Improving the urban and economic heart of this region through revitalization of downtown Charlottesville neighborhoods with mixed-income and mixed-use redevelopment is the best near-term opportunity the city has to create jobs, reduce poverty and attract more development downtown.
After two years and scores of community meetings and discussions, the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority approved its master plan for redevelopment of seven public housing sites in the city in August 2010. The plan calls for slightly more density on CRHA’s 40 acres scattered around town. By adding market-rate housing into redeveloped neighborhoods, CRHA can create new revenue without losing any of the existing 376 public housing units. Public housing would be integrated into the neighborhood rather than a stand-alone development.
Examples of cities with successful mixed-income redevelopment include Seattle, Wash. and Charlotte, N.C. Some CRHA residents and board members toured mixed-income redevelopments in Long Branch, N.J., and Greenville, S.C., and returned inspired and impressed.
These 40 acres owned by CRHA and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (not the city) are a critical resource to help achieve many of Charlottesville’s stated goals related to poverty, race relations and economic and educational opportunity. Redeveloping with energy-efficient, mixed-income and mixed-use buildings will improve the lives of low-income residents, reduce utility and maintenance costs for everyone, and attract more business downtown. New construction and businesses can provide employment for more low-income Charlottesvillians, helping to move people up and out of public housing and make room for the more than 1,000 people on the waiting list. If done correctly, redevelopment will also deconcentrate poverty in the city. To paraphrase JFK: The best solution to poverty is a job.
So why is this not happening?
In a word, the problem is leadership. Charlottesville’s City Council controls who sits on the Housing Authority Board and for too long Charlottesville’s Housing Authority has been described as the “executive director graveyard” due to high turnover and lack of support from city leaders.
During the 1980s and most of the ’90s, City Council appointed itself as the Housing Authority Board. However, roughly 14 years ago, Charlottesville City Council reverted the governance structure of the CRHA Board to an appointed citizen board including two resident commissioners. Since then, the agency has burned through five executive directors and only narrowly escaped repossession by HUD. Prior to that, there were only three executive directors over a 45-year span.
The current executive director, Connie Dunn, a seasoned expert in property management, was criticized publicly by resident commissioner Joy Johnson even before she sat down for her first day of work in April of this year. Imagine being hired by a Board of Directors and even before you start, a board member is attacking you publicly. The previous two executive directors did not renew their contracts partially because of this kind of unproductive behavior. Ad hominem, divisive attacks only serve to undermine the cause of public housing and redevelopment.
In fact, the more that professional standards and ethics are improved at the housing authority, the more protest we hear from people who have benefitted from lax policy enforcement.
At the last board meeting on Nov. 26, current CRHA Chairman Dave Norris went so far as to say there should be an indefinite moratorium on evictions. As of this writing, 88 residents are behind on rent and seven are slated for evictions for various reasons. An eviction is not something anyone wants to go through. CRHA’s mission is to provide affordable housing and to help people improve their family’s self-sufficiency, specifically to avoid eviction. But it is completely unfair to the remaining 288 families who do pay their rent on time and to the more than 1,000 people on the waiting list to suggest that those who do not pay should be allowed to stay. Fortunately, the board voted against Norris’ proposal.
On recent repeat visits by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, regional staff pointed out numerous policies, such as the $25 minimum rent, that are out of date and should be reviewed. It is important to note that residents of public housing are required to pay 30 percent of their income for rent; the minimum rent policy kicks in only when a resident is certified as having no income. President Obama’s 2013 budget proposes $75 per month as minimum rent. Fifty dollars per month is current HUD policy. HUD is set to deliver its review to Executive Director Dunn, the CRHA Board and City Council in the coming weeks.
The Obama administration and Congress have made it a priority to increase revenue from public housing sites and have strongly encouraged redevelopment to improve energy efficiency and eliminate a back log of capital improvements. Capital budgets and overall operating funds, like many government programs, will be cut over the coming years.
Most of the public housing sites, such as Westhaven and South First Street, are old and inefficient, and — with the exception of Crescent Hall, the eight-story building adjacent to the Ix property — all need to be torn down and rebuilt as mixed-income communities. Since unanimous approval of the master plan over two years ago, little has happened to advance this major undertaking. Doing so will improve city neighborhoods, help remove the stigma of “the projects” and create highly energy-efficient, lower maintenance and more comfortable homes for families in public housing.
Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems:
» First — and I say this with reticence, as I know from personal experience it is a tough job — City Council should take charge of this situation and replace the current board with council itself. There is historic precedent for such a move, and it would allow elected officials, not appointed favorites, to manage the housing authority. The authority is not currently, and would not become, a city department, and no city funds would be allocated via the General Fund. Only special appropriations and federal funds are used for CHRA activities. The bulk of the more than $6 million budget comes from HUD.
» Absent the first, when Chairman Norris’ term is up at the end of this year, City Council should replace him as council representative to the CRHA Board.
» Council should proceed with dusting off its non-profit redevelopment arm known as the Charlottesville Development Corporation and place skilled professionals on the board. Stacking the CDC board with well-meaning advocates will not achieve the goals of redevelopment. By focusing on redevelopment, City Council can attract outside investors and businesses, and spur much needed employment downtown.
» Council should be commended for past appropriations and grants to CRHA for the master plan, purchasing the Avon Street property and more. Moving forward, council needs to think big and consider directing at least 50 percent of the current budget surplus and 75 percent of the housing fund for the next five years toward redevelopment to attract grants and private equity. This is an investment that will pay off in many areas and may even address the achievement gap in the city schools. There was general consensus that redevelopment should begin with Crescent Halls renovations, proceed to new construction on the Levy Ave property (actually on Garrett Street) and then move to Phase 1 at Westhaven.
The increase in tax revenue from redevelopment should more than offset funds directed away from other, equally pressing needs.
» Finally, advocates such as Public Housing Association of Residents need to get behind redevelopment and be sure CRHA, CDC and council adhere to the “Residents’ Bill of Rights.” The Bill of Rights is a CRHA and Council-approved commitment to a right-of-return for residents and no net loss of public housing, among other things. PHAR should embrace a vision for what public housing will be and organize to achieve that vision. The current parade of yelling and cursing and personal attacks is certainly not yielding any progress. Many public housing residents put a lot of time and energy into crafting the master plan that should not be wasted because of poor leadership.
Now is the time for council to take the lead in setting a direction for redevelopment of public housing and for the housing authority. With clear leadership and stronger governance, we can unite behind a proactive plan to improve the lives of hundreds of low-income people in public housing, roughly half of whom are children. This is our best hope for better neighborhoods, economic development, a stronger tax base, and a brighter future for the whole city.
Jason Halbert is the former chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, on which he served from 2005-2011.