Any reader of the local newspapers over the last few years has read of leaked e-mails, poor planning to deal with the crises of July and August, 2017, and City Councilors who admit that they don’t like or trust each other. We essentially fired the City Manager and the Police Chief over the failures on August 12. Council commissioned an efficiency study of City government, and the consultants came back in January, 2017, with a list of 83 major recommendations for changes in the government as a whole. A separate efficiency study of the Neighborhood Development Services Department identified more problems. A separate Housing Needs Assessment identified obstacles to solving the affordable housing problem in Charlottesville, and that consultant identified — among other obstacles — failures in the Neighborhood Development Services Department.
We know from recent meetings (such as the Council “retreat,” live-tweeted by Molly Conger) that the present City Councilors don’t like each other, they don’t trust each other, and they don’t even respect each other. That means that they don’t talk with one another about the issues confronting them, and they acknowledge that they generally don’t work well together. That will necessarily change, simply because a majority of Council will be new. We have a new City Manager, Dr. Tarron Richardson. City Attorney John Blair is relatively new in office, and other key staff positions (Police Chief, for example) are also filled with people who are relatively new to the City. The new Council will have the opportunity to forge a lot of new working relationships.
Dr. Richardson will begin working as City Manager on May 13. With luck, by the time a new Council will take office, he will have begun to get some of these problems under control. Then it will be up to the new City Council to agree on a set of priorities moving forward, and to give those priorities to Dr. Richardson with the charge to implement them. Council cannot micro-manage City Hall.
If we can get the operations of government running smoothly, we can turn our energies to substantive issues — affordable housing, a school system that serves us all, and doing our part on climate change.
A 21st Century city, not a 20th century town
By law, Charlottesville is a city, though we have tended to think more like a suburban town. We can no longer duck the reality that we have city-like problems. Our housing costs continue to rise, and it is estimated that we need another 3,000 affordable housing units to house our people. The neighborhoods around the University continue to see the displacement of African-American families. And we need to commit to bus/bike/pedestrian remedies for our transportation woes. These are 21st Century city problems, and we need to recognize that we need to be looking for 21st Century city solutions.
We know that we have a shortage of affordable housing options in Charlottesville; one study has estimated that we need more than 3,000 units of affordable housing. The main reason that an apartment or a house might qualify as “affordable” is the size of the unit. Simply put, we need to make it easier to create more smaller apartments.
We need to attack this problem in the following ways:
1. Where the opportunity presents itself — which, in a built-up place like Charlottesville may not be very often — we need to take the opportunity to build more affordable units. At Friendship Court, for example, Piedmont Housing Alliance is looking to redevelop the land to house not only the existing 150 Section 8 units, but another 300 units that will be available at less-than-market rents. But we won’t be able to build our way out of this problem.
2. 55% of the City land is zoned for single-family uses. Our zoning ordinance permits “accessory apartments” in single-family zones, under some strict conditions, and by a “provisional use permit.” This requires approval from Neighborhood Development Services, and I have heard reports of approvals for such units taking a year or more. If we amended the zoning ordinance to make it easier to put in accessory apartments, we could easily add hundreds of new units to the housing stock, and in many cases, senior citizens might then have a new source of income to help them stay in their homes. One important point to make on this matter — some people propose that the City eliminate single-family zoning completely. I would want to look very carefully at any such proposal, because — as the cliche has it — the devil is in the details. If we literally eliminated single-family (R-1 or R-1S) zoning, and allowed two units on each parcel (like in R-2 zoning), it would actually further increase the risk of gentrification in neighborhoods like Fifeville, because it would become more profitable for investors to buy the homes and rent them to different groups of students. It was precisely that problem that led to the creation of the R-1S zone in the early 1990’s. We need to be careful about any change like this. Every time we change the zoning ordinance, we risk unintended consequences.
3. There is a proposal to enact — at least in some parts of the City — a “form-based” zoning code. I’m not going to try to explain the whole concept, but to greatly over-simplify it, “form-based” zoning may allow for large houses to be legally subdivided into 2,3 or 4 housing units, provided that the building still looks like a normal house. In other words, it is the “form” of the building, not the use of the building, that matters. (For a more elaborate explanation, see the link above.) I am not endorsing such a change in how we do zoning, but it is worth studying. If implemented, it would likely increase the number of smaller units.
4. Just as we can’t build our way out of this problem, we cannot zone our way out of it either. We need to plan with the County and the University for affordable housing options that are outside the City, but from which people can conveniently get into the City by frequent bus service. This requires recognizing a few realities:
A. That when the University employs nearly 30,000 people — about 12,000 of them in the Health System — those 30,000 people cannot all live within walking distance of the University. And they can’t all drive to work, either, or park when they get to work.
