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WATCH NOW: UVa looking to supply land for affordable housing

With a portfolio of property, the University of Virginia has joined area agencies and governments looking to provide affordable housing to residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

University officials are hoping to help housing advocates in any way they can and said they will spend the next few months finding out exactly how that might look.

Officials on Thursday night made a virtual community outreach effort. Their first step was to admit they have little experience and to ask for help from those already involved.

“The landscape is full of people working on this issue already, and we want to find a way to fit into the landscape,” UVa President Jim Ryan said at the event. “It’s a challenge to figure out how we can make the biggest contribution.”

UVa announced a goal in March 2020 of helping to develop 1,000 to 1,500 affordable housing units in the city and county in the next 10 years. The developments would be built on land currently owned by the university or its UVa Foundation.

The process for creating a development, who will live in the housing and where the homes will be built have yet to be decided. Officials say they want to make sure they understand where their contributions are most needed and avoid duplicating efforts.

“This is just the beginning. No decisions about locations or residents have been made because we want to hear from you first,” said J.J. Davis, UVa’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We are in the process of examining all of our current land holdings to see what’s available. Donor funds are not being used. We are drawing on our properties.”

Affordable housing was one of five issues identified by the UVA-Community Working Group in 2019, along with the local economy, early childhood education, public health and employment.

Last year, the President’s Council on UVa-Community Partnerships formed working groups focused on those issues.

The advisory group is tasked with cooperating with local officials, residents and housing advocacy organizations to assist those agencies’ efforts. The group also is charged with developing a strategy for developing housing and finding public-private partners.

Officials said they are focused on providing property because they are inexperienced at creating the housing needed. They said other agencies have been working on creating affordable housing and have expertise the university lacks.

Giving property will help keep the final costs — and the rents — low, Ryan said.

“Our intention is to serve the community, so these homes will not be limited to only those involved with the university,” Ryan said. “The main idea is that we will offer land to reduce the overall cost of the housing to make it more affordable.”

But he said the idea is new ground for the school.

“We’re not that experienced at this,” Ryan said. “We want to start with one project and take the lessons we learn and use them as we move on.”

The U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies classify people who spend more than 30% of their gross income on housing as “cost burdened.”

“Talk of housing affordability is plentiful, but a precise definition of housing affordability is at best ambiguous,” bureau officials wrote in a study. “Housing expenditures that exceed 30% of household income have historically been viewed as an indicator of a housing affordability problem.”

According to the UVa working group’s February report, Charlottesville alone has more than 3,000 people who cannot afford housing. The report quotes a 2018 housing study in the city that showed residents who make $45,000 a year or less were found to spend more than half of their income on housing.

Also in February, UVa selected project consultant Gina Merritt, of Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures, to supply technical expertise and experience to the advisory group.

Merritt provided a quick quiz for those on Thursday’s virtual meeting and found most were more concerned that the properties be truly affordable, with location taking second. The group also favored community services and community centers in the developments.

Ryan said there will be more meetings and that Merritt and the advisory group will be active in the community.

“There is a complicated and not entirely happy history of development in Charlottesville, including UVa’s role in it, and we are mindful of this as we begin our work,” Ryan said.

“It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also complicated. We recognize we have much to learn from all of you in the community that have been working on this issue, and listening is an essential step as we begin,” he said. “We are excited to roll up our sleeves and begin to work.”


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