Charlottesville had — and lost — a shelter that social workers say could have helped hundreds of unhoused people off the streets

Charlottesville had — and lost — a shelter that social workers say could have helped hundreds of unhoused people off the streets

Market Street Park has looked a little different the past couple of weeks.

What was once a mostly empty greenspace has become a bustling community of people — living in tents. They’re singing songs, smoking cigarettes (and other things), playing and “knighting” one another with plastic swords, sharing meals and creating lots of trash. There have been some fights, including a stabbing. A dog got loose and caused chaos.

The tent community, or rather, the visibility of it, has catapulted the city into turmoil, and brought into plain sight the growing number of homeless individuals living in Charlottesville.

“We sleep on the stoops, you know,” said Gregory Adams, one of the unhoused people camping in the park. “You didn’t see us as much as you do right now, but we were still there. Just like the rats. We were still there.”

Their sudden stark visibility means people all around the city are talking about the tent community and are inundating city leaders with demands to do something about it. City leaders want to address it — and the issue of homelessness more broadly. With the tent community growing, they’re working on a plan.

At a City Council meeting Monday, Oct. 2, City Manager Sam Sanders presented a “homeless intervention strategy.” The city’s main focus is on opening an additional shelter — or several.

“But I’m not running to do that at this moment because I don’t know how big that facility needs to be, and I don’t know if it is one, two or three facilities,” Sanders said. “Because, in that population, there are differences among what the issues are and we need to address them where they are. And that might mean that we have, this facility does this, this facility does this, and another facility does this.”

The thing is, for two years, Charlottesville had a shelter that successfully took some of the city’s most difficult to house people — many who came from similar situations as those camping in the park — and found them homes.

The front of a motel-like building, with wood panels and support structures holding up the crumbling awning, A cooler and chair are among peoples belongings that sit in from the doors.
Premier Circle sheltered more than 100 people in the two years it was open. By the time it closed in June 2023, PACEM had found housing for 91 of its guests. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM, pronounced “pah-chum”) ran the shelter at the old Red Carpet Inn on Premier Circle from May 2021 to June of this year.

By the time the shelter closed on June 30, its staff had helped 91 people — some of whom had been homeless for more than a decade — find and move into housing. Fourteen guests left without a key to a place of their own, but most of them had leases lined up, or a housing subsidy to help them find a place. A massive feat, according to shelter staff, social workers, and local healthcare providers.

“I hoped for half that,” said Jayson Whitehead, PACEM’s executive director.

More about Premier Circle

It’s something few shelters, anywhere, are able to do. Many shelters lack funding for case management staff and services. And, even if they have it, it is extremely difficult to find homes for people who have low or no income, bad or no credit, criminal histories, prior evictions, or even no form of identification. It’s even more difficult when the people in these situations have mental health or substance abuse issues, which is often also the case.

Some of the people — PACEM calls them guests — who landed at Premier Circle had been homeless for a decade or longer, said Whitehead. One guest, a woman in her 80s, hadn’t had a place of her own in more than 20 years.

Had the shelter continued, its homeless service workers are convinced they could move hundreds more people off the streets. But it closed this summer because the COVID-19 funding that made it possible dried up. Even if PACEM had received money from local governments to continue the shelter, it couldn’t have continued in that location — the buildings were falling apart.

For those reasons, PACEM leaders said they had little hope of re-creating this kind of shelter in the near future. But, with Charlottesville now crying out for a solution to homelessness, and Sanders searching for solutions, could this be the city’s chance to bring that type of shelter back and make it permanent?

Finding 91 people housing seemed like a miracle — but it wasn’t

A woman in a yellow t-shirt talks on the phone in a parking lot, in front of a one-story motel, with a truck parked in front.
Liz Nyberg, shelter operations manager for PACEM, paces on the phone in front of Premier Circle. The shelter for homeless people closed in June 2023, but the organization helped 91 people into housing over two years. Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

About a month before the shelter closed, Heather Kellams, PACEM women’s case manager, sat in her office. She’d tacked a fundraising calendar featuring a photo of a butterfly on the wall, and neatly organized stacks of paperwork, some more than a foot high, on the windowsill.

“Sometimes when I drive my car out of here, I’m like, ‘How did we just house that person?’ or ‘How did that happen?’” Kellams said. “How did I just find a private landlord that has two or three apartments available? How did we find places for people with sex offender charges, assault charges, seriously mentally ill, schizophrenic? How did that just happen?’”

Kellams grew up in Charlottesville and has been a social worker here for nearly 30 years. She worked with teenagers convicted of crimes before joining PACEM four years ago. She knows the area, and its people.

And while finding housing for dozens of homeless people in the area might have seemed like a miracle, it wasn’t that at all.

It had everything to do with the type of shelter they were running and the services they offered, said shelter staff and the volunteers who worked with them. And the many hours of hard work that staff and guests alike put into it, said Kellams.

The shelter at Premier Circle was a low-barrier shelter, meaning that people using drugs or alcohol, or who had a criminal history, could stay there. That is not the case at most overnight shelters, anywhere.

Compared to other local shelters, Premier Circle had fewer rules than the Salvation Army, another overnight shelter. And The Haven, another local shelter, is a day shelter only — people do not sleep there.

Many of the folks who landed at Premier Circle weren’t eligible to stay at, or had been kicked out of, other shelters. Some didn’t want to stay at other shelters based on past experiences, but had burned bridges with friends, family and others who might help them. Others had become homeless after losing their jobs, or having serious, debilitating medical issues that left them unable to work and pay rent, or stay safely in other shelters.

“People who are unhoused often have mental health needs that may include major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance misuse or abuse,” said Brenda Doremus-Daniel, a clinical social work psychotherapist at UVA Hospital, who worked with guests at Premier Circle. Add medical comorbidities on top of that, and these folks are particularly vulnerable and also more difficult to find housing for, she said. That’s part of why Premier Circle was so special.

“Premier Circle provided a more stable living situation, so folks could focus more on medical care and mental health care,” said Doremus-Daniel. “It’s really hard to do insight development, learn coping strategies, and evolve into the best version of ourselves when we are worried about where we’re going to sleep. You can’t do your best problem solving when you absolutely have to focus on your most pressing needs.”

At Premier Circle, each shelter guest had a private room with a bed, a bathroom, and other basic amenities. They received fresh linens and towels, as well as regular meals and all the coffee they wanted. They also received mental and physical healthcare from UVA Medical Center nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and medical students.

“The services that case management at Premier Circle had available actually increased the likelihood of attendance in the UVA University Medical Associates behavioral health clinic,” said Teresa Radford, a UVA nurse who has worked with unhoused patients.

That the shelter was located on a single site and allowed people to stay for an unlimited period of time mattered, too, said Kellams. Case managers and staff could find their clients easily, and they could rush to a client’s room in case of an emergency — something that’s difficult, and sometimes impossible, when working with people living on the street.

It’s very hard to get disability. You get denied all the time. That’s your life. You’ve got to have it if you can’t work, and a lot of people just can’t get it. So when people get disability around here, it’s a huge, huge thing.

—Heather Kellams, PACEM women’s case manager

“You lose touch with them,” said Whitehead.

“And then they get in more trouble,” said Kellams.

The two sat together in Kellams office and gave each other knowing looks.

“They kept tabs on us, for better or worse,” said Chris, a shelter guest who didn’t want to share his last name, in part because he said he’d “spent time in jail.” He wouldn’t say what for.

Sometimes the middle-aged man said he needed a little extra push from his case worker to take the next step, and because he was staying in one place, his case manager could easily find him to give him that push.