B. As the University student body has increased to over 24,000 students now (an increase of 4,700 over the last 25 years), the University has not added the same number of on-Grounds housing units. The success of places like Wahoo West and Eagle’s Landing — out in Albemarle County, off Fifth Street Extended — has been due in large part to the fact that the landlords run shuttle buses from the apartments to the University. We should look to duplicate this model in the future. In other words, with better transportation, the solution will be regional, not just in the City.
5. And let’s not overlook another important part of the equation — raising wages. The University’s recent pledge to raise wages to a minimum of $15 an hour is a major step toward making it possible for more people to afford their housing.
INVEST IN OUR YOUNG PEOPLE
The New York Times published a story a few months ago that made one point abundantly clear — that where in the City you live and go to school has an powerful effect on how well you do, in school and in life. On one level, this is a devastating critique of the schools and how well they do, or don’t, teach reading and prepare our kids. At another level, though, it is even more critical of the community at large. The school system is trying to figure out how to deal with this achievement gap, but this is a problem for the rest of the City as well. For many children, school is their island of stability. Kids come to school for 6 hours a day, but where they go for the other 18 hours a day needs our attention as well. At school, they get breakfast and lunch. At school they have the chance to run around and play basketball and kickball, and to learn to read. But at 3 PM, they may not have a stable home to go back to. That home may not have food, particularly toward the end of the month. They may be going back to a home with no books, or no paper or pencil. These are conditions that we can and must do something about.
Under the Virginia Constitution, City Council cannot affect what the school system does while the children are at school; Council can write a check, but that is about all we can do to influence what happens during the school day, at school. But if we take responsibility for improving the circumstances that the children face when they leave school, perhaps we can help them be more ready to learn when they come to school the next day.
Charlottesville has thousands of talented and well-meaning people who want to help. We need to find a way to energize the nonprofit and volunteer agencies to help create the conditions necessary for success. Charlottesville has some very successful programs that are helping some of those who need help, but they clearly are not reaching all of the children who need help. The New York Times article reminds us that those programs aren’t enough, or aren’t large enough. One thing is clear — we cannot keep doing what we have been doing.
We have an obligation to our children to leave them a habitable planet. This is the first generation in which climate change has come to the fore, and this may be the last generation that is in a position to stop it.
I have signed on to the resolution calling for disinvestment from the fossil-fuel industries. At the moment, Charlottesville’s investments include about $1 million in oil industry stocks. I know from my own investments that there are plenty of very good stocks available in alternative energy companies. Let’s put our money where our mouths are. This is primarily a symbolic action, but it is important nonetheless.
Part of being a 21st Century city involves recognizing that we need to increase bus service so that people who work in Charlottesville can get to and from their jobs without us having to provide parking and roads for all of them. And that means more bus service — which also saves carbon dioxide and helps combat climate change.
Related to this, we need to continue the good work already begun to make Charlottesville more bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly. I walk to work when my schedule permits — about a 3-mile walk each way. It’s good for the environment, and good for my waistline. Let’s make that easier for everyone. Build roads with bike lanes; maintain the sidewalks…
We have a lot of flat roofs — schools, for example - that can hold solar panels. That’s not controversial. But let’s get controversial here for a moment — how about solar panels in historic areas? Solar shingles? Sure, they didn’t exist in Jefferson’s day, but you know that if they had, he’d have been using them. Let’s figure out a way to permit more solar energy uses without gutting historic values.
Civil War Statues
Whatever we may have thought about the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson when the issue was first brought up in 2016, the situation has changed. In 2017, hundreds of Nazis and alt-righters came to Charlottesville — most from states that have no Confederate heritage (like North Dakota, Ohio, California, or Idaho) — because for them, Confederate statues were symbols of white supremacy. One of those who came was a Puerto Rican, a member of the so-called “Span Klan” whose forebears had nothing to do with the Civil War. The statues themselves were erected at a time when white supremacist ideas were being revived in Virginia. Many descendants of slaves see the statues as symbols of white supremacy. Heather Heyer was run down by a white supremacist from Ohio, drawn to Charlottesville by the perceived need to protect the statues. The statues are an obstacle to racial reconciliation, and they need to go, as soon as legal challenges are resolved.
CHarlottesville’s racist past
As we acknowledge the pain of discrimination, we need to develop remedies to put all of our citizens on an equal footing. For many, the clearing of Vinegar Hill in the 1960’s and of Garrett Street in the 1970’s is still an open wound. I recall the words of local civil rights legend Eugene Williams, talking about how Vinegar Hill was torn down and then left vacant for more than a decade — “Their message was ‘better nothing than us.’” The destruction of Vinegar Hill and Garrett Street destroyed both African-American wealth and a healthy community. The entire community needs to recognize and accept this history so that we can fashion remedies.