Housing- lets get serious!

Every person has the right to live in safe home that they can afford.
In Charlottesville, too many people pay way too much to rent their own homes, too many are too far behind in their rent payments. Too many people cannot afford to rent a home at all, too many people are on waiting lists for public housing, too many people are on waiting lists for section 8 housing. Too few people are able to own their own homes.

Affordable housing is supposed to be priority for Charlottesville City Council, so what is the hold-up?

I believe that perhaps the hold up is our inability to adhere to a comprehensive plan and provide ample funding to make housing affordable.

First, a simple concept- rather than seeing the different types of housing as separated we see them as steps on a ladder. We have to work for a continuous move up the ladder from homelessness to SROs for the homeless into public housing and affordable rents and into home ownership- sounds pretty simple right? This concept is already considered a good approach by the city but unfortunately the inter-connectivity of these things is often ignored in planning and practice- this needs to be forefront in our minds. We must also consider looking at other ways to deal with affordable housing other than current method of putting a band aid on the issue.

Lets start by taking a look at rent since it is central to a comprehensive strategy. Those of us who rent our homes might agree, in the words of Jimmy McMillan (former candidate for Governor of new York), that “rent is too damn high!” Unfortunately, capping rents is something that the city does not have the legal authority to do. (This means an even bolder approach, which is a good thing, we need a bolder approach!)

We have to look at many factors to determine why rent is high, and how we get it lower inside of a system that requires poor folks to pay as much as possible to rent a home. Biggest factor- We have a shortage of housing in town. Much of this is due to the student population, and newcomers. Homes and apartments built for those populations means that the starting point for rents is already high, as landlords can rent these places for much more, and those populations can afford to pay more. This makes for a double whammy, shortage of housing means higher rents generally, and when that bar is already set high it means even higher rents. So, the easy answer is to create a surplus of housing- supply and demand, more housing equals lower rents. On the surface it makes sense but there are other factors to consider.
We have to consider that rent never gets decreased for any reason whatsoever, absent some major shift in how things are done. The other is what kinds of homes are we building and for whom. Currently we have some guidelines, that say at least 5% of certain development projects are deemed affordable in order for the developers to get incentives. We need to completely rearrange that and provide that all new housing is required to be at least 50% “affordable”, or even for the time being make sure that ALL new homes being built are intended to be affordable for large segments of the population (affordable is generally defined as being 30% of your income). In any event, this is going to require a lot of new homes to be built, something that will also add to revenue in the form of real estate taxes paid by landlords.

If we rely solely on the private sector to build these homes it will never happen. Charlottesville is going to need a comprehensive strategy to lure new housing into the city, or to simply do it ourselves.

As we do this we must also ensure that public housing, rent relief, and section 8 gets expanded to further keep rent low city wide. Just like with guaranteed employment, if we consistently tweak the market by expanding public housing, rents will continue to get lower as a result. In the process it is extremely important to not just include, but give actual decision making authority to the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR). Further- we use a workforce of public housing residents to expand and upgrade, in a sustainable fashion, all public housing and pay them a living wage to do it. The new “Section 3″ coordinator the city has created is a great first step in making sure that public housing residents can access employment.
If PHAR had a full-time funds coordinator for writing grants, exploring the issuance of bonds etc. that could go a long ways towards making sure the concerns of public housing residents are met. Such a coordinator might also seek ways to secure funds for expansion of Section 8.

We have a large and growing homeless population in Charlottesville, so far all attempts to transition the homeless into adequate housing has been reliant on non-profits. If we are serious about eliminating, rather than alleviating, homelessness, we need to put our money and energy where our mouths are. If we continue to rely on non-profits than we must allocate them more public funds. If we take a more active role through the city directly we need to get to work. The new SRO being built (sustainably I might add) is a great first step. We need to build more of these, and ensure that some public agency is actively working to get homes for the homelss, and working with them to transition up the ladder further.

I suggest doubling the funding for all affordable housing programs, that means expanding public housing, expanding the section 8 program, and expanding rent relief. Providing our own public agency to make sure all people have somewhere to live is a good step. Currently we have non-profits (greatly underfunded) that help a little, we need to change this and make sure all people in Charlottesville can get their rent paid, and that no one gets evicted. I suggest something similar to my plans on electricity, water and gas shut-offs- whereby the City directly intervenes before someone is evicted to pay back the landowner, then work with the renter for re-payment, reduced rent with City subsidy, re-location, or re-location into public housing. This is no easy task, but we must find ways to bring in revenue to make this happen.

One way is to simultaneously promote the upgrading of low wealth residents into homes that they own. Currently a program exists to grant low interest mortgages to poor folks so that they can purchase their own homes. This provides a bit of revenue for the city in real estate tax, and helps to move away from the landowning class/land renting class structure. If we are serious about changing how housing works we can make this a priority by looking at other models for moving working class folks away from renting and into owning. The tried and true method is a public bank, or housing corporation whose sole purpose is to provide mortgages for all city residents at low interest. This would require some funding up front, but if it is based on bonds I believe we could get this going without any long term effect on our budget. We might also consider using some such corporation to fund the construction of new, sustainably built affordable homes. Again, as we do this on a large scale, we work towards creating a surplus of housing, and we offer a place for all residents to get a decent and fair loan to own their own home. The incentive to rent is much smaller, and rents will come down, or at least they won’t increase. Of course, not all residents would be able to participate immediately in such a program due to circumstance and inability to pay. Keep in mind however, that residents for the most part are able to pay their rents, why shouldn’t they be able to pay their mortgages?

Working up the housing ladder must always be the object, whereby residents eventually have the ability to own their own homes. Home ownership would be a top tier of a multi-layered system. As people begin to increase their wages (under some of the other ideas I am presenting in this campaign) they are able to move from public housing and section 8, into rentals, and into their own homes. Something that I think many on the current council would be interested in in theory, but don’t have the stomach necessarily to take big steps to make this a reality citywide.
I do, but we can’t take any short cuts.
Council needs to make this a priority not just by saying so and setting aside a meager amount of funding for small programs. I will be a city councilor who pushes for affordable housing for all residents of Charlottesville.

Further-
-The expansion of MACAA or the formation of a social services “action committee” might be able to pay more attention to the needs of residents concerning moving up the housing ladder (among other things).
-a policy needs to be formed and adhered to for people banned from visiting public housing to be allowed back.
-all new structures should be built in an environmentally sustainable manner by ordinance. -the city, through a public bank or agency, should retrofit all existing housing to be sustainable
-gentrification must be resisted, new homes in traditionally working class neighborhoods should not be allowed to drive up real estate taxes for established residents.
-a city wide “tenants council” needs to be established to advocate for the needs of renters -as much as possible, new homes should be focused around pedestrian and public transportation access.

Some great links regarding housing:
Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR)
The Haven
Piedmont Housing Alliance
Monticello Area Community Action Agency (MACAA)
Charlottesville Housing Authority

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