The Gamble of a Gentrified University Town: Stephen Hitchcock on Charlottesville’s Housing Inequity

By Anna Grace Chang, Tuyet-Minh Tran, Mahima Reddy & Kristin Adams.

1. Do you have any comments or thoughts you would like to share regarding housing inequity in Charlottesville? If so, what have been your experiences/observations? “Housing inequity is very well-documented, and I can see myself how the city has changed beneath my own feet. I’ve seen so many new structures built, especially on West Main, and so much has changed over the course of ten years. I mention this because so many restaurants and retail shops are reflective of a certain demographic, one that’s generally upper middle class and white. Charlottesville is presented as a pedestrian city and a college town, and this image draws in people who want to live this kind of life. 

However, this doesn’t come without a cost. UVA is a massive employer in town, and landlords have to navigate around the bubble that UVA has created. Most landlords gravitate toward creating housing for students, which limits the amount of space available for low-income housing. My biggest challenge is figuring out how to include UVA as part of the solution to the housing crisis and creating affordable housing. With no policies put in place by the city, nothing will stop this juggernaut of people wanting a certain kind of lifestyle in Charlottesville. It’s concerning to watch traditionally-black neighborhoods in the downtown area slowly change under our feet. Gentrification is very real, and it often disproportionately pushes people of color out of their communities. What’s happening currently isn’t quite the same as what happened when Vinegar Hill was razed, but the end product might not look too different.”

2. Can you comment on the role of gentrification in Charlottesville neighborhoods in the establishment of housing inequity? “I was walking through the Downtown Mall with friends over the weekend, and we saw this house where I remembered guests at The Haven had lived. It had clearly been purchased and renovated, and it had expanded into having a rooftop deck. There were people laughing and drinking wine, and there’s nothing wrong with someone building a big home with a rooftop deck, but I don’t know what that means for someone who grew up in that neighborhood. How do they feel about that? What does it do to their sense of their neighborhood? I definitely wonder about that in terms of gentrification.

This is not housing-related, but in terms of the Downtown Mall, you have this push, and I would say there would be a really big counter-push, if there were a private renovation of the Downtown Mall. You hear people talk about that. One thing that I really love about the Downtown Mall is that it’s one of the only places where people across race, class, gender, and sexual orientations convene, and that feels very important to me, and I think important for a lot of folks who are in extreme poverty, because people don’t want to see it. They would literally like to whitewash the Mall, but when they do see the poverty, that’s really important. I think that people need to be troubled by the disparities, and often by forms that are disproportionately racialized. So, I think places like the Downtown Mall, which also has people experiencing homelessness and poverty, can be where a shift towards a gentrified space, something more homogenized that comes at a cost, can occur, and that is something that concerns me. It’s not that I want those disparities to remain, but I think that dynamic articulates what is true about our city and our county. I also think, in a less critical way, that being around people from different social locations or who don’t look like you or talk like you is very significant just for what it means to be a human being.”

3. Can you comment on which factors seem to contribute significantly to housing inequity in Charlottesville?: “UVA has plenty of housing for students of all years, and that has changed the affordable-housing market drastically. So many hotels are being built even though Charlottesville is only ten square miles, and there simply isn’t enough space for development. Every time a new space is developed into a hotel, an option for affordable housing is lost. We could maybe start by creating a searchable inventory for affordable housing, but the crisis of housing inequity sometimes feels like a tide that can’t be stopped without making structural changes within UVA and the Charlottesville community.”

4. What do you hope changes about housing inequity or unequal access to housing? “Under the current circumstances, coalitions have formed with nonprofit groups like the Piedmont Housing Alliance. There’s more advocacy happening to bring awareness to the situation of housing inequity, and that makes me feel marginally hopeful. However, I feel that more energy needs to be directed toward changing the system itself. We can’t just suggest that we just do better; we need new structures in place.”

5. Are there any initiatives or programs at The Haven that have been implemented to reduce housing inequity? “To address housing inequity, one of the roles TJACH has specifically is to educate and advocate in the public sphere and community sphere working across sectors, whether that be criminal justice or mental health care to advocate for more equitable housing services for people experiencing homelessness.

We do the continuum of care, which is a spectrum that has an upstream and a downstream component. On the upstream side, there are preventative resources for people, like a one-time emergency fund that, for example, helps if someone had a car repair or got behind on rent. The reason that we ask that it be called homelessness prevention, which is a state funded assistance program, is because it stabilizes that person or family in place, or it gets them into a stable housing situation. So that would be one way in which we’re trying to at least mitigate housing inequity. Now that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got people who are living below 30% area median income (AMI). It is a stop-gap measure. To be quite honest, the systems of care are weighed exponentially, and when we’re talking about equity broadly construed, we’re talking about prenatal care, we’re talking about early childhood development. So once people find a way into our system of care, there have been a lot of interventions they’ve gone through before.

A colleague of mine said, ‘People don’t become homeless because they don’t have enough money; they become homeless because they run out of relationships.’ I think there’s something very true to that in terms of what keeps us afloat in terms of our wellbeing. There are so many people in our lives, family, friends, colleagues, classmates, and roommates who hold us up and make sure that we’re okay. When those things go away, people will often find themselves as guests of The Haven or in our system of care. So there’s that preventative piece of at least trying to supplement housing stability.

On the downstream side, we have a program called Housing2Home, which is a really neat program where we provide stipends for people to furnish and even decorate their place. It helps them begin to establish a place that matters to them, that they had a choice in creating, and it communicates to the landlords that we want spaces that are humanizing for our folks. That’s not something that radical when you think about wanting to decorate your room in a way that you like coming back to it. So I would say that’s a small but important way of addressing someone’s sense of stability. Obviously, we’re providing rental assistance and supportive case-management, but there’s also this piece of giving them a personal space.”

