Affordable housing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the University of Virginia.
But it’s top of mind for U.Va. officials who have pledged to support the development of 1,000 to 1,500 affordable housing units in Charlottesville and Albemarle County over the next decade.
To jump-start the effort, U.Va. is offering land on three parcels owned either by the university or the U.Va. Foundation, which manages the university’s financial and real estate assets. Select developers will be chosen to build affordable housing communities on the properties under long-term ground leases. In turn, the developers will be responsible for designing, financing, building, promoting and maintaining the communities. No money from university donors, nor any state funds, will be used on the projects, according to U.Va.
When the affordable housing plan was announced in 2020, and then delayed by the pandemic, then-U.Va. Rector James B. Murray Jr. laid out the guidelines: “This is housing for teachers, policemen, firemen, social workers, people that earn a wage but cannot afford to live in our community.”
He added, “While many of the university’s own employees may qualify, this is not just for them. We’ve made a conscious decision that we are doing this for the community. We’re not doing it for U.Va., so it’s going to be first come, first served, and there will be no priority for U.Va. employees.”
U.Va.’s affordable housing initiative will be conducted in tandem with local government efforts by Charlottesville and Albemarle County to increase affordable housing. Several higher education institutions, including Ohio State University, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, also are addressing affordable housing in their communities.
“I believe strongly that U.Va. and our neighbors in Charlottesville and Albemarle County are linked together and our fates are tied together. Increasing the supply of affordable housing is one part of that,” U.Va. President James E. Ryan said during a May 2021 Zoom meeting with community members.
“We aren’t the first ones to address this,” says Pace Lochte, U.Va.’s assistant vice president for economic development. Lochte also serves as co-project manager for the affordable housing initiative.
“We come at the end of a long line of other organizations that have very successful projects: Habitat for Humanity, the Piedmont Housing Alliance and others. There have been a ton of people who have been doing this work for decades. We want to contribute to the solution,” Lochte says.
Besides working to add more affordable housing in the region, Lochte says, the university is seeking opportunities to house more university students on U.Va.’s campus — known as “the Grounds” — in order to free up space in the local housing market.
Currently about 62% of U.Va.’s nearly 17,300 undergraduates (as of fall 2021) live off campus, typically in the community, contributing to the economy but also straining the amount of available affordable housing.
Lochte emphasizes that none of the affordable housing that would be built under the U.Va. initiative would be for students.
A growing need
Lochte also readily acknowledges that the housing initiative faces myriad hurdles.
“It’s a very challenging environment in many regards,” she says. “As a nation, we have rising interest rates, we have supply chain issues, we have an increasing need [and] we have constructions costs going up.”
The need for affordable housing has been building in the Charlottesville region, as well as at the university itself, for years.
In its affordable housing plan, the city acknowledges that, like many other U.S. cities, Charlottesville “is in an affordable housing crisis.”
During Charlottesville’s first-ever housing summit in 2018, city officials presented data showing that one out of five Charlottesville residents earned less than $23,000 a year, but most of the city’s available housing required an income two or three times that amount.
Historically speaking, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in the 1940s the maximum affordable rent for federally subsidized housing was set at 20% of income, which rose to 25% of income in 1969 and 30% of income in 1981.
Over time the 30% of income threshold also became the standard for owner-occupied housing, and it remains the indicator of affordability for housing in the United States.
The 2018 Charlottesville housing summit pointed out the pain lower income residents experienced when seeking housing in the Charlottesville/Albemarle region:
23% of Charlottesville’s renter households were spending more than half their household income for housing.
Among the 13 large apartment complexes in or just outside the city, monthly rents averaged $1,384. To afford that rent, a single person working a minimum-wage job would need to work 147 hours per week.
Average rents in the region’s competitive apartment buildings had climbed 18.1% since 2012, rising by 9.4% in 2017 alone.
Since 2010, the city has invested $46.7 million in affordable housing, according to a data presented at a City Council meeting earlier this year. Those expenditures have resulted in 1,600 affordable housing units either being constructed or preserved, and 2,300 households receiving assistance.
According to Charlottesville’s compre- hensive plan, the city and Albemarle County are expected to add 15,000 additional households by 2040.
“We need 3,000 to 4,000 additional affordable housing units over the next 10 years,” says Alexander Ikefuna, interim director for the city Office of Community Solutions.
He notes that the city’s current comprehensive plan has a goal of earmarking $10 million per year for the next 10 years toward affordable housing, with the goals of increasing the number of subsidized affordable homes by 1,100 homes (on top of an existing stock of 1,630 actively subsidized homes); preserving 600 existing subsidized affordable homes; and stabilizing 1,600 to 2,000 owner and renter households facing housing instability.
