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:
- to improve the quality of life for residents served by our apartments and programs;
- to become more financially sustainable and less reliant upon federal HUD funding; and
- 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.