The best part of Premier Circle, Chris said, was that he wasn’t stressed while staying there.

“We’re not sleeping on the street, on concrete and bricks, which can really put a toll on somebody’s body,” he said. “Don’t have to dodge cops just to find a place to sleep at night. And I can sleep comfortably at night. I don’t have to worry about keeping on guard. I’m not stressed.”

Chris said a few different things contributed to him living on the street, including time at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail (the “Avon Hilton,” he called it), and being evicted.

He’s tried other shelters in town, but he said they stressed him out.

Chris is also very ill. He has sleep apnea and, in 2018, had a vertebrae removed from his spine.

“I got both feet in the grave,” he said. It took him four tries to get disability benefits from the government, but he finally did while staying at Premier Circle.

“It’s very hard to get disability. You get denied all the time. That’s your life. You’ve got to have it if you can’t work, and a lot of people just can’t get it,” said Kellams. “So when people get disability around here, it’s a huge, huge thing.”

Chris recently moved into an apartment at the newly-renovated Crescent Halls, a subsidized apartment building for seniors and people with disabilities owned and operated by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It took “a five mile stack of paperwork,” he joked, holding his hand over his head and looking at the tall stacks of papers on Kellams’ office windowsill.

“I can’t wait to wake up one morning and have a nice big breakfast,” he said, inhaling as if he could smell his meal. “Scrambled eggs, fried potaters, sausage, a couple slices of country ham. Biscuits. I’m not talking no store-bought biscuits. Homemade. It’s my great-grandma’s recipe.”

One of the biggest challenges is getting enough stability to get through the paperwork

A man hoists a piece of furniture out of a white truck while another man (back to camera) pushes forward a chair. A woman in a blue jumpsuit stands between, helping.
PACEM women’s case manager Heather Kellams (center) helps a shelter guest move into his new apartment. Credit: Erin O’Hare/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Getting Chris and other guests to the point where they could do something as ordinary as wake up in their own homes and cook their own breakfasts took an extraordinary amount of work.

When a guest arrived at the shelter, PACEM used what staff calls “case management bingo,” a protocol for getting folks “stable enough so that they’re not going to break the rules and get kicked out of the shelter, because if they get kicked out we can’t work with them,” said Kellams.

For instance, Kellams encouraged one of her clients to have six, instead of 12, drinks one day so that the client would be lucid enough for a mental health appointment, or for an hour of filling out paperwork.

But that was only the beginning of the long, winding path toward housing.

For the duration of the Premier Circle shelter, PACEM had two full-time case managers (including Kellams) and two part-time case managers. PACEM’s operations manager and evening shelter director both provided significant case management, even though it wasn’t their full-time job, said Whitehead. Other shelter staff, like shelter monitors, frequently pitched in as well.

Whether or not a guest was motivated to walk that path with their case manager, mattered too. Most were, but not all.

Case managers had to figure out what each individual person’s situation was in order to best help them. Does that person have income? Can they work? If so, what jobs are available for them? If not, do they receive disability or social security benefits? Are they eligible for those benefits? What do they need to apply? Do they have a criminal history? A prior eviction? All of that matters when looking into what sort of help, or housing, someone might attain.

It’s hours upon hours of paperwork. And none of that paperwork can be completed without IDs, and some guests — like Chris — arrived at the shelter without one. Everything is then put on hold while case managers help find copies of birth certificates and social security cards, and even take them to the DMV so that they can get a state-sanctioned ID.

After the case managers have a full picture of their client’s situation, they apply for housing subsidies. There are a variety of types of housing subsidy, but in general, subsidies exist to help people who cannot afford to pay market rate rent in their area. Oftentimes, people pay a portion of their incomes (whether it’s from a job, social security, or disability benefits) toward rent and utilities while the government covers the rest.

Each type of subsidy has eligibility rules, and there are a number of organizations in the area that can issue them. The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority has a certain number of subsidies and vouchers available, as does the Albemarle County housing office, Region Ten, The Haven, Virginia Supportive Housing, and the Veterans Administration, as well as a few others. But all of those programs have long waitlists.

Most Premier Circle guests ended up with some sort of housing subsidy. And once they had the subsidy in hand, they began looking for a place to live. Case managers and shelter staff looked at countless apartment listings, talked with private landlords they already knew, talked with management at apartment complexes, and avoided the landlords and complexes they knew from experience would not rent to a PACEM client.

They got a lot of denials, said Kellams.

“What made Premier Circle successful was the incredible pursuit of [housing] by this core team,” said Whitehead. “You’re talking about tirelessly calling this person, that person, filling out paperwork again that you filled out two months ago. It was dogged.”

And when people do get accepted, the homes must be inspected to make sure they meet the conditions laid out in the subsidy, and then they sign the lease. Along with that, there’s the matter of paying first and last month’s rent. Some guests were able to save up for that while staying at the shelter while others received assistance from PACEM’s Secure Seniors program or another local organization.

The work didn’t end there. PACEM staff helped people find furniture for their apartments and helped them move into their new homes.

For 91 people.

Having stability to find housing ‘changed the game’ for one couple

Two people sit on a sofa with many pop culture posters and pictures on the wall behind them. They are looking at each other, smiling.
Lydia Wolfe and Justin Cave were, at first, denied a spot at Premier Circle. But once they got a spot, it helped them find housing — and now they say more people should have that chance. “Something has to be done,” Wolfe said. Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Lydia Wolfe and Justin Cave moved from Premier Circle into an apartment of their own in December 2022. By summer, it was starting to feel like home: Walls covered in vintage horror movie posters; a bookcase full of DVDs, punk CDs and fantasy novels; shelves covered with vintage toys and cartoon figurines.

They laugh whenever someone points out that their last names match their décor.

“It feels like our own little cave,” said Wolfe, looking at a Dracula poster and smiling. “I don’t think we had that before.”

Wolfe and Cave have been together for about nine years, and homeless off and on for three of them. They say they often feel unsafe in the world: Both are members of the queer community and both struggle with their mental health. Cave has been hospitalized for mental health treatment.

Wolfe, who is nonbinary, is also physically disabled: They have arthritis throughout their entire body, suffered injuries in two serious car crashes and have Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. On top of that, their spine is deteriorating.

Cave is estranged from his family, and most of Wolfe’s family has died.

The couple became homeless at the end of 2019, after leaving what they said were multiple emotionally abusive situations.

At that point, Cave was working. But Wolfe’s arthritis was so bad, they had to quit cosmetology school — a lifelong dream — because standing up was too painful. Walking was just about impossible.

The couple lived in a hotel for a while before renting a trailer home in West Virginia, where they lived until 2021. The walls and ceiling were falling in, there was a huge hole in the bathroom floor, said Cave. They decided they’d rather be homeless than live in the trailer.

“It was traumatizing and demoralizing,” said Wolfe.

They put their things in a storage unit and drove to Warrenton, where they first stayed in a shelter. Cave got a job working on a farm, then got a better-paying job working on another farm, one that offered housing to all of its employees. The couple started to feel stable again. They had housing, they had income.

But then Wolfe got sick. Really sick. It was gallstones, and Cave sometimes missed work to care for Wolfe.

One night, when Cave was working the night shift, Wolfe woke up to sharp abdominal pain so severe they couldn’t take a deep breath. Cave left work to take Wolfe to a hospital in Culpeper. Test results showed that Wolfe’s gallbladder was completely infected and needed to come out, immediately.

