Housing USA: Charlottesville, grow it or preserve it?

6 min read

Charlottesville, VA—Perhaps I’m biased, but my hometown of Charlottesville has to be one of America’s most beautiful areas. The 49,000-person city, which regularly makes lists of best places to live, is nice inside and out. Within the core are various World Heritage sites and quality public spaces that create a charming feel. This continues when driving out to the countryside, where lush farms and forests lead up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The area remains beautiful because we work hard to preserve it. But this preservation also exacts costs, causing contradictory aims in this self-defined “progressive” community.

Charlottesville’s dilemma is something I’ve grown familiar with while traveling cross-country to chronicle America’s affordable housing crisis. People in San Francisco and Washington, DC, for example, may be aware of their cities’ jobs and population growth, and the demands this puts on housing. But they still resist housing growth, because they believe their cities lose something by allowing this. Maybe they don’t want mid-rise neighborhoods to give way to skyscrapers, or neighboring suburbs to be further paved over, so they advance protective regulations. The end result is that, preservation aesthetics aside, their cities suffer from housing shortages, price increases and outward migration by the poor.

The Charlottesville metro, which I’ve returned to briefly from off the road, grapples with this desire for preservation. The city proper is only ten square miles, and every last acre suffers from restrictions. A vast majority of the city is zoned either for single-family or dual-family residential. New buildings, even along a strategic corridor, were recently downzoned to 52 feet. And our tallest buildings rise, thanks to regulations, no higher than nine stories. The rationale for all this is to preserve community character, such as our sightlines of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, just up the hill.

Albemarle County, which surrounds the city but is a separate entity, is even more restrictive. About five percent of the county is designated as “growth area,” much of which abuts the city and is similarly zoned. The remaining 95 percent leading to the county border is, according to the Comprehensive Plan, preserved as rural area. This too has upsides, as pristine, undeveloped land is visible well into the horizon from our mountains and hills. But this exacts costs in a way that should be evident by now to readers, who might reasonably ask—so where the hell does Charlottesville grow?

It’s a good question, with an as-yet-unsatisfactory answer.

The population growth rate in the metro area outpaces the state, having increased by 6.3 percent since 2010 to 232,000. The specific cause—besides just the natural beauty—is the jobs and education here, namely those within the city. The area’s main employer is the University of Virginia, which is about a mile from downtown and has 22,000 students to boot. Much of the other economic activity spurs from an entrepreneurial ecosystem of UVA alumni who settle in city neighborhoods post-graduation.

This means there is demand for inner-city living, but literally no way, given the regulations, for it to be met. It’s made worse, said Neil Williamson, of a local nonprofit called the Free Enterprise Forum, by high approval costs for the housing that does get built. Thanks in large part to neighborhood resistance, developers can spend well into the six figures on permitting and legal costs before they break ground—an expense that gets passed onto consumers.

As a result, average city home values doubled between 2000 and 2010 to $321,000. And Albemarle homes—which are in the growth area and spread across the large lots county-wide—have median prices of $309,000. Those aren’t New York or San Francisco figures, but they are well above the state and national medians, and show what happens when a city and county conspire to cordon off most of its land.

What happens for those who want to live here, but can’t meet this financial barrier? Many of them move further out, said Ridge Schuyler, who runs a self-sufficiency program for low-income people at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Schuyler said his program generally has two types of people: the first are extremely low-wage workers who qualify for Charlottesville’s public housing. The second are slightly higher-paid service workers who don’t qualify for public housing, yet can’t take that next step of competing for Charlottesville’s market-rate units. They’re the ones settling for outlying counties.

“If you try to move up the income ladder,” Schuyler said of this second group, “once you get into that first rung job of making $28,000 to $32,000, you are almost forced to move away.”

This explains why neighboring counties like Fluvanna, Louisa, Orange and Greene have roughly doubled their populations since 1990. Charlottesville-area workers who live out in them must also foot the higher transportation costs of driving 30-plus miles twice daily.

These conditions are not lost on many Charlottesville residents, in or out of government. When I first got involved in politics here in my early 20s—learning for the first time about matters of zoning and regulation—the housing issue was just as relevant, a subject of media profiles and tense public hearings. This hasn’t changed upon my return, as Charlottesville remains one of Virginia’s most cost-burdened cities, when factoring housing prices with local income levels.

While debates ensue about what to do (Should we grow up or out? Build subsidized or market-rate units?), the general consensus is that more units are needed. But the Nimbyism in both city and county reflects how people don’t want to make the needed sacrifices to allow said units.

“There is a need for more housing,” said Williamson. “Whether or not the city residents will allow increased densification is an open question.” Meanwhile, he said, building housing too far out in the county would contradict the Comprehensive Plan.

Thus, the same political attitudes that have driven up prices in larger U.S. metros are affecting Charlottesville. Tough to say whether we can adjust in time to prevent the massive costs now felt in those places.

Story Contacts:
Neil Williamson, President, The Free Enterprise Forum

Ridge Schuyler, Dean of Community Self-Sufficiency Programs,
Piedmont Virginia Community College