Zoning for Justice

The FWD #G28 • 1,465 Words

by Sunshine Mathon

Charlottesville’s new zoning ordinance includes an innovative strategy for protecting vulnerable neighborhoods from gentrification.

Five years ago, less than a year after the white supremacist riots of August 2017, the city of Charlottesville received the results of its first definitive Housing Needs Assessment. The timing was not a coincidence.

For many, the trauma of August 2017 shocked their perception of Charlottesville as a bucolic university town characterized by nearby rolling vineyards and verdant landscapes. For others, however, the events echoed a different experience: a community routinely classified by HUD as a “persistent poverty county” that ranks at the bottom 3% nationwide for upward economic mobility. For these community members, the events of August 2017 salted generations-old wounds, manifesting centuries of race-based trauma in a surge of sudden, overt violence.

In the aftermath of the events that August, the simmering pain and frustration boiled over. For nearly a year, weekly disruptions brought city council business largely to a standstill… with one notable exception: housing.

In short order, addressing housing became the city’s pragmatic method of attempting to redress past harm. The calls for action spurred two crucial paths forward.

First, the city began to allocate unprecedented, sustained investments in efforts like the resident-driven redevelopments of Friendship Court (now Kindlewood) and public housing.

Second, repeated truth-telling of the city’s history laid bare the roots of the city’s housing crisis. Centuries of public and private race-based actions, by lot, block, and family, had economically and socially segregated the Black communities in Charlottesville. A poignant example, the destruction of the historically Black Vinegar Hill neighborhood with the mandate of a citywide referendum under the false guise of “urban renewal” was re-recognized as unrepaired trauma.

Although Charlottesville was not formally “redlined” by HOLC due to its small size, the aggregate of public policy, “risk averse” private investments, and exclusionary race-based land covenants resulted in a city where land use reinforced and codified racial disparities in every measure of societal well-being.

Action began with the 2018 Housing Needs Assessment.

Moving from decades of grassroots advocacy to a formal, data-driven reckoning with its housing landscape, the city commissioned the 2018 Housing Needs Assessment (HNA.)

Not surprisingly, the HNA revealed a stark reality. In a City with less than 20,000 households, over 3,300 were determined to be housing cost-burdened, living in overcrowded or poor housing conditions, homeless, and/or otherwise needing some form of housing-based intervention. The HNA also highlighted that without action, the challenge would continue to escalate.

In response, the Council-appointed Housing Advisory Committee strongly recommended a strategic, multi-stage process that leveraged the City’s statutory mandate to update its Comprehensive Plan. Although the Planning Commission had already begun public community engagement for the Comprehensive Plan, City Council agreed to integrate two additional phases.

Initially, the City would commission its first Affordable Housing Plan (AHP) that specifically identified racial equity as a key goal. The AHP was adopted in March 2021.

Next, the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in November 2021, integrating the Affordable Housing Plan, with a focus on affordability and equity.

Lastly, a new citywide zoning ordinance was adopted in December 2023. The far-reaching effort attempts to codify the goals outlined in both the Affordable Housing Plan and Comprehensive Plan.

The new zoning code allows greater housing diversity while protecting vulnerable neighborhoods.

In addition to modernizing a 30-year-old zoning code, Charlottesville’s approach builds on the momentum begun in other cities by fracturing the hold that exclusionary single-family zoning has maintained.

However, the biggest concern raised by local housing advocates was that a blanket increase in density risked disproportionately increasing displacement pressures in neighborhoods particularly vulnerable to gentrification. If the new zoning code allowed for the same densities across all neighborhoods, logic holds that developers would go where the opportunity to make a profit is highest—in neighborhoods where the houses are smaller, the land is cheaper, and predatory developers can more easily take advantage of families experiencing financial hardship.

This anecdotal concern was reinforced through a rigorous analysis by the City’s Inclusionary Zoning consultant. The analysis projected, with all else being equal, that the likely “rate of change” in vulnerable neighborhoods was 50 to 400% higher than in wealthier neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, housing advocates wholly supported the principle of increased densities in historically single-family neighborhoods as a critical tool for shifting patterns of exclusion.

