Four of five Democrats explain their views on housing at campaign forum

There are 39 days until Virginia’s political parties hold primary elections to decide who will represent them on the general election ballot in November. Early voting has been taking place for a week now. 

Three days ago in partnership with the Free Enterprise Forum, I helped moderate a campaign forum for candidates seeking to be one of three Democratic nominations for City Council. 

Left to right: Lloyd Snook, Michael Payne, Bob Fenwick, Natalie Oschrin. Candidate Dashad Cooper informed us earlier in the day that he would not able to attend 

Unfortunately, candidate Dashad Cooper was not able to attend the event and he will be given the four questions that were asked at the event. I’m still working out exactly how that will proceed. 

But four of the candidates were present and the event began with opening statements including one from former City Councilor Bob Fenwick who said the cost of housing in Charlottesville was too high even when he and his wife moved here over 50 years ago.

“We could not afford to live in Charlottesville so we rented a house on Bruce Avenue for about a year, one floor, and then I built a house out in Earlysville,” Fenwick said. “It’s not a new problem and it’s not an easy problem. There are no magic beans that we have that will solve the housing problem. It’s something we have to keep ahead of all the time.” 

Incumbent Michael Payne is seeking a second term and said that significant progress has been made such as a commitment to spend $10 million a year on affordable housing. In his opening statement, Payne said there is more work to be done. 

“There’s still a tremendous amount of work to do in building out our bike-ped infrastructure, in implementing our affordable housing and climate action plans fully,” Payne said. “And I can use the experience I’ve had on Council to continue that work and use the experience I’ve had on Council to make sure that we actually follow through on these plans and move beyond just talking about what we’d like to do.” 

Natalie Oschrin is one of two newcomers in the race and she is a wedding planner who has lived in Charlottesville since she was less than a year old. 

“Regular hard working folks should be able to find a place to live in the city where they work,” Oschrin said. “It should be safe to walk on continuous sidewalks and bike in lanes that aren’t after thoughts. Our public transit system should be frequent, reliable, and usable. Our community should be safe from gun violence. Our kids and teachers should have the schools they deserve.” 

Oschrin also pointed out in her opening statement that there has been a woman on Council since 1971 and that she is the only such candidate in the race. 

Incumbent Lloyd Snook has lived in Charlottesville since he was 8 aside from college and law school. He said he had two slogans he used when he ran four years ago. 

“The first was ‘Let’s Make Charlottesville work again,’” Snook said. “We had had a really dysfunctional government for a number of years, dysfunctional departments, dysfunctional leadership, dysfunctional Council. The second was a more substantive platform that talked about affordable housing, it talked about adopting a climate action plan, and it talked about the renovations of our schools and Buford being the one that’s most prominent in that respect.” 

Snook said the Council has made progress in all of these areas including the $90 million renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School and he wants another four years to see it through. 

The first question sought the candidates’ position on the current draft zoning ordinance. Fenwick took the opportunity to read from emails he’s been sent about the topic.

“One lady said ‘I feel like I’m being bull-dozed,’” Fenwick said. “Another said: ‘All this for at best six affordable units.’ And a gentleman wrote, obviously well-educated, he said ‘this is alchemy. We were promised gold but we’ll get lead.’”

Fenwick said he believed many people in Charlottesville feel their views haven’t been heard in the Cville Plans Together conversation.  

“The people who will be most affected are not a part of this process so that will be my focus, to make sure that the process is honest, fair, transparent,” Fenwick said.

Payne agreed with Fenwick’s earlier point that there are no easy answers but that the land use reform process is long overdue for a conclusion. 

“I think one of the most striking statistics in Charlottesville is that the median household income for Black families is $39,000,” Payne said. “For white families that number is $86,000 and that speaks to one of the core inequalities of our city is that increasingly every single year there are more and more people who are shut out from being able to afford to rent, shut out from homeownership, and that is disproportionately affecting many members of our community who historically have been excluded from our conversations in the city.” 

Payne said the entire reason for changing the zoning is to make it easier to build housing.

“And I think part of it is you have to legalize more affordable housing types throughout the city like duplexes, triplexes, smaller apartment complexes and that you can do that in a way that still maintains a feel of neighborhood scale, walkability, and I think those are goals that we can achieve together,” Payne said. 

Oschrin said there is an affordable housing crisis in Charlottesville and she said a multi-pronged approach is necessary to address different needs. 

“The city has made an $18 million commitment in the latest budget toward affordable housing which is a great step in the right direction,” Oschrin said. “However, there can be subsidies all day but if there are not enough homes available, people will be left out.” 

Oschrin said addressing housing insecurity will also address other social issues. She acknowledged that many are concerned about density.

“A lot of the concern stems from they think adding homes will also increase traffic on their street and I totally get that concern,” Oschrin said. “Cars are noisy. They pollute. They are heavy and they are dangerous machines. Allowing and encouraging more homes in town must be paired with investments to alternatives to car traffic.” 

Snook said to understand the need for housing in Charlottesville, people need to understand the growth that has occurred and is expected to continue. 

“What drives growth in Charlottesville is the University of Virginia which has been growing at roughly one percent a year year over year over year since 1970,” Snook said. “It has been paired with a relative lack of production of housing.” 

Snook said that’s driven up the cost of housing and he said efforts to intervene need to help households between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area median income. He also said the new zoning code appears to be set up to help those with higher incomes.

“We need to solve affordable housing through other mechanisms and this zoning ordinance unfortunately the way I’m looking at it doesn’t get there,” Snook said. 

Candidates also answered questions about economic development, the budget, and qualities desired in a city manager. I’ll have responses to that last question in the next installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement. 

The full video is available on the Free Enterprise Forum website

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the May 12, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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