University of Virginia resumes housing initiative for up to 1,500 units

(This article originally appeared in the April 30, 2021 installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

The University of Virginia has begun planning work to implement their pledge to build up to 1,500 housing units to be designated for people at certain income-levels on land owned by UVA or the UVA real estate foundation. At a virtual event Thursday night, President Jim Ryan said housing is one of five areas identified for community partnership.  The original announcement of the UVA housing initiative was made on March 10, and the news was quickly overshadowed by the World Health Organization declaration the next day of the COVID pandemic. 

“So, a year later I’d like to begin by restating our goal upfront, and the goal is really simple,” Ryan said. “It’s to support the development of a thousand to 1,500 of affordable housing units across Charlottesville and Albemarle County over the next ten years. We’ll do this by contributing land and partnering with a third-party developer. I will say that financial profit is not at all our driver and that our goal has the support of the Board of Visitors and the entire leadership team at the University.” 

UVA President Jim Ryan

In the past year, Charlottesville City Council has adopted a new affordable housing strategy. The Albemarle Planning Commission has a public hearing next Tuesday about the update of the county’s policy. And the Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership has been holding a speakers’ series on views from the development community

UVA’s work will happen in that regional background, as UVA steps into a role they’ve not played before. Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis is serving as chair of the UVA Affordable Housing Advisory Group which includes community members. 

“The goal for this initial phase of this work is to learn more about how you see the University contributing to affordable housing solutions in our community and to collect input that will help this stage,” Davis said. 

(visit the Working Group’s website to watch the video and learn more)

No sites have yet been determined for where new units might be. A quick look at area GIS records shows that the UVA Foundation owns around three dozen properties in Charlottesville, and that the Rector and Visitors of the University own around 90. UVA-proper owns over 70 parcels in Albemarle and the foundation owns several dozen. 

To sort through the possibilities and to establish criteria for hiring that third-party developer, UVA has hired Gina Merritt of Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures to work through this phase, which will result in the development of a “request for proposals.” 

“My team’s role in the University’s affordable housing initiative is to help UVA to develop a framework for implementing this initiative,” Merritt said. “The University plans to solicit developers to help develop University property in a way that meets our collective goals.”

This will include market research, review of previous studies, and discussion of comparative examples.

“And once the sites are selected for development, we will evaluate zoning, determine what housing and income types should be located on each site, and then draw diagrams to show the potential scale of these buildings,” Merritt said. “We will run financial models to determine the best way to finance the development and identify possible resources to fund the project.” 

Merritt presented three examples of developments she’s been involved with. One of these is the 70-unit Nannie Hellen at 4800 in Washington D.C. where one-third of the units were replacement units for public housing, and the rest were financed through Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). 

The trio took questions from those on the virtual call. J.J. Davis asked the first.

“A lot of organizations are already doing affordable housing work,” Davis asked. “Where will UVA fit in so that they are not competing or duplicating efforts. Jim?”

“That’s a great question and in some respects that’s part of the community engagement process,” Ryan said. “The landscape is filled with people who are working on this issue already and we want to figure out the best way we can fit into this landscape so that we’re not duplicating efforts or competing but instead complementing the efforts.”

“Next question,” Davis asked. “When will the units be built?” 

“Well, we want to get started as soon as possible,” Ryan said. “As I mentioned earlier, the goal is to complete a thousand to 1,500 units over ten years. Our thought is that we will start with one project. We are not that experienced with this so what we want to do is start with one project and take the lessons we’ve learned there when we move on to the second or third projects.”

Near the end of the presentation, Merritt took advantage of the poll feature in Zoom to take the pulse of those attending. Nearly ninety percent of those participating supported the idea of UVA developing housing for the community on its property. 

President Jim Ryan concluded the event.

“UVA and our neighbors in Charlottesville, Albemarle, and the surrounding counties are linked together and our fates are tied together and one of the reasons for us to be a good neighbor is because of that. I think helping to contribute to… increasing the supply of affordable housing is one part of that,” Ryan said. 

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