To manage the fine line between disrupting historical patterns without amplifying the risk of displacement, housing advocates worked with City staff, consultants, and the Planning Commission to identify neighborhoods most at risk. Initially, during the Comprehensive Plan process, these neighborhoods were labeled “Sensitive Areas.” However, that language shifted as some community members living in those neighborhoods expressed discontent with that characterization. Instead of a ”label,” they just wanted their neighborhoods to have a layer of protection from overdevelopment. So “sensitive areas” transitioned to Core Neighborhoods. From the zoning manual:

“The residential Core Neighborhood district is established in recognition of the significance of historic Downtown neighborhoods that provide workforce housing serving important job centers of Charlottesville’s Downtown and the University of Virginia. These neighborhoods are recognized in the City for their affordability and for the diverse range of households that have been able to make their homes there. The intent of this district is to encourage the construction and continued existence of moderately priced housing, the creation and preservation of affordable housing, to respect the cultural heritage of the neighborhoods, and to support the overall promotion of a convenient and harmonious community.”

However, the idea that densities vary by neighborhood has a potential shortcoming: a reduction in the allowable density in historically lower-income, Black neighborhoods compared to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods risked also reducing opportunities for wealth creation for homeowners in these neighborhoods.

A local grassroots housing nonprofit (PHAR) went door-to-door to get the input of individuals in these neighborhoods, both renters and homeowners. While not universal, the resounding feedback was that people were afraid of losing their housing and their neighborhood character due to rising housing costs. They wanted to protect their neighborhoods, and if they had to choose between preservation vs. opportunities for wealth creation, they would err on the side of protecting their neighborhoods.

So, Charlottesville did something unique.

  • Every single-family neighborhood is granted some increase in base density, with caveats.
  • The code prioritizes the preservation of existing buildings, across all neighborhoods, by granting additional density if the original home is retained to prioritize the historic character of both lower- and higher-income neighborhoods.
  • The base increase varies by neighborhood to re-distribute development pressure. In non-Core neighborhoods, a lot can have 3 homes if completely re-developed, or 4 if the existing home is kept. Core Neighborhoods can have 1 home, or 2 if the existing home is kept.

However, Charlottesville went a step further than just modest increases to density in single-family neighborhoods. Early on in community conversations, a remarkable shared insight emerged from dialogues amongst different neighborhoods and constituencies: increased density for density’s sake was undesirable—but increased density for the sake of affordability was near-universally embraced, in principle.

Throughout the ensuing debates, that concept kept resurfacing. And, in the end, not only do all residential neighborhoods have modest increases in base density, but they also have additional bonus density (2-8 additional units depending on the neighborhood) if the additional units are affordable.

Although many lots are constrained by size, topography, setbacks, or other factors, for those sites that can, the new zoning levels the playing field between market-rate and nonprofit developers by giving nonprofits the ability to distribute land costs over more homes. This mechanism also opens the door to homeowners who want to partner with nonprofits and realize financial gain while being part of the affordability solution.

The work doesn’t end there, though.

Everyone involved in the rezoning recognizes that what Charlottesville has done is unique and a bit of an experiment. With this in mind, some City Council members took some comfort in their final vote by recognizing that another statutory review of the Comprehensive Plan will take place in 2025. The City will be able to reflect on the impact of the new zoning code and tweak it, if necessary.

Just as importantly, housing advocates and City staff established the expectation that over the next two years, most, if not all, of the Core Neighborhoods will be engaged in developing neighborhood-specific Small Area Plans. These neighborhoods will ideally set forth their vision for their future so that by the time the 2025 Comprehensive Plan review comes about, they will be ready to provide deep, meaningful input on any suggested changes.

Charlottesville recognizes this new zoning regime is not going to be a silver bullet to redress centuries of housing disparities. However, without a progressive zoning code like what Charlottesville has created, the harder work will never have a chance.

Sunshine Mathon is the Executive Director of Piedmont Housing Alliance, providing innovative affordable housing solutions for Charlottesville City and Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa, and Nelson Counties.

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