Charlottesville has much to be proud of: a vibrant community, gorgeous architecture, and more. But one area we’ve struggled with for years is the dearth of affordable housing in the city. On December 18th, the City Council voted to approve a new Zoning Code, marking a significant milestone in the development of our University town. Set to take effect starting on February 19th, this groundbreaking code is the culmination of a seven-year effort by city planners, activists, and Charlottesville residents to update the code for the first time since 2003. Though it’s been met by some criticism, including litigation, the City stands by the proposed changes.
Goals of the New Zoning Code
The primary objectives behind the City Council’s approval of the new code were clear– to encourage higher density and thereby increase housing supply to meet the extreme demand. Advocates, including those organized with LivableCville, support this approach, and argue it is bound to increase affordable housing and lower prices by meeting growing demand. The seven-year process involved numerous planning commissions and City Council meetings, with efforts led by local activists and residents dedicated to creating a more livable and inclusive city for all its residents.
The code, which received unanimous approval, is a comprehensive overhaul that addresses various problems Charlottesville has encountered during past housing developments and urban planning. Among its major provisions, the code abolished single-family zoning in Charlottesville, embracing a trend seen in other Virginia cities like Alexandria. It also implemented measures to slow displacement in higher-density, lower-income neighborhoods, and established mandatory inclusionary zoning requirements for affordable housing. Notably, the code also allows for significantly more housing city-wide, eliminates parking mandates, and permits multiplexes in low-density neighborhoods, effectively modernizing Charlottesville’s zoning regulations.
Glen Sturtvevant, a Virginia State Senator from Chesterfield, summarized much of the conservative reactionary backlash to the updated code. In a post on X, he also compared the City Council’s action to Alexandria, as it approved the aforementioned “upzoning”, which Sturtvevant rails against as causing “more traffic, school overcrowding, and erosion of quality of life. ‘You will live on top of each other and like it!’” Suddenly, the party of small government isn’t interested in reducing bureaucratic restrictions when it comes to housing, despite it being one of the most pressing current issues facing the region and nation– last month, the median house price in Charlottesville was $510,000, up 11.6% from 2022. Critics have also argued that the new zoning code’s process was rushed, despite the seven-year-long deliberation to update the 20-year-old code.
The most important and common criticism of the code concerns traffic and overcrowding. To this effect, it is important to manage your expectations. No, there will not be a system-wide collapse and DC-level traffic in Charlottesville by next year. However, inevitably, there is a trade-off in building more housing. It is a trade-off that must be made, however, because the alternative is allowing the current situation to worsen. And it’s already bad enough as is. We have a burgeoning crisis of homelessness, spurred by a lack of affordable housing– the most recent data indicates that Charlottesville lacks 4,000 affordable housing units, a number that has certainly grown since March 2022. Furthermore, those in favor of the zoning code have emphasized that multi-family homes are not only more affordable, but they’re also easier to serve with public transportation, mitigating traffic issues.
On January 17, nine Charlottesville residents filed suit against the City to prevent the implementation of the new code in February, citing procedural errors in the Council’s adoption of the code. In the 50-page lawsuit, they also detailed the potential harm done to them as homeowners in the City, citing many of the concerns listed above. While the City has 21 days to respond to the litigation in court, City Councilor Michael Payne emailed a brief comment to CvilleTomorrow: “The process of rewriting the City’s zoning code occurred over a period of 7 years, with extensive community engagement. City Council and staff carefully reviewed all elements of the new zoning throughout that process. As we’ve seen in Arlington and localities across the country, zoning changes are often followed by litigation. I feel confident that we’ve done our due diligence and followed the law and proper procedure for all elements of the new zoning code.”
So, time will tell if the code will be put into full effect on February 19, 2024. If it does, there’s one outcome everyone agrees on: big changes are coming to Charlottesville soon.