Stacy Pethia, Charlottesville’s new Housing Program Coordinator, is bringing in something a little different to this position— and it’s not just her pink Doc Martens.
She has fifteen years of experience working for affordable housing, first in Pittsburgh, then NoVA. Although she’s only been in Charlottesville since August, she’s starting strong. By November, Pethia and the Housing Advisory Committee had delivered 35 recommendations to City Council on improving Charlottesville’s affordable housing.
Pethia has entered the stage at a fairly pivotal point in Charlottesville’s housing market. In 2010, the City set a benchmark for 15 percent of housing to be affordable by 2025, but that number has remained at 10 percent ever since. Pethia believes that goal is possible, though, especially with an injection of much needed capital: the City is planning to double their annual transfer to the Affordable Housing fund from about 1.6 million to 3.2 million.
There are, however, a few roadblocks when it comes to increasing affordable housing in Virginia. One of the biggest obstructions to changing housing policy is a doctrine often referred to as the Dillon rule, named after the judge who wrote the original statement in 1868. The rule, which Virginia courts uphold, establishes an extremely narrow set of rights for local governments.
The result of this? Before Pethia can make any kind of change in zoning or planning ordinances, City lawyers have to lobby for it in state legislature. Policies that are considered par for course when creating affordable housing, like decreasing lot size (which lowers the price of an apartment) or providing developers with density bonuses (more units per acre lowers per unit cost) are blocked by state legislature because of ideology. “A sense of individual property rights,” as Pethia calls it, will often prevent state legislature from agreeing with zoning changes.
Charlottesville currently has 376 units of public housing, all managed by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. These units are exclusive to low income families, disabled individuals, and seniors. Another 300 units of of privately owned homes are available through Charlottesville’s Section 8 Voucher Program. Pethia estimates that the Federal government authorizes about 700 affordable housing vouchers each year. However, the CRHA finds itself unable to lease out much more than half of those grants a year— there’s simply not enough places for those low income families to live.
Charlottesville also has an Affordable Housing Fund, which traditionally is used for the upkeep and renovation of existing affordable properties. Because of the Dillon rule, the state doesn’t allow the City to create developer incentives, minimum lot sizes, or setbacks. Instead, Charlottesville ordinance mandates that developers make a choice: make a small percentage of their units affordable, or donate to the Housing Fund.
Since the fund’s creation in 2007, every single developer has chosen to pay into it rather than build affordable units. Pethia understands their hesitation, noting that affordable housing is expensive and requires developers to adhere to certain regulations about price. More money is always useful, says Pethia, but it results in the fund doing little to actually add new affordable housing into the market.
Pethia is well aware of this weakness. One of her biggest goals is to better use the fund— to not just preserve existing properties, but to help alter the housing market itself. For example, it could be used to offset developer’s costs so they wouldn’t hold the full burden of building units. With a newly doubled fund, Pethia would have more leverage to negotiate with developers and attract particular projects. And, as the percentage of affordable housing increases, so will the number of voucher families who can get placed into a home.
Still, some developers and landlords just won’t rent to what’s known as “section 8 families.” Fighting against stereotypes and ideology wasn’t really considered the job of the Housing Coordinator before Pethia stepped in.
“I see myself as an advocate,” she says. “It’s who I am– a go getter.”
She is eager to start a more meaningful conversation with Charlottesville’s community members on the theories behind affordable housing and why it’s important for the city.
Just the words “high-density” will incite instant backlash from residents of Charlottesville’s traditional, historic neighborhoods. But higher density living is an essential principle of affordability— it allows developers to charge less per unit. Much of Pethia’s work, then, is just explaining the strategy behind new initiatives. “I’m not going to put a high-density development in the middle of a historic, single-family home neighborhood,” she explains. Her team uses research and landscape analysis to identify specific neighborhoods whose infrastructure will successfully support higher density development. Design elements, too, she says, are essential in doing high-density right.
Educational strategies are a very important part of Pethia’s recommendations, especially because they can affect the housing market without dipping deep into funds. She also has extensive experience working with reluctant landlords; in Pittsburgh, she served as the landlord outreach coordinator, encouraging private-market landlords to rent to low-income families and maintaining existing relationships.
One of her proposed initiatives is a landlord outreach program, bringing nonprofits together with landlords who won’t rent to low income families in effort to break stereotypes. Another of her suggestions is a fund set aside for landlords who do rent to low-income families, one they could access in case of property damage. The best way to break stereotypes is by demonstration; and ideally, Pethia says, that fund will encourage landlords to forego the two month security deposit which is so prohibitive to low income families.
Also on the drawing board is a Homebuyer Assistance fund for City employees and several similar initiatives for UVA employees. “UVA says it’s not in the housing business,” says Pethia, “but I’m not sure they fully comprehend the effect they have on the housing market.” Besides the significant market changes caused by student housing, the University is the largest single employer in the City— and one of the biggest groups in need of affordable housing is its hospital employees.
Charlottesville only has ten square miles to contain a steadily increasing population.
Affordable housing in Charlottesville is no longer an if, but a when.
As Charlottesville matures, it’s essential that existing land is developed in a way that will ultimately benefit all the residents and preserve Charlottesville’s unique sense of community.