A house is a path out of poverty. For those without one, an affordable, decent home means more than a place to sleep. It is a source of protection, comfort, and stability: a key to middle class life. Today, Virginia and the Charlottesville area in particular face an impending affordable housing crisis that stems from a simple economic problem: growing demand coupled with inadequate supply. As the situation worsens, minimum wage and low-income workers are forced into increasingly precarious positions in which they must make impossible choices about how to allocate their limited time and money. Already, lower-income wage earners are struggling to pay their rent and those at the bottom of the economic ladder are falling into homelessness and poverty; as the population of Albemarle County continues to swell, affordable housing resources will be put under increasing strain. Charlottesville is currently taking measures to address the housing shortage, but further policy changes that increase the supply and reduce the burden on those in need are necessary to prevent a full-scale crisis for vulnerable families.
Charlottesville’s lack of affordable housing mirrors a national trend in rising housing prices that push minorities and low-income residents out. The primary cause of the lack of affordable housing in Charlottesville is an influx of non-minority and higher income residents who drive up the price of homes inside the city limits. According to the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia, the population of Albemarle County grew 6.8% between 2010 and 2016, a figure that is not expected to abate. Furthermore, developers have failed to build affordable housing at the city’s target rate of 15%, which is the share of new units that the city deems necessary to accommodate low-income renters. Charlottesville has only recently begun to implement changes because it depends upon current zoning laws for maximizing revenue and intends to pass that on to low-income residents in the form of rental assistance and other transfer payments. Unfortunately, revenue maximizing strategies can hurt low-income residents in the short term and close off potential tools for addressing affordable housing problems, such as tax incentives for developers and owners.
In a city like Charlottesville, a lack of affordable housing directly impacts low-income workers by making even a modest standard of living unsustainable. According to Stacy Pethia, Charlottesville’s housing program coordinator, 20% of residents earn less than $23,000 per year. Yet, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, to afford a standard two-bedroom apartment, a household must earn $22.67 per hour, more than triple the minimum wage, or more than $47,000 annually. This makes Charlottesville the second most expensive metropolitan area in Virginia behind the suburbs of Washington, DC. As a result of skyrocketing housing prices, low-income residents have a number of unsavory options available to them. They can live in substandard housing, which carries risks including dangerous neighborhoods, unhealthy living conditions, and long commutes. They can take on debt, which damages chances of future home-ownership and educational prospects for their children. Alternatively, they can spend more than 30% of their annual income on housing, increasing their risk of financial instability and food insecurity.
A lack of affordable housing has wide reaching consequences for the working and lower classes, but for the people who fall through the cracks, this shortage can mean seeking out an emergency shelter or even sleeping on the streets. It may be tempting to blame homelessness solely on external factors like drug addiction or mental illness, but evidence from the Charlottesville area indicates that many homeless individuals and families are simply in need of less-expensive housing options. According to 2017 data from the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless, more than 175 individuals in and around Charlottesville were considered homeless by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while about 100 individuals who would have otherwise been homeless are in permanent city housing. Of those counted who were not already in permanent housing, 60 individuals and two families did not fit the criteria for severe mental illness, drug addiction, or domestic violence. This suggests that the population of homeless individuals in the Charlottesville area can be significantly reduced by increasing the affordability and availability of housing stock in and around the city.
A decrease in the homeless population would provide spillover benefits to the entire community, not just for those raised out of homelessness. Take just two factors that would be affected by a lower rate of homelessness: the costs associated with visits to the emergency room and the rates of non-violent and violent crime. The vast majority of homeless people do not have health insurance, so the burden of visits to emergency medical services by the homeless is borne by taxpayers. A study by the National Institutes of Health discovered that the homeless and marginally housed populations of San Francisco accounted 54.5% of all visits to the emergency room, and that 7.9% of respondents had been to the hospital more than three times in the last year. With one trip to the ER costing over $1200 on average, homelessness costs Virginia taxpayers millions of dollars per year. Another study by the NIH found that the rate of violent crimes by homeless individuals was 40 times higher than for the general population, while the rate of non-violent crimes was 27 times greater. The costs associated with these crimes and temporarily jailing the homeless far outweighs the cost of additional subsidies for affordable housing.
Over the last year, the city of Charlottesville has begun to implement several strategies in line with standards and recommendations from the federal government. According to a report by local radio station WMRA, $2.5 million have been allocated to build about 100 units of affordable housing that targets a low supply as well as a $900,000 rental assistance problem. The funding clearly signals a step in the right direction for the city, though it must be careful to strike a balance between fair zoning, recognizing Charlottesville’s past of segregation and disenfranchisement, and policy that does not uproot the middle-income residents that provide a substantial source of growth and revenue for the city. Charlottesville’s current mayor, Nikuyah Walker, has backed the measures taken, and said the measures were aimed at “undoing a legacy that’s been in place for 400 years.”
If housing is to be considered a source of benefits for the whole community, or a human right as the adage “food, water, and shelter” suggests, then it is the responsibility of government to lower the gap between the price of housing and the ability of residents to pay for it. Given that Charlottesville’s population is expected to grow by 7% by 2022, the measures taken by the city are short-term solutions to long-term problems. The plight of Charlottesville, representative of many cities across America, indicates a need for increased funding for affordable housing programs at the state and federal level.