Out of all the cities and hamlets across the country, Charlottesville was just listed as one of the two dozen best places to live in the country in Livability.com’s Top 100.
But former public housing resident Gloria Beard thinks that ranking is for the wealthy white residents in town, not for people like her.
Beard, who is Black and has lived in Charlottesville since 1974, owns her own home but has seen housing costs rise to unrecognizable numbers. According to a report released by the Charlottesville Association of Realtors last week, the median home cost in the city during the second quarter was $464,000. Across the country, the median home cost is $440,300, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
After living in Friendship Court public housing for several years, Beard was able to own her own home in the 10th and Page neighborhood through a city program in 1995 that aimed to help lower income individuals achieve home ownership.
Now Beard feels gentrification pressure after the Dairy Market office, residential and commercial complex was built next to the 10th and Page neighborhood, and taxes and housing prices have skyrocketed.
Beard said she would not be able to afford to rent an apartment in town should she decide to sell and take her equity.
“Every year Charlottesville is on a list of best places to live, but it’s not that way for the poor, the elderly, or people of color,” Beard said. “If I sold my home, I couldn’t afford to live in these apartments here. I don’t know where low-income people are supposed to go.”
In many ways, the shortage of affordable housing in Charlottesville is the ultimate structural problem. Not only do low-income people struggle to find affordable homes to rent, they are often forever shut out of the wealth-building process that occurs when people can buy their own homes.
After the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, activists and many lower-income Black residents and others wondered: What will it take to honor all people’s dreams of having a home they can afford and feel safe in?
Doors closed for too long
It’s a question that’s been at the front of City Council campaigns, University of Virginia community committees and housing activist marches and rhetoric since the aftermath of the August 2017 rally.
The event has made city officials more aware of systemic race and equity issues and they pledged to address a legacy of racism-through-zoning, but ran up against decades of unfair housing practices and a shortage of affordable housing.
According to a 2021 report from the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, in urban areas including Charlottesville only 29% of Black households own their own home, compared to 55% of white households. About 31% of Asian and Hispanic households own their own homes.
A 2022 study conducted by the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless found that homelessness rates are up in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, with 41% of the unhoused being Black. That’s more than double the percentage of Black people who live in the area.
The shortage of affordable housing and the lagging home ownership rates for Black people stems from years of restrictive covenants that kept them from buying homes, combined with the razing of neighborhoods such as Vinegar Hill and Gospel Hill during ‘urban renewal’ in the 1960s and 1970s.
Organizations such as Legal Aid Justice Center have asked the city to make real efforts to eradicate institutional racism by significantly improving the lives of low-income people.
“The murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the murder and the attacks in Charlottesville in 2017 sort of laid bare for us as a nation what racism still looks like and feels like in America,” said Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward.
Race Forward runs the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which works with local governments across the country to achieve racial equity.
“I have likened the events of 2017 to a bell that continues to reverberate. And it obviously is not as loud now as it was five years ago, but the reverberations are still there,” Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook said.
A social awakening
Calls for change led to discussions of equity in government spaces that rarely occurred before. While the concerns were not new to racial justice activists, the events of Unite the Right forced open the eyes of a lot of government officials.
“Aug. 12 was really a wake-up call saying, ‘well, actually, we’ve got a lot of work to do’,” said Lyle Solla-Yates, chair of the Charlottesville Planning Commission.
The city’s comprehensive plan and zoning code update, in process prior to 2017, became part of the effort for finding equity in housing. Solla-Yates said many of the people involved thought it would be a simple, basic revision but Charlottesville residents and officials began to look at housing and land use through the lens of equity.
“Immediately after the attack, there were people who were sitting outside on the Downtown Mall, having a lovely meal, like nothing had happened. And there were other people who were super traumatized and really freaked out. Like what does this mean? How do we do better? How do we become better? I was one of those people,” Solla-Yates said.
Activists and community members got louder about government boards and commissions not remedying the affordable housing crisis. Solla-Yates recalled City Council and Planning Commission meetings being shut down, and activists holding signs that read “there is blood on your hands.”
The city hired a consulting firm to review neighborhoods based on equity issues and, five years later, approved a revised Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map in November that includes a specific Affordable Housing Plan.
While it is not a zoning ordinance, the plan is a framework for what zoning should be allowed in the future and is one of the first substantial steps the city has taken to address the equity. There are many more steps to take as the pattern of limiting Black ownership of property goes back more than 100 years.
For most of the 20th Century, Charlottesville was not only segregated by state laws developed to keep the races separate but deed restrictions and bank lending practices that determined where Black people, white people and others could buy property.
Jordy Yager, a researcher with the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s Mapping Cville project, said racial covenants in Charlottesville can be traced back to early 1890. Racial covenants were a racist practice between a buyer and a home seller that implemented a clause in the deed prohibiting Black families and other minorities from ever living there.