Wolfe was transferred by ambulance to Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville for emergency surgery, with Cave following behind in his car. But the surgeon told Wolfe that he wasn’t comfortable doing the procedure. He worried that Wolfe’s gallbladder might rupture during the operation, which would make Wolfe more susceptible to sepsis. He recommended putting a drain in Wolfe’s stomach and after a month, surgery would be safer.

Wolfe was in the hospital for four days, and Cave did not leave their side. He lost his job and thus their housing.

They had 30 days to leave their home. But Wolfe was scheduled for surgery around the same time. Wolfe tried everything: Calling the homeless hotline in Charlottesville and a similar resource in Culpeper, following every possible lead to dead end after dead end.

“Everybody was telling us, ‘We have no resources. We don’t know what to tell you,’” Wolfe said.

Wolfe called the surgeon’s office and said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do the surgery, because we’re going to be homeless.”

The couple moved their things into a storage unit once more, and lived in their car for a few days. Through the doctor’s office and the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless, they got a room at the Affordable Suites of America, an extended stay hotel on Harris Road in Charlottesville so that Wolfe would have 10 days to recover post-surgery.

Ten days turned into two weeks, which turned into a month, then another month. Every time they went to the front desk to settle up, BRACH had extended their stay. Cave and Wolfe joked that some wealthy vigilante, maybe Charlottesville’s version of Batman, was helping them out anonymously. But that wasn’t exactly the case. BRACH used government COVID-19 emergency funds to pay for hotel stays not just for Wolfe and Cave, but for a number of folks who were, or became, homeless throughout the pandemic.

This was the last place we could go, and we got rejected. I felt like nobody was listening to us, that we had no voice, that people were willing to see us die on the street rather than do anything and everything they can.”

—Lydia Wolfe on their search for housing in the Charlottesville area

When their hotel stay neared the end, the couple looked at shelter options, but none of the local shelters could meet their needs. Wolfe needed a place that was private so they could take care of their post-op scars and recover from the major surgery. The Salvation Army houses people together in large rooms with bunk beds, and The Haven is a day shelter only. Wolfe said that other social services agencies said they had nothing for them and suggested that Wolfe go into a nursing home and leave Cave to find shelter himself.

The couple did not want to do that.

Wolfe and Cave were even turned away from Premier Circle. Staff weren’t sure they could meet their medical needs, said Kellams. Staff also had concerns about Cave’s mental health.

It was devastating to the couple.

“This was the last place we could go, and we got rejected,” said Wolfe. “I felt like nobody was listening to us, that we had no voice, that people were willing to see us die on the street rather than do anything and everything they can.”

Then an attorney with Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center got involved and said that by refusing the couple care for those reasons, Premier Circle was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kellams said.

After working through some legal logistics with Legal Aid and PACEM, Wolfe and Cave got a room at Premier Circle. “Once we got in there, we didn’t have to fight to get help anymore,” Wolfe said.

“They feed you, they take great care of you. They always had someone you could talk to,” said Cave.

After a few months at the shelter, and with Kellams’ help, the couple got a housing voucher and found a one bedroom apartment in Albemarle County, just outside Charlottesville City limits.

“PACEM gave us so much in such a short amount of time. It changed the game. We may not be where we want to be completely, but PACEM gave us a chance,” said Wolfe, who is now working toward a G.E.D.

Wolfe and Cave are upset that the shelter is closed. They believe that other people should have the chance at the help they received.

“Something has to be done,” Wolfe said.

Looking for resources for housing, health, transportation and other types of support? Bookmark Street Sheet Resources, produced and kept up to date by various agencies. It has resources you can use or share with neighbors, and have printable versions in many languages.

Pandemic grants got Premier Circle started, but there wasn’t enough to keep it going

Two people push a cart and bicycle to the edge of a parking lot where a chain link fence opens up to the street.
PACEM staff Liz Nyberg, director of shelter operations (left) and Jessica Eubanks, a shelter monitor, help close up Premier Circle in June 2023. While they went into the shelter project knowing that it would end, they didn’t anticipate creating a shelter model that would work as well as it did. Once PACEM’s staff knew the shelter would be closing, they stopped taking guests and focused on housing everyone who remained. That last evening, staff helped a few guests move their things into the Royal Inn hotel across the street. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

That PACEM even had the opportunity to do this kind of shelter work was an anomaly, one that would not have happened without the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the early months of the pandemic, Piedmont Housing Alliance and Virginia Supportive Housing received a repayable grant to buy the Red Carpet Inn for $4.3 million. At first, the old hotel would serve as an emergency shelter for people especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

After about a year, the hotel would be demolished to make way for low-income apartment-style housing. That’s still the plan, though it’s taking longer than expected.

PACEM’s expenses for the shelter averaged $75,000 per month ($900,000 per year), and most of that was staff wages. That’s probably about what it would cost to re-start the shelter in a different location, plus the actual building cost. Other significant expenses were providing dinner every night and supplies to keep the shelter going, like cleaning supplies, air filters and gloves.

PACEM did not have to pay rent on the site, and the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless covered water, electricity, Wi-Fi and security cameras. Piedmont Housing Alliance, which owns the site, covered maintenance.

So, while PACEM staff went into the shelter project knowing that it would end, they didn’t anticipate creating a shelter model that would work as well as it did.

Because of its wild success, Kellams, the women’s case manager, was certain that the shelter wouldn’t have to close, it would just have to move. She thought that surely the community would hear of the good work PACEM had accomplished at the shelter and a wealthy philanthropist or two would step up and say, “Here’s the money, here’s a space.”

But no such person showed up. For a moment, Kellams wondered if she was too optimistic, but decided that wasn’t the case. To her, and other shelter staff, it seems like a no-brainer.

“Our work speaks for itself,” said shelter monitor Jessica Eubanks on the last day of the shelter’s operation. “I’m not saying that other organizations don’t play their key roles. They do. But none of them have this.”

UVA Medical Center staff agreed.

“Premier Circle offered something that we don’t commonly see amongst other cities that I’ve worked with, or cities that UVA would work with, like Staunton or Waynesboro,” said Jack Hooppaw, a patient advocate in the homeless services arm of UVA Medical Center’s Population Health Program. “But, I think it’s kind of the ideal state.”

Premier Circle wasn’t perfect, said Kellams. They had to kick some people out, and had a waitlist dozens long from the moment it opened.

Once staff knew the shelter would be closing, they stopped taking guests and focused on housing everyone who remained. Guests panicked over being displaced. Staff said this was heart-wrenching. So was saying goodbye to the 20 guests who died while staying there.

And, perhaps the most difficult part, shelter staff said, was working with people who consistently refused to do things like fill out paperwork, or attend appointments with their case managers and doctors.

Charlottesville says it wants to increase shelter beds and housing opportunities

A hall with mats, cots and folding chairs, with people's belongings and backpacks.
For two weeks in February, Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church lent its social hall as an overnight congregate shelter for people experiencing homelessness. The organization that runs the shelter, People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM), relies on local churches and other community centers to help provide shelter during the cold winter months. Every two weeks, the shelter moves to a new location in town. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Still, a shelter like Premier Circle — one that is low-barrier, rife with services, and in a set location — could help the city address many of the issues it is now trying to solve regarding homelessness, said Whitehead, PACEM’s executive director.

In fact, it’s very similar to one of the long-term goals City Manager Sam Sanders has in his newly-unveiled homeless intervention strategy, Whitehead said.

“In Sam’s long-term plan, he’s marrying year-round shelter with a lot of housing opportunities, which is what is needed. And like we experienced at Premier Circle [over] the last year.”

Part of why PACEM staff were able to move so many shelter guests into permanent housing was because people heard about the shelter’s work and opened up more subsidies and housing opportunities to shelter guests, said Whitehead.

