Charlottesville PC talks anti-displacement in first set of Development Code deliberations

On September 19, the six remaining Commissioners spent two hours giving staff and consultants direction on potential changes to the draft Development Code. Commission Chair Hosea Mitchell honed in on one specific item. 

“We’ll want them to give them a good general idea of where we want to go with the anti-displacement zones that used to be called the ‘Sensitive zones,’” Mitchell said. 

At the outset, Mitchell said the Commission had to provide feedback on the process for the special exemption process for special forms. This particular story doesn’t get into any of that.

Neighborhood Development Services Director James Freas got right to the point with topic number one. 

“I think the first kind of threshold question when we think about the anti-displacement overlay district is whether or not to have one,” Freas said. 

For background, the city commissioned the firm RKG to conduct a study on the feasibility of some of the rules and requirements related to providing affordable housing units in the new Development Code. (link to the report)

Freas said that members of the Housing Advisory Committee expressed concern at their review of the RKG report that the most attractive areas for development happen to be many of the neighborhoods designated in the Future Land Use Map as “Sensitive Communities.” These include large portions of Tenth and Page, Fifeville, and the Rose Hill neighborhoods.

All of these are depicted in the draft zoning as having the Residential-A designation.  That allows three units per lot by-right or four if an existing structure is preserved.

“Part of the role of the Medium Intensity, of the [Residential-B] and [Residential-C] districts was to actually draw some of that new development away,” Freas said. “That was part of the anti-displacement strategy was to create opportunities for new development in other parts of the city that haven’t necessarily seen that type of development in the past.”

Freas said there are pros and cons with developing an anti-displacement overlay but the main negative to him relates to decreasing potential for wealth-building.

“Anything we do that reduces the potential for development in the areas certainly reduces the potential for displacement but also reduces the potential for additional value for those homes and those properties,” Freas said. 

He was also clear that zoning changes cannot stop a well documented phenomenon. 

“There’s nothing that we can do to stop the single unit, the single family flips that we know are occurring in those areas but those are going to be part of what has happened and is leading today to the displacement those areas are experiencing and will continue to happen going forward,” Freas said.  

A screenshot of my summary of property transactions from November 2022. Go take a look at the whole month here.

Freas said the city will continue to work on an anti-displacement policy by amending the Affordable Housing Plan. He also said he wants to conduct a small area plan for the 10th and Page Neighborhood. Such a plan has been adopted for the Cherry Avenue corridor that runs through Fifeville. 

Mitchell took a straw poll to ask his five colleagues if they supported an overlay district.

“I don’t believe it’s necessary,” said Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg. 

“I’m more concerned about affecting the zoning of the periphery than affecting the zoning of the neighborhoods themselves,” said Commissioner Carl Schwarz. 

“A zoning overlay isn’t necessary,” said Commissioner Phillip d’Oronzio. “A lot depends on what else we do or don’t do or recommend.” 

“I think if there’s a way we can cater them per neighborhood then yes, we can do that,” said Commissioner Karim Habbab. “But as a general broad stroke across all neighborhoods, I don’t think it’s necessary at this time.” 

“I could see it as working as part of a citywide anti-displacement effort in all zones so that it is consistent and we can defend it in court,” said Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates. “If it is not city-wide, I would recommend that it be separate and on a different timeline so that we can study it in more detail.” 

Mitchell said he did not think an overlay district is necessary but the city must address the issue.

“Some sort of protections need to be in place and separate and on a different timeline seems reasonable to me,” Mitchell said. 

Freas wanted more information from Solla-Yates.

“Commissioner Solla-Yates, do you have anything in mind when you think about city wide because that,” Freas said. 

“Check your email,” Solla-Yates interrupted. 

Community members do not have easy access to email, but each of us can take steps to get them if public business has been discussed. I’ve just submitted a request through the city’s Freedom of Information Act portal to get details that Solla-Yates did not initially disclose at the meeting. 

d’Oronzio is a member of the Housing Advisory Committee which has made recommendations. One of them is to place limitations on who can develop in the Sensitive Communities areas similar to rules for family subdivisions in rural counties. 

“In order to move forward with development on a given lot you have to have been on the title for two years,” d’Oronzio said. “And that would be effective from day one so everyone who lives in these areas would be able to develop immediately but if they sold to a developer, that developer would have to sit and the idea there would be to put in a break.” 

(View all of the HAC recommendations)

Another HAC recommendation would be to create an overlay district for a limited period of time that would allow three units on a Residential-A lot but only if at least one of the extra units is guaranteed to be affordable. A third one involves another novel mechanism. 

“Can we just keep this away from zoning at all, and presumably we’re spending implementation money anyway, to offer cash options for the development rights from the city of some other entity,” d’Oronzio said. 

These recommendations were not available in the materials for the packet for discussion or review by community members.  

More education on the worth of real estate?

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said he felt there was little the city could do given the extent of free market activity.

“The status quo is of rapid change in these neighborhood as a result of single-family home flips and it seems to be that nothing about the overlay we’re discussing is going to limit those in anyway,” Stolzenberg said. “At worst, it could even exacerbate the problem where we may have at least some of those flips add smaller and more attainable units and instead they will become even pricier higher-end flips.” 

Stolzenberg suggested the city could put a cap on development per year like a similar ordinance in Arlington County aims to do. That zoning code is the subject of a lawsuit. (Judgment in Missing Middle lawsuit likely one month away, Jo DeVoe, ARL Now, September 19, 2023)

Solla-Yates then read from an email he sent to Freas two hours before the meeting. 

“Anti-displacement effort making the first single-family home on a parcel require a special use permit so that Council can consider its effects on displacement. This would also apply to de-duplexification efforts where two or more homes are combined into one. Does not apply to in-fill within an existing home or homes preserved on sight. Can be ministerially approved by staff with affordability component to address displacement concerns. Recommend this be either city-wide or a secondary process that is legally separate from the rest of the zoning process so it can be legally challenged and delayed on a separate timeline.”

Schwarz asked Solla-Yates if he sent the email to everyone.

“No, I was told not to,” Solla-Yates said. 

Let’s see if FOIA turns it up as well. 

Charlottesville has both a city attorney in Jacob Stroman as well as a consulting attorney hired for land use issues after former City Attorney Lisa Robertson left the position abruptly at the end of 2022. 

Missy Creasy, the city’s deputy director of Neighborhood Development Services, said Sharon Pandak wrote to say that a special use permit cannot be required for by-right development. 

Part of the discussion reviewed a basic element of the real estate market. Developers will try to get the lowest price possible and there are many ways to do so. 

“No builder is interested in paying the fair market value for a lot if they can possibly get away with paying less,” d’Oronzio said.

“I would argue that people selling their house for less than its worth is at the very core of this problem, right?” Stolzenberg said.  “You have people who are selling for $200,000 and those houses are getting $10,000 worth of work put in them and selling for $550,000. That’s not a problem that can be solved with zoning.”

Stolzenberg suggested working with the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors to educate potential sellers on getting a fair price. 

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 September 26, 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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