Something Must Be Done- Cville’s Affordable Housing Crisis

The following is a statement, or a speech rather at a press conference on Oct. 27th in the Westhaven neighborhood.

Friends- something must be done about our housing crisis, and make no mistake it is a crisis.
 
As I have struggled with this issue since beginning this campaign, I have realized that much of the suffering that I experience personally, and the immense suffering that our friends and neighbors deal with is greatly influenced by the shameful cost of housing in Charlottesville, and much more can be done. 

Our city, despite paying a good deal of lip service to the issue, has failed in it’s stated mission to make the city a great place to LIVE for ALL of it’s citizens. Beyond maintaining, and criminalizing, a poverty class in Charlottesville the city has not made Charlottesville an AFFORDABLE place to live for all of it’s residents either. 
Too much has been said, and too little has been done, and too little funding is offered for affordable housing in Charlottesville. It is time to do something much more meaningful if we are serious about addressing the needs of our residents.

Here is why- 
In Charlottesville we have at least 274 homeless people. 

394 children either homeless, in shelters, living in motels, doubling up with other families, or living in sub-standard housing 

We have 700 families on the waiting list for public housing (Source: http://cvillehabitat.ivygroup.com/why-here

There is a waiting list of 207 people for housing vouchers (Source: http://www.c-ville.com/Article/Government/The_long_wait_for_Section_8/

91% of our neighbors and friends under the poverty level rent their homes (Source: http://www.city-data.com

and 
At least 4000 families in Charlottesville pay more than 50% of their income on rent (Source: http://cvillehabitat.ivygroup.com/why-here
in a town where the median market rate rent is $861 (Source: http://www.city-data.com

Home ownership, despite costs going down, remains elusive to most of our residents. 

No attention is paid to transition points in the housing ladder, or to people in imminent danger of becoming homeless, despite federal guidelines that require us to do so. 

These numbers should make all of us alarmed, and even more so, these numbers reflect that the City of Charlottesville should be ashamed that so many of our people, our families, are struggling so hard to just have a place to live. Friends this is a crisis, a crisis that has been perpetuated for decades. 

So what is to be done? 
-I suggest we need to find a way to address those difficult transition points from homelessness to public housing, from subsidized housing to market rate housing. 
-We need to cast off the requirements of a housing “market” that has led to this catastrophe and take matters into our own hands until market rate housing can adjust in favor of our residents. 
-As the city develops and grows we should seek out only development that meets the needs of our community. 
-And we need to consider how we are growing as a city so that an influx of wealthier people and UVA students do not further make life difficult for existing residents. 

…and we need to provide immediate relief… 

Specifically- 
we have an immediate need for a homeless shelter. The city has $3 million dollars in surplus funds, we should tap those funds and immediately construct a shelter with at least 200 beds. We need to do this before winter proceeds further. 

I have been excited about the SRO under construction on Preston Avenue. This a great project, and it is also built in a sustainable manner. However, we have recently learned that there is no room for zero rent occupants at the new structure. A worthy project still, but we still need more. Lets build another next year that helps transition the homeless into homes with no requirement for income. 

Making the transition from these SROs into full housing will remain very difficult. To ensure that people are moving up the housing ladder we need to make sure that there is ample room in public housing, as well as make sure that people in public housing neighborhoods have opportunities to move further up the housing ladder into market rate rentals and home ownership. 


Charlottesville will be undergoing public housing “redevelopment”. We need to make sure that along with the upgrades, that we build new units. If this means finding other HUD funds beyond what is granted for redevelopment, so be it, and if we need to use funding specifically from the city, then we need to do it. We need as much public housing as we can build, but we need to do this with the complete control and sanction of the current residents of public housing. 

Lets make sure we don’t destroy our existing public housing neighborhoods as we proceed with upgrades and expansion. Public housing neighborhoods are just that, neighborhoods, homes, community. We should seek new sites for new housing rather than destroying the character of our neighborhoods by building inward and making things more dense. As we continue the conversation about “redevelopment” we need to include residents in meaningful ways, just as residents of the Hilltop neighborhood would demand to be heard if the city was talking about redeveloping a neighborhood of million dollar homes, so too should residents of all of our public housing neighborhoods be included at every step, and given a greater say in how things are to proceed. Further, we need to have a clear and fair process and policy to allow people banned from public housing to return. 

700 families on the waiting list! 

Now, I recognize that creating 700 new units in public housing may be setting the bar high, but we need to consider that HUD funding, as much as it may fluctuate, is here to stay because it is a federal program. Section 8 on other hand fluctuates way more often, and could be subject to tinkering and outright elimination. We need to be mindful that all of our eggs cannot be in the housing vouchers basket. 

But we do need to expand the housing voucher program. The city, through an expansion of social services or MACAA can make much more meaningful strides to sign up landlords to participate in Section 8, and we can provide more funding for the voucher program. 

One way to make this happen is to end all evictions in our city (except for those required by federal law). No human being should be forced into the street due to inability to pay. If we are to allow evictions, without offering alternatives to avoid putting people in imminent danger of becoming homeless, then we are not a city worthy of being deemed a great place to live for all. Nor are we able to say that we have been committed to affordable housing in the City of Charlottesville. 

So lets work with the Sheriff’s department to end all evictions, and instead of throwing people into the street we go directly to the land owner and place the responsibility on them to do something about the situation that they are largely responsible for. That means getting a landlord signed up with Section 8 rather than allowing them to throw people out into the street. And we need more landlords signing up in general. 