Anthony Haro of the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless, also says an increase in shelter beds in Charlottesville should be matched with more housing opportunities.

“Housing ends homelessness,” Haro said. “If our community only increases shelter capacity and not permanent housing capacity — new rental units, rental assistance opportunities, supportive services in housing — we will face significant challenges in assisting people in leaving those new shelter units for housing.”

The plan Sanders presented to Council on Oct. 2 proposes doing exactly that: increasing shelter capacity as well as housing opportunities.

A shelter has to be able to move people into housing so that that bed can be available for the next person who needs help. A full shelter means people are still living on the street. Many typical emergency shelters in bigger cities, like Richmond, have a 45-day limit, said Whitehead, but that’s not always enough time for someone to get back on their feet.

Premier Circle offered something that we don’t commonly see amongst other cities that I’ve worked with, or cities that UVA would work with, like Staunton or Waynesboro.

“Premier Circle was unique in that folks more or less lived there for years,” said Whitehead. Staff had time to work with them.

Premier Circle offered something that we don’t commonly see amongst other cities that I’ve worked with, or cities that UVA would work with, like Staunton or Waynesboro. But, I think it’s kind of the ideal state.

—Jack Hooppaw, patient advocate in the homeless services arm of UVA Medical Center’s Population Health Program

PACEM still runs a winter overnight congregate shelter. Like Premier Circle, it is a low-barrier shelter and doesn’t have a stay limit. But the shelter moves every couple of weeks, from church to church. Charlottesville’s only year-round overnight shelter, the Salvation Army, doesn’t have a stay limit, but it is stricter than PACEM’s operations.

If the city decides it wants to fund a permanent low-barrier shelter, Whitehead says PACEM is ready. “We’re stepping up and saying we want to help, but we need to have a place to do it.”

Right now, the organization is working with the City Manager’s office to open its seasonal overnight congregate shelter. It was slated to open Oct. 28, but might open early to potentially shelter folks staying in Market Street Park.
PACEM’s seasonal shelter will be able to give 35 men and 15 women a place to sleep this year. If they need to shelter more people, they partner with the Salvation Army, which offers extra space in a warm room. (The Salvation Army’s 58 beds are usually full.) Whether that will be enough, staff aren’t sure. Last winter, the demand for shelter beds was double what local shelters could accommodate.

More about shelters in Charlottesville

Some of the folks staying in the park told Charlottesville Tomorrow last week things they like about the park. They lined up with what former Premier Circle guests said about why they liked the shelter.

A 32-year-old woman said that right now, the park gives her a chance to rest. She said that she isn’t able to rest when she sleeps on porches, nor in her apartment where she said she doesn’t feel safe. In the park, she doesn’t have to worry about being woken up by police or others. And, with all the people around, she said she feels safe there.

And though she likes the park for now, she knows it’s not a feasible long-term solution.

She’d heard that PACEM wasn’t going to operate this year — likely confusing Premier Circle with the seasonal congregate shelter — and said she wasn’t sure what she’d do when it gets cold. She also said that she’s wary of some of the service providers in town.

And Gregory Adams, who is camping at Market Street Park, said he was kicked out of the Salvation Army’s shelter and has been sleeping downtown ever since.

The tent community there, and unhoused people living on and around the Downtown Mall, was the subject of many public comments during that Oct. 2 City Council Meeting.

Sanders said that he had received many emails from community members about his choice to lift the curfew on the park at the end of September, and the tent community that popped up immediately after. “I’ve been told to ‘tell people to get out of the park,’ to ‘give us our park back, I don’t care where they go,’” Sanders said.

“That has been hard to hear, not because I can’t take the criticism, but because I can’t accept that the desire to transfer a problem is the right way to go. We need to solve the problem. I don’t apologize for caring about people.”

City Councilor Michael Payne mentioned during the session that the council had received many emails from community members asking them to “discipline” Sanders. Council will not be doing that, Payne said.

Community comments were passionate, and mixed.

Some spoke about how unhoused members of the community are keeping people away from downtown and therefore negatively affecting businesses.

Others were appalled at the way the community, broadly, treats people who are unhoused. “The rhetoric around our unhoused community members is, quite frankly, abhorrent,” said a resident named Anna, who did not give her last name.

Shannon Ellis, whose apartment is on the Mall, described seeing open-air drug use and stepping over discarded needles, and asked the city to enforce its “quality of life” laws surrounding noise, public disturbances and public urination.

“For months, in order to leave my apartment to go anywhere, I’ve had to walk past an unhoused man who regularly shouts obscene words and comments at me and the other women who pass him,” Ellis said. Recently, she saw him violently assault a woman, and though he was arrested, she said she questioned why the issue was only addressed after he hurt someone.

Some folks advocated for a low-barrier, overnight shelter run either by PACEM or The Haven. Like PACEM, The Haven is open to running such a shelter, Anna Mendez, the organization’s executive director, said during the meeting. Commenters advocated for more deeply affordable housing, supportive housing, and wraparound services like mental health care and case management. Elizabeth Stark, an anti-eviction advocate, also asked the city to implement a Marcus Alert program, which would provide a behavioral health, rather than law enforcement, response to a behavioral health emergency.

Some said they were concerned that adding more homeless services will bring more people who are unhoused to town.

That’s already happening here, Sanders said during his presentation to Council, before public comment. People are already coming to Charlottesville and Albemarle County, from other nearby counties, for services.

During his presentation on Monday, Sanders emphasized that while the tent community at Market Street Park is at the front of people’s minds right now, it’s not the sudden problem many people think it is. It is just the latest symptom of a long-simmering issue. While he’s working on a short-term solution, he told the community they’d have to be patient.

“This is complex. There is no quick fix. There is no simple answer. There is no easy solution,” Sanders said. “It is going to be painful. The community has to appreciate that. It is going to hurt to deal with this, in more ways than one. That is not an easy thing for us to just wipe away as a problem. It doesn’t happen that way. It is very, very complex. It is very complicated, and costly.”

Increasing funding for homeless services could draw more unhoused people to the city,  according to a 2017 report from the Center for Poverty & Inequality Research at the University of California, Davis. Igor Popov, at the time a recent graduate of Stanford University’s economics PhD program, conducted the study.

However, the people who relocate for services are more likely to be families rather than individuals, Popov wrote in his report. And, when these folks have access not just to shelters but to well-funded supportive housing programs, they’re likely to participate in them. That actually decreases the overall unhoused population.

“As a result, the benefits of expanding funding for programs targeting individuals likely outweigh the costs,” Popov wrote.

PACEM shelter staff say that the community also has to manage its expectations about what a shelter, even one like Premier Circle, can accomplish. Even the best shelters cannot get everyone off the streets, they say. Whitehead has seen people refuse shelter beds and even free apartments.

A styrofoam food takeout container sits on the ground outside a tent. The letters "I GOT AHDD" are written on the top in black marker.
One of the men staying in Market Street Park said he put this styrofoam takeout container outside of his tent to let people know why people are living there. “You want to know why we’re here? We all have AHDD: Acute Housing Deficiency Disorder.” Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Howard Terry was one of the men hanging out in the park last week, though he said he wasn’t sleeping there. Terry was one of the Premier Circle guests who did not have a place to live when the shelter closed. The Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless paid for him to stay in the Royal Inn for about a month, while he continued looking for a place with his case manager.

But three months after Premier Circle closed, and weeks after he had to leave the Royal Inn, Terry still doesn’t have a place. Terry, who is in his 60s, said he landed on the streets because he was convicted of rape about 20 years ago and spent a few years in jail. He said that’s why he struggles to get a job and a place to live.

