Housing authority’s explosive expansion may explode
by Kenneth A. Martin

For over ten years, the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) has struggled with issues involving finance, management and maintenance of the city’s current 376 public housing units. Over two years ago, the Board of Commissioners of the CRHA decided to hire a consultant, Wallace, Roberts & Todd, LLC (WRT), to help it come up with solutions to address these three desired outcomes:

  1. to improve the quality of life for residents served by our apartments and programs;
  2. to become more financially sustainable and less reliant upon federal HUD funding; and
  3. to create thriving, energy-efficient, mixed-income communities to help de-concentrate poverty in the city.

The Board decided that a combination of remodeling and redevelopment of existing structures may be a solution and appointed a redevelopment committee to work with the consultant, community and Board to oversee the future redevelopment process of the existing seven public housing sites and the possible development of a vacant lot on Levy Avenue near Avon Street owned by CRHA. WRT presented a series of scenarios in Design Scenarios to the Board that included a possible substantial build-out on three existing sites and on the Levy Avenue site. Westhaven on Hardy Drive could go from 126 units to 180, Sixth Street Southeast from 25 units to 40, South First Street from 58 to 90 units and Levy Avenue could receive up to 80 new units.

There was a great deal of discussion surrounding the scenarios between the committee, Board, staff, WRT, and the residents of the sites. Adjustments were made by WRT to take into consideration those comments and a Draft Master Plan was produced. The board hoped that this phase would finish up in time for it to adopt a Final Master Plan for Redevelopment this summer. During this process, I was accurately quoted in an article by the Cville Weekly as saying, “My first impression was a bunch of chickens in crates on the back of a truck,” referring to the marked increase in density by stacking units one on top of another at several of the sites.

Later, it was announced that some of the members of the redevelopment committee wanted to see what even higher densities would look like in spite of previous indications by most residents on certain sites of disfavor and WRT was set to the task. It seems the process was devolving to a process of seeing just how many people could be crammed in. I immediately thought of the trade ships that sailed from Britain, to Africa, and then on to the Americas several centuries ago and the changing process for maximizing income. First, put a few slaves in the empty space in the cargo hole and sell them in England for an extra cash bonus. Then, put in a lot more and sell them in the colonies. Last, give the majority of cargo space to pack the slaves in as tightly as possible to maximize profits.

Why have I brought in the element of race? Public housing in Charlottesville has been predominantly black ever since it was built, still is, and there is evidence that it will remain so. This passage, taken from the Consolidated Plan for the City of Charlottesville and the Thomas Jefferson HOME Consortium, Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, 2008, p. CP – 25 provides the evidence.

“The region’s minority population is almost exclusively black or African American, with 22.2% in the City of Charlottesville, 21.6% in Louisa County, 18.4% in Fluvanna County, 14.9% in Nelson County, 9.7% in Albemarle County, and 6.4% in Greene County. Other minorities are greatest in the City of Charlottesville, with 4.9% Asian, 2.4% of Hispanic or Latino origin, 0.1% American Indian, and 3.1% responding as “some other race” or “two or more races,” according to the 2000 Census. In Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties, other minorities made up between 2-7% of the population, with the greatest percentage (6.7%) in Albemarle County.

“The region’s minority populations, with a higher incidence of poverty, are in need of safe, decent and affordable housing at a rate higher than the overall population. As a result, the housing programs detailed in this Consolidated Plan emphasize service to the region’s minority citizens.”

To me, the mental process of cramming people into such density today is no different than the process that led to the move to dedicated slave ships. When I showed the revised-for-density scenarios to other blacks, they immediately saw my point and encouraged me to make my opinion public.

A broader look should be taken of the area that lies east of Second Street SE and west of Avon Street and between Garrett Street and Monticello Avenue. In this area, in addition to the 150 subsidized housing units at Friendship Court, it is proposed to have 105 units at Crescent Hall, 108 units at Sixth Street and at least 36 units at Levy Avenue. What Charlottesville is inadvertently creating physically is economic and racial pseudo-townships.

