August 27, 2009 — By the time fall classes started Tuesday, incoming students in the University of Virginia's Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy had already begun a semester-long practicum on the public policy aspects of housing issues in Charlottesville.
To kick off their project, Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris addressed the students at the Miller Center of Public Affairs on Aug. 20, describing local housing challenges and the wide array of local organizations, efforts and public policies aimed at improving the situation.
Charlottesville is a "city of contrasts," Norris told the roughly 30 students who will complete the practicum as part of their first semester in Batten's combined bachelor's/master's of public policy program.
Along with plenty of wealthy residents, at least 25 percent of the city population lives below the poverty line.
"Depending on how you look at the numbers," Norris said, "we are either first or second in the Commonwealth of Virginia in terms of localities with the biggest gap between wages and housing costs."
A "perfect storm" of factors is driving this gap, Norris explained. The area lost thousands of middle-class manufacturing jobs in the past 10 to 15 years, leaving a void between low-wage, entry-level service jobs and well-paid professional jobs.
Meanwhile, city housing is in heavy demand because of the renowned quality of life here, as highlighted in a number of national rankings of great places to live, retire and raise kids. Expanding enrollment at U.Va., Norris said, has increased faculty and student demand, though zoning changes that allow higher-density housing adjacent to the University have taken some pressure off other neighborhoods.
Further aggravating conditions, federal and state subsidies for low-income housing have been declining for the past decade.
High housing prices compared to wages are "causing families in our community to make some very difficult choices," Norris said. Families work multiple jobs to afford city housing, move 30 or 40 miles away to find affordable housing, or settle for overcrowded or substandard housing.
At any given time, 200 to 300 people are homeless in Charlottesville, estimated Norris, who recently stepped down from a five-year stint as the executive director of PACEM, or People and Churches Engaging in Ministry, an interfaith collaboration of local churches and congregations that take turns hosting a homeless shelter of last resort during the winter.
An array of non-profit organizations is working on these challenges, Norris said, including the Piedmont Housing Alliance and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville.
The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority owns and manages 376 units in the city's seven public housing communities. The authority also administers 400 or so federally funded "Section 8" housing vouchers. Demand far exceeds the supply, Norris noted.
Local public policy initiatives include proposals to establish a permanent, dedicated source of housing funding and zoning rules that allow builders to increase density in exchange for providing some affordable units.
The biggest opportunity, Norris said, is to redevelop city-owned property – nearly 45 acres worth – much of it vacant or occupied by low-density housing. Another idea is to create trusts that would own land but sell the rights to build houses on it. Land cost, Norris said, is one of the biggest barriers to affordable housing in Charlottesville.
Norris's overview primed the students for fieldwork starting the following day. Divided into four groups, they met with four housing stakeholders, including directors of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program, and the Quality Community Council, as well as housing officials from Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
Each week this fall, the Batten students will be assigned similar tasks, like interviewing residents, conducting a survey or analyzing data, explained Paul Martin, a professor at the Miller Center and director of professional development at Batten, who is leading the practicum along with Jill Rockwell, Batten's director of career services.
The students will break into groups to divide up the tasks, but will share all their findings and work together as a class to create a single report in January that will include policy recommendations.
"There's a lot to learn. It's a complicated issue," Martin said. "The students will, I think, come to respect that people have been working on this for a long time, and struggling."