When he was at Premier Circle, he wasn’t spending his days in the park.

No matter how the city moves forward with its goal of creating a year-round shelter, PACEM and others will continue doing their work, because it will always be needed.

“There will always be homeless people,” said Saudah Mensah, the case manager for PACEM’s Secure Seniors program. Part of her job is helping her clients, many of whom don’t know how to use computers, use online rent and utility payment systems to pay their rent and other bills on time, so they don’t end up on the streets again.

“Drive around Charlottesville,” she said. You see it all the time. In the medians, downtown, at the parks. It’s there. And people will always fall into homelessness,” Mensah said. “I don’t feel like homelessness is something that can be completely fixed, ever. If it’s not the same people, it will be new people.”

But as a case manager, she can help.

“Even if I could make just a little bit of difference. Sometimes things are baby steps, and sometimes you can make big leaps. But if I can make a little bit of change in your life, then we did good.”

Jessie Higgins contributed to this report.

The post Charlottesville had — and lost — a shelter that social workers say could have helped hundreds of unhoused people off the streets appeared first on Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Supervisors approve changes to affordable housing rules

Among the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance is the requirement to build affordable units within 10 miles of an incorporated city. Photo by Monserrat Solis.

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 12 unanimously approved changes to the Affordable Housing Regulations proposed by the county’s Planning Commission. The changes included setting an affordable housing threshold and terminating the Housing Advisory Committee.

The county’s Planning Commission had previously approved the changes to the Affordable Housing Regulations, also known as the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, in a public hearing on July 19.

The housing ordinance establishes requirements for future housing developments, aims to set the minimum amount of affordable housing that will be built, and sees that county land is used for housing in accordance with state and local housing needs.

Three amendment changes were approved by the supervisors:

  • Terminating the Housing Advisory Committee
  • A requirement to build affordable units within 10 miles of an incorporated city
  • Updating the 20% requirement for off-site rental units among very low, low and moderate income designations

Stephanie Reck, an associate planner for San Benito County, said the 10-mile requirement would allow residents of new housing developments to effortlessly access city resources and amenities including shopping centers, grocery stores and public transportation.

For example, if an applicant proposes a development project more than 10 miles from an incorporated city in the county, affordable housing must be built outside of the project area, within the 10-mile radius, Reck said. The requirement applies to both housing for sale and for rent, Reck said in an email.

The Planning Commission clarified that the 10-mile radius begins at the city limits and not at the center of the cities.

According to the report by Reck, the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance applies to projects of more than six units.

Projects of six to 10 units are required to pay an in-lieu fee of $30 per square foot for for sale units rather than building affordable housing, according to the county’s inclusionary requirements, Reck said.

The ordinance requires that 20% of all off-site rental units be reserved for very low income, low income and medium income housing.

Affordable housing is based on an area’s median income (AMI), which in San Benito County is $101,923. The income categories vary depending on the size of a household, but the formula for affordability provided by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is as follows:

  • Acutely low income: 0%-15% of AMI
  • Extremely low income: 15%-30% of AMI
  • Very low income: 30% to 50% of AMI
  • Lower income: 50% to 80% of AMI; this designation may also be used to mean 0% to 80% of AMI
  • Moderate income: 80% to 120% of AMI

Given this formula, a household in the county making $122,307 is considered moderate income.

With the changes, very low income and low income units would both comprise 7.5% and moderate income units would comprise 5% of all future approved units.

The 20% requirement meets the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation, and calls for 246 very low income and 198 low income units in the county’s next eight-year plan, Reck said.

The affordable housing plans were previously reviewed by the Housing Advisory Committee, the Planning Commission, then the Board of Supervisors, which was “redundant,” Reck, the told the meeting.

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State awards first grants under new rural housing program

The $8.4 million in infrastructure grants go to five local government applicants, the first round of awards through a rural workforce housing initiative.

The Current is an inclusive nonprofit, non-partisan news organization providing in-depth watchdog journalism for Savannah and Coastal Georgia’s communities.

Housing troubles follow July flood

A house with a sign that says buy me out of the danger zone.
A house with a sign that says buy me out of the danger zone.
A new sign was added to a flood-damaged home on Lower Main Street in Johnson this week pleading for a buyout from the state, which may be accessible to some extremely damaged homes in the wake of the natural disaster. Photo by Gordon Miller

This article by Aaron Calvin was first published Aug. 17 in the News & Citizen.

A month following the flood that devastated towns along the Lamoille River — and that hit the village of Johnson particularly hard — a white sheet still hangs from a Lower Main Street home that reads “We Need FEMA” along with a phone number.

The occupant of the visibly gutted and severely damaged home could not be reached at that number, but Johnson Selectboard chair Beth Foy characterized her as a “known member of the community” who left town about a week after the flood.

This week a new sheet appeared, and in the same red letters, read: “Buy Me Out Gov. Danger Zone!”

Both messages seem directed at the state and Federal Emergency Management Agency, both of which could play a role in offering funding for renovation or, in extreme cases, a buyout of flood-damaged properties at fair market value.

In July, Gov. Phil Scott indicated that buyouts would likely take place in the hardest-hit areas. The state already used American Rescue Plan Act funds to establish a Flood Resilient Communities Fund last year.

The actual process for getting help from the state or federal government is complicated, drawn out and taxing, requiring far more than a white sheet hung across a doorway. Many of those most in need of assistance are no longer living at their former residences or are overwhelmed by the stress of the disaster.

Now, they also face a stiflingly bureaucratic process.

Lamoille County suffered the greatest amount of damage per capita in the Flood of 2023, as it has come to be called, though by the numbers, the more populous Washington County saw more widespread damage.

Damage reports revealed that 392 homes in Washington County and 181 in Lamoille were deemed uninhabitable, according to data from VTDigger, while 76 Lamoille residents reported needing shelter in the flood’s aftermath.

Volunteer coordinators with United Way of Lamoille County, which has managed 300 volunteers to provide nearly 3,000 hours of volunteer assistance for flood repair at 70 homes in Johnson and 65 homes in Cambridge, have seen a gap between damage and help provided by FEMA. United Way said 421 homes are registered for assistance in Lamoille County, with 165 of those located in Johnson.

“While we appreciate FEMA working with our state representatives and communities, the processes are complicated,” volunteer coordinator Sarah Henshaw said. “People are frustrated and overwhelmed with trauma, mounting costs and lack of housing. We are working to get training by FEMA representatives in our communities and training volunteers to go house to house to support our community members with the paperwork, something that is becoming more acute as we get closer to the (Sept. 12) deadline to register with FEMA.”

The federal agency has set itself up for the long haul in Johnson. The FEMA disaster recovery center is now at Vermont State University’s McClelland Hall on College Hill for residents who need questions answered, assistance with forms and filings, and other information about the recovery process.

While $11.4 million in housing assistance has already been distributed by FEMA throughout Vermont, just $2.4 million has gone to renters, many of whom were among the most displaced by flooding in Johnson and Cambridge.

“In a state and county with a low vacancy rate and not enough affordable housing, those that can’t (or shouldn’t) return to their homes don’t have a place to stay while homes are being repaired or housing buyouts take place,” Henshaw said. “Even with funds for rental assistance, which don’t meet the needs, there aren’t enough spaces available. People are getting worried about what will happen as we get closer to the winter months, and they still don’t have repaired homes or a new place to stay.”