Although the new housing is supposed to include “mixed income” and “market rate” housing, none of these units are earmarked for what is termed “moderate income” which is considered by TJPDC as having household incomes of between 81% to 95% of the Area Medium Income (AMI). Three levels of “low income” are recognized in the Consolidated Plan: extremely low income ( 0 – 30% of AMI), very low income (51 – 80% of AMI), and low income (51 – 80% of AMI). It appears that the housing are for people earning 60% of AMI or less which is considered “low income.” Low-income families can not afford “market-rate” housing without subsidy. And, too, the proposed population explosion and resulting congestion at Westhaven is mentally gagging. The Plan will have exactly the opposite effect of goal 3 (de-concentrating poverty) of the redevelopment process as outlined in the first paragraph. It appears it will increase the concentration of poverty and race.

The new higher density scenarios, called Alternative #6, take Westhaven from 126 to 255 units, Sixth Street Southwest from 25 to 108 units, and South First Street from 58 to 116 units. Building with such densities in neighborhoods that are characterized mainly by single-family detached structures will cause public housing sites to stick out like a sore thumb. Can we really say that the quality of life for public housing residents and their surrounding neighbors will improve as the density increases? HUD has not thought so since it adopted the scattered-site philosophy. The woes of Westhaven, for example, have been chronicled in the press for forty years. Does anyone really believe that increasing the density at Westhaven will have a positive effect on the residents’ quality of life? Without these solutions devised, goal 1 (quality of life) of the redevelopment process outlined in the first paragraph can not possibly be attained and will get lost in the excitement of proceeding with the project.

Its time for the general public to take notice. This expansive build-out of low income housing in the city will bring forth issues related to the concentration of poverty and race, neighborhood design compatibility, school population and student achievement, and social stratification, among a host of others. These issues have been acknowledged by the redevelopment committee but have not been addressed yet by the committee or CRHA. They should be before any final master plan is adopted by the city. The time to deal with these issues is now, not later. After all, we are dealing with people, not chickens.

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  1. Dear Mr. Martin and Rob, Whatever happened to the idea
    of Charlottesville not being the site of future government
    housing? I even recall David Toscano saying to the effect
    that Charlottesville has done its share of absorbing low-
    income housing. Rob, did you ever hear that empty rhetoric
    on City Council? It is interesting to note that I have not
    read or heard of any of the surrounding counties to Char-
    lottesville wishing to take the burden from the City of
    Charlottesville. Couldn’t the City “just say no”?

  2. Yes, Gary, those are my recollections of the Toscano days on Council. Since then the Council has gone in the opposite direction. Not only has the moratorium on providing more Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) to the public, the City has agreed to take on the federal government’s role in the program and locally fund around twenty of them vouchers. As for regional cooperation on providing actual physical housing for the low income, you can check with the link I provided to the document Consolidated Plan for the City of Charlottesville and the HOME Consortium, 2008, p. 2. The Consortium consists of the area counties of FLANG (Fluvanna, Louisa, Albemarle, Nelson and Greene). Each locality has a five-year plan that has to be approved by HUD; however, the City is the only locality whose plan deals in any manner with regional cooperation on housing. On page CP – 14 of the Consolidated Plan (p.19 of the PDF) in the City’s strategy “Encourage a regional approach in the provision of housing for low-income persons and families” It says the city will “Increase communication between members of the Consortium to address the needs of the region as a whole .” That’s what the Consortium’s job is anyway. The item is a holdover from the Toscano days. On page CP – 8 (p. 14 of the PDF) there is also a section that deals with regional cooperation that brings something called the Housing Directors Council. It is connected to HUD’s HOME funds. It is addressed as follows:
    “Regional Strategies: The Housing Directors Council recognizes that affordable housing is a regional issue. The Council developed the following strategies for the HOME program at their October 25, 2005 meeting, and ratified in 2006, 2007 and 2008:

