveloped and segregated for decades. The homes we build now are part of the catching up we need to do to make the city more equitable, livable and affordable. If we don’t change anything, we’ll continue to see relatively affordable houses flipped into McMansions — what the current zoning ordinance supports, and what’s been plaguing neighborhoods for the past lifetime.
Cooper: The old zoning called for only one housing unit per lot that decreased supply for housing in Charlottesville. The current zoning proposal is not perfect, but it is necessary in order to increase housing in Charlottesville. Majority of Charlottesville is zoned residential A (R-A), which allows three dwelling (house/apartment) units and allows store/storefront hosing in some areas. Shifts in population or community will create a need to update zoning regulations to help address emerging challenges in housing affordability, environmental concerns and/or changes to transportation patterns. Council would need to have regular reviews and updates to ensure Charlottesville remains aligned with the community’s vision and objectives.