Renters displaced

Eddie Bressel once rented an apartment on Railroad Street in Johnson and had to be saved by his family as floodwaters rose to his chest. Bressel told a television station at the end of March that he was now living with his family.

The building on Railroad Street where Bressel lived is owned by Rene and Christina Cotnoir. The landlords were on the scene assessing their properties in the flood’s immediate aftermath.

They’re still at it. A handful of the couple’s units sustained repairable damage and eight units need to be completely rebuilt.

“We won’t be back in business for months,” Rene said.

Brian Duda, another former Railroad Street resident, is also unable to live in his former apartment as it undergoes renovation. He’s lucky enough to have landlords willing to be flexible, allowing him to break the lease if he’d like to seek housing elsewhere.

Like Bressel, he’s living with family and hasn’t found much within his price range in the Lamoille region. With few viable alternatives, he’s considering returning to Railroad Street but has some concerns.

“I definitely have concerns about whether there is hidden mold or anything like that. It could affect my health, and the risk of it flooding again and just not wanting to have to go through this whole thing again is another big factor,” Duda said.

Some have been lucky enough to have employers with housing. A handful of Stowe Mountain Resort employees, with their dependents and pets, have been put up at resort-owned housing for free, according to spokesperson Courtney DiFiore.

In Cambridge village, Jenn Huante, who was distraught after her apartment flooded as she needs to be near her sick father, will soon be able to return. But another local renter, Joshua Carpenter, recently took to an online forum to seek advice, alleging that his landlord broke his lease and wouldn’t return his damage deposit.

“It’s put a lot of people in very difficult situations, as the rental market was already really tight before this crisis,” said Jessica Hyman, an executive with the Fair Housing Project, part of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. “There just simply aren’t enough homes out there, and what’s out there isn’t affordable.”

The Fair Housing Project has a flood response guide for renters on its website and Hyman urged anyone whose rental situation was affected by the disaster to call the hotline at 802-864-0099.

Loans and buyouts

As landlords, the Cotnoirs qualify as a small business, and could potentially qualify for a disaster loan through the Small Business Administration, which works with FEMA to lend at more favorable terms to businesses and homeowners than typical banks. Rene Cotnoir said he was going to seek SBA help.

They aren’t alone.

Carl Dombek, a spokesperson with the administration, said that 78 applicants have been referred to the administration by FEMA, 50 of which were homeowners. Dombek said the SBA has already approved more than $800,000 in loans in Lamoille County and $9.4 million across the state.

Some homeowners are investigating whether their buildings meet the significant damage threshold, meaning renovation costs would have to be 50% or higher of the assessed value the day before the flood, to qualify for state or federal buyout.

Like FEMA, the deadline for seeking flood assistance from the administration is Sept. 12, and Dombek urged people not to wait for an insurance assessment before applying.

At a meeting hosted by regional floodplain manager Rebecca Pfeiffer in Johnson last week, Foy said nearly 50 residents sought information about buyout programs.

Nearly 30 mobile homes, mostly located in the riverside trailer parks located on the town’s western edge, have been officially condemned.

“It’s a pretty bad situation regardless of the circumstances and the benefits available,” Johnson’s Foy said of the buyout meeting and options for federal aid. “Whatever road you end up going down, it’s going to take a long time, that much was very clear.”

In Cambridge, town administrator Jonathan DeLaBruere said four or five building owners in the village had applied for buyouts.

In the meantime, some organizations are literally handing out money. In Johnson last week, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, as two men named Steven from Hickey & Foster Real Estate — firm co-founder Steven Foster and agent Steven Lawrence — sat outside Jenna’s Café handing out checks.

The checks came from funds raised by the Vermont Association of Realtors, where Foster serves as board vice-president. The two Stevens said the people receiving the checks applied for one of two disaster relief funds managed by the statewide association.

The two relief funds are the Disaster Relief Fund, which provides up to $500 in immediate financial assistance, and the Realtors Relief Foundation, which provides financial assistance for “homeownership-related challenges,” including support for renters.

Vermonters can apply for funding from both, although the Realtors Relief Foundation money — a $500,000 grant from the National Association of Realtors — takes four to five weeks, whereas checks from the other fund are cut quickly.

Those were the checks that Foster and Lawrence handed out last week on Johnson’s Main Street. Lawrence said he and Foster could have simply mailed the checks, but found face-to-face time with recipients, at a bustling hub in a flood-ravaged town, helped lift everyone’s spirits.

Tommy Gardner contributed to this report.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Housing troubles follow July flood.

Walking the ‘Fine Line’ of Rural Development and Gentrification

The Tucker, Barbour, and Randolph County pocket of central West Virginia is a beautiful part of the state. Embraced by the million-acre Monongahela National Forest, the region has become a prized location for well-appointed second homes and retirement tranquility. There’s lots to do: ski resorts, both downhill and cross country; vast miles of hiking and biking trails; campgrounds galore – an outdoor recreation mecca.

All of which is a boost to the local economy. And it’s needed. The coal industry, which once helped fuel this economy, has been in steady decline. Barbour County ranks 51st of West Virginia’s 55 counties in per capita income – this in the third-poorest state in the country. And though Tucker County, to the east, is faring better, few are getting rich.

For three decades, Woodlands Development Group has advanced economic opportunities in these three heavily rural counties while striving to keep them affordable. It’s a delicate balance.

Woodlands develops sustainable, affordable housing and supports economic initiatives in Barbour, Randolph, and Tucker counties. It assists with the development of parks, trails, community centers, and greenspaces. Its lending arm, Woodlands Community Lenders, offers access to capital and technical assistance to businesses and nonprofits.

The Tucker County towns of Thomas and Davis, each with a population under 1,000, have become attractive art and outdoor recreation destinations, with thrumming downtown businesses in storefronts that once stood shuttered.

But shadowing this boon are concerns that the artists/entrepreneurs and others who reanimated these streets will no longer be able to afford to reside here and that this same dynamic could eventually play out across the region.

“We weren’t working on building a cool little destination town,” said Seth Pitts, an artist and gallery owner in Thomas. Rather, the vision was to build a community “where we want to live. I’m just hoping the people who helped revitalize the downtown are able to stay here.”

Woodlands Development Group shares that ambition.

‘We’re Present’

The group is headquartered in the town of Elkins, in Randolph County, which borders, to the south, Barbour and Tucker counties. The organization was launched in 1995 by the Randolph County Housing Authority as a “nimble” resource, in Executive Director Dave Clark’s words, to address affordable housing. It’s evolved over the years.

Dave Clark is executive director of Woodlands Development Group, which develops sustainable, affordable housing and supports economic initiatives in West Virginia’s Barbour, Randolph, and Tucker counties. (Photo by Taylor Sisk)

Downtown renovation is a primary focus.

“We make direct investments in downtown buildings,” Clark said, “but we also can support private developers and private building owners, particularly if they want to take an old building and convert it from vacant space into a marketable space. So we’ll help them with the whole gamut.” That can include design, construction estimates, financing, and more.

“We’ve gotten more and more involved with tax-credit programs,” Clark said, “which really are the big-dollar programs in community development across the country – historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits, predominantly.”

“I like to think of Woodlands as, first and foremost, a community-planning and organizing entity,” he said, which is why it remains largely focused on those three core counties. They comprise some 2,000 square miles but only 50,000 people. That focus allows the Woodlands staff to “keep our finger on the pulse and be more responsive and engaged.”

“I don’t think we’re doing anything magical or special,” Clark said. Staff members live throughout the region, attending city council meetings, joining the Rotary Club. “We’re present.”

“They’re holistic in nature,” said Vonda Poynter, senior vice president of membership for Fahe, a network of community-building Appalachia-based nonprofits, of which Woodlands is a member.