‘We are the community’
In Albemarle County, a comprehensive regional housing study in 2019 found that more than 10,000 county homeowners and renters are paying more than the recommended 30% of their income for housing, and the gulf is expected to widen over the next 20 years.
“It’s gotten worse faster than I think any of us expected,” says Stacy Pethia, Albemarle’s housing policy manager.
According to U.S. Census data, median household income in the Charlottesville/Albemarle region is $59,598, with 23.1% of people living under the poverty line.
“What it means at the moment is that more people qualify for affordable housing,” Pethia says, noting that the area median family income is what is used to determine who qualifies to rent or buy an affordable housing unit.
HUD has estimated that a modest two-bedroom apartment rents for an average of $1,264 per month in Albemarle. “This amounts to an average wage of $24.30/hour ($50,544 annually),” says Pethia. “The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s … [employment and wages] survey suggests that approximately 54% of workers earn less than that amount.”
Affordable housing has long battled against a stigma, Pethia says. “Most people, when they hear ‘affordable housing,’ they think of public housing that is run down, and they associate it with high-crime areas and high poverty. That’s not what it is. We should all have affordable housing.”
U.Va. itself has had affordable housing problems, with respect to its lower-wage employees.
In February 2019, the university reported that nearly 2,400 U.Va. employees earned less than $15 an hour — or $30,000 a year — while a two-bedroom apartment in the region rented for $15,900 anually. Soon afterward, U.Va. announced that it was raising its hourly minimum wage from $12.75 to $15, starting in January 2020.
“As a university, we should live our values — and part of that means that no one who works at U.Va. should live in poverty,” Ryan, U.Va.’s president, said when announcing the minimum wage increase.
As part of its efforts to make more affordable housing available in the community, the university is studying a proposal to expand on-campus housing for second-year students.
The university’s support of affordable housing is part of U.Va.’s “Great and Good” strategic plan, which includes a Good Neighbor Program that outlines the university’s intention to work with area stakeholders with a goal of making the region “a just and sustainable community” by addressing issues such as affordable housing, living wages and access to health care.
In December 2021, U.Va. designated three properties the university and foundation could offer as development sites for affordable housing: the current location of U.Va.’s Piedmont Housing off Fontaine Avenue; the corner of Wertland and 10th streets; and portions of U.Va.’s North Fork research park on U.S. 29 North.
The Piedmont Apartments, historically reserved for faculty members and short-term leases, are situated near the Fontaine Research Park at 115 and 117 Mimosa Drive, less than a mile from U.Va.’s Central Grounds and the U.Va. Medical Center.
Under the affordable housing plan, the existing apartment buildings and ranch houses on the Piedmont property, except for a historic structure on the site, would likely be replaced with new development.
“We will look to the developer(s) selected through a competitive process to tell us what is possible in terms of affordability,” a university spokesperson said via email. “We expect the development to be mixed income, serving people at many levels of affordability.”
Announcing the proposed affordable housing sites, Ryan said, “Economic growth over many decades has had a profound effect on housing in the Charlottesville-Albemarle community, and we are committed to working with community partners to create more housing intended for local workforce and community members who have been priced out of the local housing market.”
According to U.Va.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Charlottesville’s population has increased 7.2%, or more than 3,000 residents, over the past decade, with a 2020 population of 46,555. Albemarle County has grown from about 99,000
in 2010 to 112,000 in 2021, a 13.5% jump. Meanwhile, U.Va.’s enrollment has risen from 23,907 in fall 2012 to 26,026 in fall 2021.
This type of growth has put increased strain on the demand for housing of all types, including affordable housing.
“One in three jobs in our region are attributed to U.Va.,” Lochte says. “We are the community, and the community is us. It’s not like we’re a separate island. We’re facing the same things.”
COLLEGE PROFILE UVA
Sometimes called Mr. Jefferson’s university or just The University, U.Va. was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. Its first board of visitors included Jefferson and fellow U.S. Presidents James Madison and James Monroe.
With roughly 1,240 contiguous acres around its UNESCO World Heritage Site campus or “Grounds,” U.Va. is known for its distinctive Jefferson-designed Rotunda building located on The Lawn, the school’s 4.5-acre grass quad where graduations are held. U.Va.’s other major holding is the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, a four-year liberal arts college in Southwest Virginia.
About 17,300 undergraduate students
About 8,700 graduate students
About 2,300 international students
32% minority enrollment
68% in-state undergraduate students
Approximately 4,300 faculty, 16,300 staff and 10,000 UVA Health employees
Notable for its medicine, law and nursing schools, U.Va. offers more than 120 majors across 12 schools.
Tuition, fees, housing and dining*
Includes average room and board, plus books and other expenses.
In-state residents: $35,582
Out-of-state residents: $72,004
*Note: Costs are for first-year students and may differ depending on year and academic program.