    “HOME Strategy I: Plan and Act Regionally
    a) Use Housing Directors Council meeting to focus on regional issues and solutions,
    inviting other stakeholders to be part of the discussion.
    b) Work with other regional organizations and agencies to implement regional solutions, such as securing pro bono real estate work through CAAR and securing down payment assistance and low-income mortgages through PHA’s Regional Home Ownership Center.
    c) Work together on region-wide grants and loan funds
    d) Continue to work with the Blue Ridge Home Builders Association
    e) Meet occasionally with the Regional Planning Roundtable to discuss affordable housing issue with Planning Staff from the Counties
    f) Link Housing Directors Council to locality Housing Committees or Task Forces to track progress and share information “

    It seems to me that the City, together with countless organizations housed primarily in the city that deal with different aspects of housing in general, have decided that those efforts are not effective and have decided to shoulder the burden alone. The Consolidated Plan details major initiatives to deal with a variety of housing; however, I’m not sure that there will be much participation by area counties in providing any housing that will be built anywhere but in the city. A good example is the new SRO project for low income singles and the homeless to be built on the corner of Fourth Street NW and Preston Avenue in the city. The city provided over $1.5M and 20 Housing Choice Vouchers for the purchase of the property and Albemarle County has agreed to provide ten Housing Choice Vouchers of the thirty that is needed. To date, I not aware of any contributions by any of the area counties.

  3. Thank you, Kenneth, for talking about the third rail of local politics (eminent domain abuse). Of course my blog has more information and history of Charlottesville’s Housing Authority than any other online source. And they (CRHA and City Council) are still blocking public access to CRHA archives (6,000+ documents and 1,000+ photos). Any idea why?

  4. Blair,
    It would be easier for me to explain the immaculate conception. I am also wondering why there is no material readily available concerning the demolition of the buildings on the south side of of Water Street and the area in the Garrett – Sixth – S. First Street area. I do have these links however to some of the pictures for portions of Vingar hill on flickr:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/vinegarhill/sets/72157623368132994/ and

  5. I really can’t conjure up any fast solutions to this dilemma. Making it larger, denser, and without help from surrounding jurisdictions seems wrong. I am just throwing this idea out. What about the redevelopment that Habitat is doing in the Moores Creek, Southwood trailer parks, is all of that work through the planning phase? Could a transitional social structure work to promote home ownership? Has private industry been asked for possible ideas?

    The pictures of Vinegar Hill caused plenty of emotions even for a transplant like myself.

  6. A lot of the pictures of Vinegar Hill showed why so many people welcomed the central heating and indoor plumbing of Hardy Drive.
    Yes,Chaz, the city has a Housing Advisory ommittee with several members from private industry.
    Although it is generally agreed that families with less than 30% of the Area Median Income can never maintain a home and thus should not be homeowners, there are many opportunities, mainly through Habitat and PHA, that aid moderate income people to become home owners. Unfortunately, a lot of them can not afford to keep up their homes either and must rely upon AHIP, Christmas in July, and volunteersing students to provide the essentials of home repair. With the tightening up on mortgages, many moderate income people do not have the income or the credit rating to qualify for a market loan, but PHA has several million dollars to help with that family’s loan. And of course there are many families who do not want to be bothered with toils of home ownership, so everyone is not going to become a hoeowner, especially for those who wish to be free of government subsidies.

  7. @Cville Eye, I would like to add the city has been using HOME funds and CDBG funds for years to help first-time home buyers with downpayment and closing costs and supports the Homebuyer’s Club. It’s purpose is to educate families on the ins and outs of buying and keeping a home. PHA also has the Stepping Stones program that allow potential homebuyers to save a portion of their rent over a period of years to help pay downpayment and closing costs. It also has a program that will “buy down” a mortgage to make the mortgage more affodable.
    I have heard several people say that these programs are wonderful but they do not wish to buy a house in the city.

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