“Some organizations can’t step out of their lane to address an issue,” Poynter said, whereas Woodlands offers “creative solutions” designed to meet each need.

Downtown Abuzz

Elkins, a town of 7,500, has long been the hub of this three-county region. Among its attractions are the depot from which five scenic Durbin and Greenbriar Valley Railroad excursions embark. The Augusta Heritage Center holds a three-week summer event featuring world-class musicians. And the Mountain State Forest Festival attracts up to 100,000 people each autumn.

Woodlands’ biggest project to date is currently underway in downtown Elkins: a revitalization of the grand old Tygart Hotel. The hotel was converted to apartments a half-century or so ago and had incrementally fallen into “what we often refer to as ‘housing of last resort,’” Clark said.

In 2015, community leaders asked if Woodlands would be interested in purchasing the building and restoring it to its hotel origin. “I honestly didn’t think it would ever fly as a hotel,” Clark said. Woodlands brought in a Virginia group that specializes in boutique hotels. “They came back, and the numbers looked really pretty good; they thought there was a lot of potential.”

“Someone might have said, in a feasibility study, ‘It’d be better to tear that sucker down and build new – which you might have spent just about the same amount of money on,” Poynter said. “But doing something that preserves a building and invests in the community in that manner is, again, a very holistic approach to their housing and community-development work.”

Woodlands’ biggest project to date is the revitalization of the Tygart Hotel in Elkins, scheduled for completion by the end of the year. This is an architect’s rendering of the finished building.
(Photo courtesy of Woodlands Development Group)

The 56-room Tygart Hotel is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, a $17-million-plus project.

Meanwhile, Woodlands Development Group is working with six new downtown-building owners, assisting with renovations. Young people who had left are returning and investing.

Among the businesses that will be making its downtown debut is Big Timber Brewing – owned by locals who returned, and one of Woodlands’ first borrowers – which will be relocating its taproom a block from the hotel. And the local development authority recently received funding to build an event center.

The hotel project has “definitely facilitated a lot of development,” Clark said.

‘A Direct Connection’

The town of Thomas is 37 vertiginous miles to the northeast up two-lane U.S.-48. “Hidden gem” is the all-too-well-worn term used to describe Thomas and its sister town, Davis, six miles farther along 48.

A couple of dozen relatively new storefronts, most of them formerly abandoned, now adorn Thomas’s Front Street. About two-thirds of them, Clark estimates, are operated by local artists. Woodlands has played a critical role in this development.

Seth Pitts is an illustrator and writer who’s been foundational to the town’s revitalization. He and his business partners received a loan from Woodlands to purchase the building that became both his gallery and home.

“I don’t think a bank necessarily would have loaned to us,” Pitts said. “But they know us,” he said of Woodlands. Woodlands’ staff’s direct connection to the community, he said, allowed for them to “look at our assets in a more creative way” – to appreciate what they brought to the community.

Finding the Balance

Given that so much of the surrounding acreage is protected parkland, potential options for new housing development in the region are limited.

A four-lane road now connects Davis to the Washington, D.C., metropolis. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive that used to take four.

Clark noted that second-home development and Airbnb conversion are incrementally nudging folks out of Davis and Thomas. Workforce families are migrating down toward the town of Parsons, 15 miles to the south, which, he said, isn’t an ideal alternative. It’s a 2,000-foot climb from Parsons to Thomas, a drive that can be treacherous in the winter.

Barring Airbnbs outright is probably not the right solution, Pitts said. More practical is encouraging structures that combine a unit or more of affordable housing with Airbnb or something else that accommodates the owner recouping their investment.

A bottom-line objective in future development, he said, should be promoting solutions that facilitate those who’ve put in the sweat equity to continue pursuing their ambitions.

Back in Elkins, Dustin Smith reflects on that town’s past and future. Smith, Woodland’s director of project development, is a northern Pennsylvania native who came to work for the group a decade ago as an AmeriCorps member and stayed on.

“I feel like I’ve seen a lot of change in the last 10 years, and it feels like we’re really kind of on the precipice,” he said.

Clark agrees: “It feels like Elkins maybe hasn’t turned the corner but is getting there. More storefronts are open and you’re seeing many more people downtown at night.”

Smith recognizes that delicate balance: “Rural gentrification is a fine line.”

“It’s exciting,” Clark allowed, “but it’s also a little unsettling. There’s an element of, ‘What are we contributing to?’ But, “so far, from my perspective, I think we’re on the right track.”

The post Walking the ‘Fine Line’ of Rural Development and Gentrification appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Housing policy conference aims to streamline construction

Construction work at Riverview Estates. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The Practical Housing Policy Conference sponsored by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEC) brought local housing advocates, government officials and policymakers together at the California State University, Monterey Bay Alumni & Visitors Center on June 27 to discuss ways to reach affordable housing goals set by the state of California.

“You cannot recruit business, retain business or hire folks without thinking about housing that’s mixed-use, single-family, affordable or market rate,” said MBEC president Tahra Goraya. “It’s bringing doctors and teachers and others in, and it’s also making sure that farmworkers are housed.”

The state of California requires cities to create a compliant Housing Element plan every eight years and the next one is due Dec. 15. The plan must include a Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) requirement, an assessment of the number of new housing units that cities will require through the term of the plan. In Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, that number is set by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments. The San Benito Council of Governments makes the same assessment for San Benito County, which is determined by the county’s median income.

The Practical Housing Policy Conference sponsored by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership. Photo by Robert Eliason.
The Practical Housing Policy Conference sponsored by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership. Photo by Robert Eliason.

According to MBEC Director of Housing and Community Development Gabriel Sanders, a recent study by the organization revealed that the deep need for affordable housing in California is the result of historical and cultural trends. 

In San Benito County, the RHNA is based on a median family income of $105,100 and would require the county to build 5,005 new housing units by the end of 2031. Of that number, 2,947 would be required to be affordable housing.

For Hollister, that would mean building 2,350 affordable housing units out of the 4,163 units required. San Juan Bautista would need 50 affordable units out of the 88 required. The unincorporated areas of the county would need 547 affordable units out of the 754 required.

The results of the MBEC study released in June 2023 recommended five major policy changes to expedite the building of homes needed to relieve the crisis. 

Streamline permitting and reduce discretionary reviews  

The study suggested that discretionary reviews by planning commissions, city councils or the San Benito County Board of Supervisors can introduce challenges to housing approval which are subjective and not necessarily written into law. It recommends “right of approval” mechanisms that would require objective standards which, once met, would override the opposition and streamline the steps leading to construction.

Increase allowable densities

The study advocates for more “efficient use of vacant or non-vacant land” by increasing height limits, increasing the amount of area in a parcel that can be used as floor space, removing units-per-acre limits, and creating bonuses for affordable housing projects which take advantage of all allowable density regulations. Under the plan, parking requirements for new housing units would be reduced or eliminated, suggesting that building near local mass transit would reduce car dependency and thereby reduce the need for more parking.

Reform impact fees

Because impact fees for construction are set at the same rates regardless of size, a 4,000-square-foot home is assessed at the same fee as a 400-square-foot apartment. The study recommends scaling fees by square footage rather than by unit, which would create an incentive to build smaller and more affordable units. The plan also recommends deferring all impact fees until units are ready to be occupied rather than when they are in their early stages. This would delay cities collecting the fees for around two years but would save the developer from having to finance those costs.  