The jump from subsidized housing into market rate housing is next to impossible, this is why we have waiting lists, and this is why people stall out in moving up the housing ladder. 

If the market rate for a rental is beyond 30% of one’s income then making that jump needs to be assisted further, and we need to do something about the market rate. By adding only new homes and units that are deemed affordable we can keep the market on homes from rising. Rent is too damned high, and we can do something about it. I wish we could cap rents, we can’t, but there are steps we can take. 

Currently the city has a policy of offering incentives to certain developments that offer 5% of units as being affordable. 
Is that supposed to be meaningful? Is that a joke? It is an insult. 
And it defeats the purpose, the city loses revenue for one thing, and for another IT DOESN’T CHANGE A THING! 

Consider- a developer builds an apartment building of 100 units, that means only 5 of those units would be for low-income people, and those other 95 units are market rate, further driving up rent and the cost of living. Why would we offer that kind of incentive? 

I call for a change in the policy to require at least 50% of new units to be affordable in order for a developer to receive any incentive. Further, we need to set the agenda for housing, not allow developers to do whatever they want. The city can, and should, determine exactly how many low-income units are needed, how much mixed income housing is needed, make sure it is built sustainably, and determine where we want it. In short, we can, and should, determine what our community needs rather than allow the free market to continue to make life difficult for the long struggling residents of Charlottesville. 

When considering new housing development in the limited space we have left in town we, the city and our communities, need to set the goals for development, not allow the developers to tell us how it is going to be. 

So- Consider those transition points again, by building multiple affordable housing options we can tweak the market to allow for easier mobility in those transition points. We may, however, need to use public funds to ensure that people continue to move forward and not backwards. If someone has a housing voucher and loses it, and there is no room in public housing for them then they are on the streets. Similarly, if someone is in market rate housing and cannot keep up and there is still a waiting list for section 8, public housing, and no affordable housing options available then they too will be on the streets. So- we have a duty to use public funds, smartly, to avoid people slipping down the housing ladder or skipping straight from affordable housing into homelessness. 

So, you can see we can do more. The city has done some good things on limited funding lately. We can continue to move forward on things like SROs and partnering with Habitat for Humanity to provide more housing options, but imagine what we can do with even more funding. 

Currently the city has $1.4 million in it’s housing fund. In the grand scheme of things $1.4 million is not very much money, especially for a city that claims to make affordable housing a priority. Let’s double that fund to $3 million in the short term, that is still a very low number compared to the amounts of money the city spends on other projects. 

We can increase revenue specifically for that fund by soliciting money from UVA, as they are impacting our housing situation and will continue to make it hard for our residents. We can end those incentives for developers who do nothing for our community, and we can divert funds from unnecessary city projects into the housing fund. If we move forward with providing ample work opportunities then sales tax revenue will increase as well. But the long and short is that coming up with an extra $1.6 million is not that difficult, especially given that the city currently sits on a surplus. 

But in the long term we can think bigger. 
Many cities in the US and in other countries, have created publicly run housing banks, or housing corporations. We can do something similar with our housing fund. It may take some up front funds at first, and we would want to contribute city funds in a number of ways, but much of a housing bank or corporation would eventually be self sustained. 
Using such a program to provide low interest, and no-interest loans for low income people to purchase their own homes. Using public contributions we could provide down payment assistance. We could provide loans and grants to upgrade existing homes to be sustainable. We could use such a program to allow existing and established neighborhoods to resist gentrification by providing funds for people to remain in their homes and neighborhoods. 

Other things we can do- 

We need to work with UVA to make sure that their plans for expansion do not negatively impact the current residents of Charlottesville. They want to expand, but they refuse to construct new student housing on grounds. They have an obligation to reduce their negative impacts on our communities. 

And we need to seek more tax relief for low income, and fixed income people who are struggling to remain in their homes, and to allow for them to use those homes to build generational equity in the long run. We can, and should, stop enforcing foreclosures in Charlottesville. Having a housing bank for restructuring, and mortgage assistance can make this a reality. 

We must stop appointing developers, landlords, and profiteers to city commissions and boards. Many of our commissioners and housing board members do not see people when they look at housing in Charlottesville, they see dollar signs. 

And back to immediate needs. We need to expand the subsidies for water and gas bills. No resident should ever have their water or gas turned off. The city has a program for assistance for utilities, there is no reason why someone from the city can’t come to your house, and rather than shutting off your water and demanding full payment they couldn’t work out a plan for repayment, or sign someone up immediately for assistance with utilities. 

As this goes to press, inevitably some councilors, and some candidates, will state that this is not feasible. 

They will do this because they will not admit what the rest of us out here know already- the current ways of approaching affordable housing have done nothing to make life less painful. People are being pushed out of our city, existing neighborhoods are being taken over by an influx of newer, wealthier residents. The cost of living is rising, rent is out of control, and evictions and foreclosures continue. Charlottesville can do much better. If you look back to the data I presented earlier, that is the result of relying on the same old ideas now purported to be “doing all we can”. 

We cannot with a straight face state that this city is a great place to live for all of our citizens- yet. 

If I can get elected to City Council I will work my tail off to make everything I have just laid out a priority, I am just one person, but I believe if I can make it on to city council then the others will have no choice but start taking this seriously and take meaningful steps and provide ample funding. 

Please vote for me Brandon Collins, on November 8th. I have made the issue of housing, and jobs, and wages priorities for my campaign, and will continue to do so when on city council.
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