Do you mind elaborating on what the continuum of care is?: “Continuum of care is a catch-all term, it’s just jargon that people use interchangeably with the ‘system of care.’ In the homelessness services world, a ‘continuum of care’ is a formal term for the entire catchment area. The catchment area for us is the city of Charlottesville, and the counties of Albemarle, Nelson, Green, Fluvanna, and Louisa. All of that area is inclusive of our system of care. So any of our public assistance programs and subsidies are available to the person in the most outlying county just as much as it is available to someone who’s a resident in Charlottesville. We have done what we need to do in order to make ourselves and our services available to all of that area, which is our continuum of care. Something to consider too is that you really are on this continuum of the upstream preventative side due to the intervention of a shelter giving you a roof over your head to some kind of housing assistance, maybe a short term or long term housing assistance, and there’s even very long-term housing assistance with housing vouchers. The continuum of care is that kind of spectrum.”

Would you say the Haven falls along one area of that spectrum or that it provides for all areas?: “We’re connected to all of them, but we don’t provide all of them. So we do provide on the upstream side emergency one-time assistance, more ongoing assistance to prevent a household from becoming homeless, but we don’t run an overnight shelter. We run a day shelter, which is an intervention, but where we’re providing services like showers, storage, a physical mailing address, a place to meet with other service providers in non-COVID times. There’s office space and their nightly intake happens here. It’s shifted a little due to COVID, so we send people over to the hotel who are eligible.

On the downstream side, we have a number of assistance programs, both privately and publicly funded. Our rapid housing program is sometimes a bridge to something called Prominent Support Housing, which is long-term housing with case management. Examples of that would be The Crossing at 4th and Preston, and Region 10, which is a big mental health non-profit that provides affordable housing support throughout the state. You can kind of think of it that way, supportive housing all the way downstream, and then one-time emergency assistance and homeless prevention on the other.”

6. Can you comment on the impact of racism on affordable housing in Charlottesville?: “There was a power grab for property which came out of racist policies like red-lining. Vinegar Hill was said to have come out of this squalor — there was an argument that this place was squalor and needed to be razed, which was just a way for white people in power to take land that was not theirs. 

In terms of current practices, what I was talking about earlier really does feel racialized even though it’s harder to pinpoint that when you allow multiple boutique hotels to take up massive square footage in a historically black neighborhood — and not that people of color can’t enjoy a boutique hotel — but when you walk into those hotels, it feels like a pretty homogeneous space. These are not black-owned businesses. 

Housing is connected to all of the other things. An old colleague of mine, Herb, is over 60 and is a black man who grew up in this community and has seen it. He was here when Vinegar Hill was alive and well, and he laments the dissolution of so many black-owned businesses. He would have a much more informed, and personally implicated voice in the history of Charlottesville. I didn’t grow up here, and my perspective is that of a middle-class white male, so I am not the person to speak on this issue.”

7. In what way(s) do you think the pandemic is most significantly impacting the unhoused population of Charlottesville? “If you don’t have a home, you can’t stay at home, so in terms of exposure to the elements or exposure to the public, that puts you more at risk for being exposed to the coronavirus. Often, people who are in the homeless system of care have to receive services in some form of a congregate setting, which is still the case; even though people can come up and get food from the front of The Haven or the Salvation Army, they’re still doing this in lines where there’s a bit of a crowd. If you want to access guest services for yourself like the shower or to access your storage bin or your mail or if you want to do laundry, you are coming into a building that is not just inhabited by you. We’re trying to do a really good job of keeping things clean and safe and as healthy as we can be, but that’s the reality. So I would say COVID-19 has placed a microscope on what these disparities and inequities are, especially in the economic sense, and those economic disparities are disproportionate when it comes to people of color. 

Another prime example would be someone who is in the food service industry or the retail industry, and they have to come back to work because they need the money, and so that puts them in harm’s way for the virus. They may lose their job. Obviously, someone can file for unemployment, but it could be that they reach out to us and enter our system of care, where you are in some form of a congregate setting. We’re trying to get as many people as possible into hotels because there is very much a stop-gap measure for addressing homelessness. We’re ultimately looking into getting people into housing, but the example that comes to mind is accessing the COVID clinic at UVA: You can’t access it unless you have a PCP, a primary care physician who makes the referral. But the majority of our folks do not have a primary care physician, and that right there means that if they’re going to access that treatment at our flagship hospitals, they’ll have to do so through the emergency department, putting them and even others at risk. So, this highlights that the housing crisis, homelessness, employment disparities, and health access are interrelated. What happens to someone who is finding themselves falling apart or feeling the psychological strain of these times? If you don’t have resources or a support network, you end up making choices that you wouldn’t be making otherwise. You may find yourself in a mental health crisis or in the criminal justice system, so I do feel that the pandemic shines a light and amplifies these disparities, and you see it around our country and around our world that people are not at peace, and they want justice.”

Regarding the most vulnerable homeless people that are staying in hotels, has the number of homeless people presenting as high-risk for COVID increased?: “Yes, but that could be due to more people finding out about the option to gain access to a hotel room. In February, there were approximately 30 people presenting at high risk, and that number is now at 50. The hotels are funded by TJACH through money from the state and the city, so many different organizations are working together to ensure that the homeless are being supported. We have upwards of 60 beds available currently.”

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