The Albemarle County Planning Commission is publicly questioning the redevelopment of the Southwood Mobile Home Park.
Commissioners want more information about how the developer, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville, will ensure housing affordability and maintain the culture among Southwood residents. Their concerns were outlined in two resolutions passed at a meeting last month. It was not on the agenda and Habitat officials were not given a heads-up.
Tim Keller, chair of the commission, said the documents were an attempt to summarize the bigger-picture concerns expressed by commissioners during the public hearing on July 23.
“These two resolutions that we’ve passed out are an attempt to discuss/raise questions about the interconnections among current and anticipated components of the Southwood development in order to aid the Board of Supervisors in their consideration of this important project,” he said.
The Southwood redevelopment has been in the works for more than a decade. The resolutions reflect a more collective critical attitude toward the project, especially after the county decided to invest $3.2 million into the project.
“I don’t really understand it,” said Dan Rosensweig, president and CEO of the local Habitat. “But, again, I’m really pleased that there was a 6-1 vote.”
Rosenweig was referring to an earlier vote that approved a rezoning application for the first phase of the project.
Typically, the commissioners include other issues they think the Board of Supervisors should consider as a separate motion the same night as the public hearing.
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said the Board of Supervisors will be discussing the resolutions at its meeting on Wednesday.
“I am concerned about the process that happened,” she said in a message.
County principal planner Megan Nedostup, who is the planner reviewing the project, said the county’s director of planning has forwarded the resolutions to the Board of Supervisors, and staff members have included them as an attachment in the packet for the board meeting on Aug. 21.
“The resolutions were not part of the action on the rezoning application on July 23 but are provided to the board for their information,” she said.
The resolution was not included on the agenda and was added under new business. Keller said the resolutions were developed in one-on-one discussions with him.
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville bought the mobile home park property off Old Lynchburg Road near Fifth Street Extended in 2007, and it plans to redevelop the more-than-100-acre site into a 700- to 800-unit, mixed-income, mixed-use development. Habitat expects to do the project without displacing any of the current residents.
The Planning Commission voted, 6-1, in July to recommend approval of the rezoning of the first phase of the project, about 34 acres of vacant land, to allow a maximum of 450 residential units and up to 50,000 square feet of nonresidential buildings.
“I feel like I’m trying to protect the interest of the residents, as well as the county — that’s my role as a commissioner,” said Commissioner Pam Riley, who represents the Scottsville District.
Riley, who cast the lone vote against the rezoning, said she views the commission’s role as doing due diligence on all applications and that she would apply this level of scrutiny to any developer.
Rosensweig said they were pleased with the July vote in favor of recommending approval.
“We think it’s a terrific plan,” he said, “We’re incredibly proud of the residents for not only following their dreams and sound planning practices, but, I think, for producing a neighborhood model that’s really consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.”
In the housing resolution, commissioners state that a variety of information should be provided to the board before the public hearing, including a detailed rehousing plan for all 341 Southwood homes, more information about rentals for Southwood families, estimated homeowners association fees and a plan for possible temporary relocation of residents affected by the first phase of development.
“I just really want to know that there’s some guarantee — from whatever means or whatever donations or fundraising campaign — that everyone at the end of the day will have a home to live in and will not have to leave the community,” Commissioner Karen Firehock said.
Commissioner Daphne Spain said the resolutions reflect a lack of trust in Habitat and that the tone is more accusatory than cooperative.
“We approve or recommend developer-driven development all the time, and we don’t have nearly this type of input on developer-driven work, and yet — I assume because the county has already put significant money in and promises to put more in — that the collective we here feel it’s our responsibility to point out these issues,” she said. “But I’m disappointed in the tone.”
At the public hearing in July, Keller mentioned that some people have been comparing the redevelopment of Southwood to the razing of the historically black neighborhood Vinegar Hill in Charlottesville.
“This is exactly the opposite,” Spain said. “This is residents saying, ‘This is what we want to do with our community, and we’ve learned how to do it, and we continue to learn, and we want to do as much as we can do to determine our fate.’”
“It is somewhat similar, in that Habitat will be saying to all of the residents, ‘You have to vacate this space because we need this land to redevelop,’” she said.
“People are entitled to their opinion, but I reject that comparison,” Rosensweig said.
He said this was the antithesis of another Vinegar Hill.
“We’re taking people who have no tenure security, they don’t own the land, and we’re giving them permanent security and ownership of the land,” he said. “We’re taking dilapidated trailers on top of failing infrastructure and we’re creating a sustainable, welcoming community of opportunity.”
Rosenweig said Habitat’s goal in the first phase of the project is to not have to move any trailers, even temporarily.
“Our goal is to not temporarily displace anybody,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing it the way we are. And we’ll go to great lengths to make sure that happens.”
Because of grant money and a performance agreement with the county, Habitat has to have a displacement plan in place — which Rosenweig said is currently being written — that is approved by the county and the state.
“We have been buying trailers as people have sold them, so we have a couple of trailers that can be on-site rehousing,” he said. “Then there are also 15 pads that have fallen out of commission over the years because of failing sewer or some other maintenance problem. We’re working to restore those so that they can either receive trailers if they can move, or we can maybe bring in new trailers.”
In terms of long-term affordability for homeowners in Southwood, Habitat provides residents with a zero-interest loan.
“We anticipate all of their housing expenses from their mortgage, to insurance, to HOA fees, to taxes,” Rosensweig said. “And we set the value of the first mortgage, that is what comes back to us, low enough so that their total payments are well beneath the 30% [Housing and Urban Development] limit for housing costs.”
The families pay between 18% and 25% of their income on all of their housing expenses, he said.
“As time goes on, they’ll make more money in the stable housing helps them increase their earnings potential,” Rosensweig said.
Habitat also has the right of first refusal if a Habitat homeowner wants to sell their home.
The development will also include market-rate housing, which some commissioners have expressed concerns about.
Rosensweig said it’s part of the economics that allow Habitat to deeply subsidize the affordable homes and rentals for families.
“We need market-rate outparcel sales to be able to subsidize the rest,” he said. “It doesn’t work without.”