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Apartment Crashers

In the debate over "affordable housing," the city purposely ignores the poorest Richmonders.



Richmond City Council President Manoli Loupassi paints a worst-case-scenario picture of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's vision for affordable housing in Richmond: vertical apartment complexes filled file-cabinet style with the salt-of-the-earth firemen, policemen and teachers.

"I could poll our city's 385 sworn police officers and filter out all but the ones with a wife and kids, and if I were to ask them if they wanted to live with their wife and children in a seven-story high-rise, I'll bet you would not have one taker," Loupassi says, venting frustration after City Council voted down Wilder's affordable-housing proposal Nov 27. Loupassi was not at the meeting.

Wilder had proposed a change in the city charter that would allow targeted, affordable "workforce housing" to be built higher than the current four-story limit.

The proposal, among other things, also sought to create a fund to help provide affordable housing opportunities and a provision allowing developers to exceed zoning densities if a certain percentage of the project set aside affordable housing.

But in a city with so many housing problems, defining "affordable housing" and who should be targeted by such programs is a matter for debate among city officials.

The mayor's defeated proposal aimed to create rental housing for families of four with a combined income of $77,000 — about what two first-year city schoolteachers would make — or less.

While Loupassi takes exception to many of the defeated proposal's initiatives, what he takes exception to most is what he says was the mayor's failure to do the homework before submitting the plan. Initially, that plan targeted individuals with incomes below $25,000.

"They were calling it 'workforce housing,' but what they were addressing was low-income housing," he says. "We're lucky we didn't adopt that."

Loupassi says the city's current stock of low-income rental housing is already a burden on city services.

"We want to discourage, insofar as we can, the development of new construction or rehab construction of high-density, low-income housing," he says, "and when possible, to encourage the development of low[-density], middle-income housing stock that is owned by people. Home ownership."

And then there was the proposal's convenient escape hatch for developers — a bargain-basement price tag of $10,000 per unit that developers would pay to opt out of building "affordable housing" as part of pricier condo projects. In essence, a developer could enjoy all the perks of being allowed to build seven-story condo towers without actually including any affordable housing. The opt-out price would have been assessed only for a small percentage of the total units to be built in a particular project.

Perhaps this latest bust-up between City Council and the mayor is not so much a clash of ideas, but of different opinions on how to get there, some council members say.

"What we voted against was the way to accomplish it, not the proposal," says 4th District Councilwoman Kathy Graziano, who says she's still committed to working with the mayor on affordable-housing solutions.

Or maybe the latest squabble is just more of the sort of talk that in the end confuses the issue of what is affordable housing, who should build it and whether the burden of its construction should be borne by the city alone. What's clear in the latest debate is that the city isn't interested in building low-income housing for the poorest Richmonders, and is only marginally interested in building housing for city workers with moderate incomes.

"The city of Richmond is carrying an inordinate burden," 3rd District Councilman Chris Hilbert says of low-income housing, expressing frustration with the recent comments by Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors Chairman Dickie King that the county wouldn't allow low-income housing to breach its borders.

"We just cannot continue to carry the whole burden," Hilbert says. "And this means our neighbor to the south and to the north and the east and the west — we're a metro region, and as the city goes, so goes the region."

The day after the council deep-sixed his proposal, Wilder announced a new housing project in the city's North Jackson Ward area, tentatively titled Jackson Place.

Containing about 240 housing units, 40 of them aimed initially at renters with incomes between $38,000 and $54,000, the project allows its developer, Trammell Crow Residential, to later convert 100 units to condos for sale. The project is being jointly developed with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which owns the property.

Wilder, in a press release, suggested that the project could provide housing "for cafeteria workers, housekeeping and maintenance people."

Who will live in such projects remains unclear, says Michela Zonta, a residential segregation and housing expert who is an assistant professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"Well, that's appreciated that the mayor is concerned with affordable housing," Zonta says. She expects that such housing will also look attractive to "empty-nesters" whose income levels also often fit the bill as described.

Zonta says Wilder's desire to provide workforce housing is "very noble, but I don't think it is the right approach."

"Definitely, there is a lot of talk about providing housing for workforce," she says, "but if we look at the concentration of poverty in our community, I think the target should be individuals with much lower incomes."

There are nearly 10,000 families on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers through the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the same agency responsible for the Jackson Place project. These vouchers allow low-income families to rent homes on the open market that they could not otherwise afford. Only about 2,900 of the vouchers are available with current available funding.

Average annual incomes in housing authority projects such as Gilpin, Whitcomb and Creighton courts are between $8,000 and $10,000, according to the latest RRHA statistics. In the comparably affluent Mosby Court, average incomes are above $11,000.

Ironically, those incomes are in many cases less than the cost per unit in Wilder's defeated proposal for developers to opt out of building workforce homes.

The kinds of families living in Gilpin and Creighton are workforce too, Zonta says. But the workers there earn minimum wage at part-time jobs without benefits.

"Affordable housing is not just housing for workforce," Zonta says. "We need to think about the population that has been neglected historically." Richmond's poor, she says, "can't just be relocated somewhere else." S

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