Those clauses are now illegal, but they have not entirely disappeared.
“Now we have a lot of other ways to stipulate who can and can’t live or do certain things on property. Stipulating things based on residential use or business use, stipulating that certain types of business can be conducted on a place, these are all the zoning laws that are being examined. Those are in essence the same,” Yager said.
The comprehensive plan and Future Land Use Map aimed to address the issues. Passed unanimously by the Planning Commission and City Council, FLUM, as it came to be called, was vehemently opposed by many community members who live in single-family home neighborhoods.
The city is undergoing the formal zoning rewrite for the plan, which can make concrete changes, and is collecting input now.
“I think [the zoning rewrite] is a real chance to take sweeping action that isn’t just addressing the symptoms, but really is creating change. But I think we also know that many homeowners and property owners in Charlottesville, largely wealthy and white, will do all they can to prevent zoning changes in their neighborhood,” said Elizabeth Stark, co-chair of the Charlottesville area chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is researching the impact of evictions and housing affordability in the region.
For months, dozens of people voiced their opposition to the revised Future Land Use Map and zoning rewrite at City Council meetings, and Cville Plans Together representatives said they got thousands of pieces of feedback. Many of those who were vocal were wealthier white homeowners in single family homes.
Zoning is only part of the battle. Affordable apartments and houses need to go up, and rents need to come down, community members and activists say.
Affordable housing has become a key hot topic in the city budget. Snook pointed out the city has put $10 million toward affordable housing in this year’s budget, and is renovating the Friendship Court public housing complex.
“I applaud the people, the activists who showed up every single city council meeting until one in the morning, advocating for more funding,” said Elaine Poon, deputy director of advocacy for the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Within the first few years after 2017, we hit historic levels of funding for affordable housing, and there’s no denying that we started the first city voucher program in Charlottesville. That has been a huge success. Is it enough? No.”
Other community members and organizations agree. They question if enough is being done, including maintenance of public housing and creation of affordable housing.
“I blame City Council. They could be doing better,” Beard said. “People don’t see it. Because they don’t have to live like that, they don’t see what’s going on.”
Beard pointed to a broken elevator at Midway Manor, a public housing complex for elderly and disabled, as an example. It wasn’t until residents lobbied City Council and the city manager that the elevator was fixed. It was inoperable from July 2020 till April 2022.
“It makes me feel like people just want low-income people to get out, and the elderly as well,” Beard said.
Frank Walker, who grew up in the old Vinegar Hill neighborhood and is now a local artist, said he doesn’t think any of the city’s actions post-August 2017 have helped marginalized people build generational wealth. Home ownership allows people to bequeath their homes to their heirs upon death, allowing wealth accumulation over the decades. Black people have historically lagged far behind white people in this type of wealth-building when they can’t afford to buy a home.
“How do you accumulate wealth by charging $1,200 to $1,500 for a single bedroom apartment? [That’s] not fair housing. What is that? If white investors come here and build apartment buildings and minorities can’t afford to live in them, it’s not affordable housing,” Walker said.
Community members and activists are concerned that tangible affordable housing hasn’t actually been built.
“What once seemed like a major reckoning with the effects of institutional racism and white privilege, has back slid toward the status quo for Charlottesville white liberal elites,” Stark said. “I think the lack of affordable housing that’s been built in the wake of Unite the Right shows that it was lip service all along.”
Poon, of the Legal Aid Justice Center, said she wishes community members and organizations didn’t have to continually remind the city of its commitment to affordable housing.
“We have to remind them pretty regularly to uphold that [$10 million affordable housing fund] each time budget time comes around, and people kind of hem and haw about what we can afford, despite being one of the richest towns in the region,” Poon said.
City takes a few steps
Snook, meanwhile, said one of the substantive changes he’s most proud of is the addition of a dedicated staff member to tackle diversity and equity issues. Ashley Reynolds Marshall was hired as Charlottesville’s first ever Deputy City Manager for Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in May 2021.
“For local government, equity can look like how we think about snow plows, how we think about public pools and park maintenance. How do we think about curb cuts and sidewalks? How do we think about language? Can anyone come in City Hall and be able to do business easily? Can you physically come in if you’re differently abled? If English is your second language, can we still support you?” Marshall said.
Glenn Harris said when he works with local governments to be more equitable, he encourages them to focus also on seemingly small changes that can make a big impact.
“It’s easy to imagine that government is just elected officials, but it’s also people like your sanitation workers, the people who maintain your local parks. And their understanding and ability to engage with these questions makes a huge difference, because they’re implementing these changes day in and day out,” Harris said.
Marshall cited the work and persistence of community members in being vital to the local government making changes.
“[We want] to make sure that people have an opportunity now to say what they would like and it may be very similar to what they wanted after 2017. They may have some additional needs, and we want to make sure we’re not ignoring those additional needs either,” Marshall said.