Increase funding sources for affordable housing

According to the study, smaller communities do not have equal opportunities for state and federal resources because they do not have sufficient matching funds. Raising funds through bonds typically requires a 66% voter threshold which may be difficult to reach. In an example drawn from Santa Cruz County, a local parcel tax measure received only 55.9% of the vote, leading to a recommendation that the required threshold be lowered to 55%, a point where passage is more readily assured. Other recommendations include locating unused publicly owned land which could be developed as affordable housing and partnering with local agencies to find otherwise inaccessible funds such as those earmarked for educational or public health institutions.

Optimize inclusionary housing ordinances

The study recommends creating incentives for affordable housing projects through offering bonuses, deferring fees, or making concessions on conditions which place a burden on developments that include inclusionary components. This would allow developers to increasethe number of affordable housing units that would fit their projects.

The study concluded that local policymakers who create zoning rules, set fees and approve developments might not be in step with best practices in the drive toward creating more affordable housing. It recommended that all of these issues be revisited regularly to ensure that policies remain suited to the ever-expanding need for affordable housing.

“This is not just a paper exercise we are doing,” Goraya said. “These are not just boxes. These are homes where people will live. There are a lot of rules when it comes to building affordable units and development, but there are ways to optimize them that do incentivize more affordable housing and greater density.”

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Frustrated rent control advocates say Fresno leaders aren’t listening, but the fight isn’t over

Community residents and housing advocates are regrouping after an unsuccessful push for Fresno’s new city budget to include a rent control program. 

“Community members are disappointed, and there really is this feeling that their narratives, their testimony aren’t being taken seriously,” said Marisa Moraza, a campaign director with Power California Action.

That fight, advocates acknowledge, is an increasingly uphill battle in Fresno, where the mayor and city council have said solving the statewide housing crisis means incentivizing development and courting reinvestment.

Rent control, they argue, would be counterproductive to building new housing units.

“In terms of rent control, I can tell you I don’t support that because I’ve seen what has happened in other cities,” Mayor Jerry Dyer said during a news conference Thursday following the budget’s adoption. “When rent control is implemented, ultimately, you have landlords making fewer dollars, and so they’re not investing in their property. And as a result, we end up with a lot of slums within a city.”

Despite lingering frustrations, housing advocates say they aren’t backing down on their demands.

In May, a coalition of advocacy organizations sent a letter to Dyer and the Fresno City Council, listing a series of budget requests on everything from transportation and infrastructure to housing and, specifically, a new rent control program.

In the letter, advocates said the city should establish a board to enforce rent-control policies, which, they say, would stabilize rents in Fresno.

“We wanted to also wrap in the opportunity to actually allocate funding for something like a rent control program,” Moraza said. “It would be a very low funding allocation, but just having that allocation then opens the door to conversation of building up a policy.”

Mayor, council push to build more affordable housing, remain opposed to rent control

Just before the city council approved the 2024 fiscal year budget Thursday, a group of community residents and housing advocates, with signs in hand, rallied inside the Fresno Council Chambers.

“What do we want? Rent Control!” The group chanted. “When do we want it? Now!”

About 15 seconds into the chant, Council President Tyler Maxwell put the city council meeting into recess for five minutes, and the city’s live feed and audio cut out shortly after.

The chant capped about two months of Fresno residents and housing advocates showing up to public comment before a city council – which they have noted is composed of a majority of landlords – to voice their concerns about rising rents.

“This is really like our final attempt to be able to speak directly to council members because the in-person meetings (with them) weren’t making a shift,” Moraza said. “We’re now seeing that public comment is not making a shift.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Dyer said the rent control issue was a nonstarter.

Dyer said passing rent control would send a message to housing developers to leave Fresno, which he said could lead to a lack of housing production and actually drive rents up. Dyer has maintained that the city can resolve its housing crisis by building more units, and rent control does not fit his vision.

Since 2021, 400 new affordable housing units have been built and are currently occupied in Fresno, city spokesperson Sontaya Rose told Fresnoland in May. She said the city plans to add 2,493 more affordable housing units by the end of 2025.

But when new affordable housing developments open up, applications pour in.

One 60-unit affordable housing development in Clovis recently received over 10,000 applications, and another 57-unit development that opened up in Fresno’s Chinatown received 4,000 applications, said Michael Duarte, the chief real estate officer at the Fresno Housing Authority, at a June 15 Fresnoland/CalMatters panel on housing.

Duarte added that the Fresno Housing Authority received 10,000 applications in less than one day for its Section 8 housing voucher waitlist. 

Rent control isn’t the only way to help tenants, leaders say

In an interview with Fresnoland, Fresno City Council President Tyler Maxwell said he sees both sides of the issue but said he believes rent comes down to simple supply-and-demand economics.

He added the best way to bring rent down is to increase the housing supply, and that means construction.

“These last three years, I can tell you that we have set a record when it comes to either subsidizing or helping initiate affordable housing projects here in the city of Fresno,” Maxwell said. “It’s a priority for not just this council but the mayor and his administration to really try to expedite as many housing projects as possible.”

In lieu of rent control, Maxwell said the council in recent years has taken steps to beef up some protections for tenants.

He pointed to the city’s Eviction Protection Program, which Maxwell co-authored in 2021.

The program, which provides legal representation for tenants facing eviction, wasn’t included in the proposed budget that Dyer released in May. 

Maxwell, the only city councilmember who rents his home, pushed to save the program with a budget motion to put $2 million towards the program’s third year. He said he hopes the program wouldn’t require a budget motion to get funding in the future.

“Going forward, my hope is that it starts getting baked into the proposed budget,” Maxwell said. “Ether because it’s a priority for the mayor or a priority for the city attorney.”

Maxwell added that another piece of legislation he authored, the Tenant Relocation Assistance Program, helps renters avoid getting displaced due to unhealthy or unsafe living conditions. The ordinance requires landlords to assist with the expense of relocating tenants to complete needed renovations or face fines.

However, the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a key COVID-19-era effort that provided assistance with rent and utility bills to Fresno residents who met income requirements, is going away soon. The $54 million from federal and state governments that funded the program is almost depleted, and the remaining $2.5 million in funding remaining for the program will likely get spent in the next fiscal year.

With no city funding to keep the program around next year, it will likely end soon.

“There was a lot of community momentum and energy that really shows that folks care about this issue,” said Marisa Moraza, a campaign director with Power California Action. “We will continue to push for this rent control demand.”

The post Frustrated rent control advocates say Fresno leaders aren’t listening, but the fight isn’t over appeared first on Fresnoland.

Former Athens housing authority director sentenced for multi-million dollar theft

Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders presents to visiting judge Daniel Hogan, while Jodi Rickard sits with her attorney, K. Robert Toy. Photo by Dani Kington.
Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders presents to visiting judge Daniel Hogan, while Jodi Rickard sits with her attorney, K. Robert Toy. Photo by Dani Kington.

ATHENS, Ohio — Former Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority Director Jodi Rickard pleaded guilty to seven felony charges on Tuesday as part of a deal with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office.

Rickard was indicted in February on charges related to her multi-million dollar theft from AMHA. Visiting Judge Daniel Hogan sentenced Rickard to eight to 12 years in prison and ordered her to pay more than $2.3 million in restitution. She will be eligible for judicial release after five years and will spend five years on parole once she is released.

AMHA’s attorney David Mott said at the hearing, “​​This was not just a simple theft of taxpayer funds — these were funds intended to provide housing to low income residents of the county. So, this was essentially a theft of decent housing from our most vulnerable neighbors.” 

Matthew R. Eiselstein, director of communications for the Ohio Auditor of State’s office, said, “We’re proud of the efforts of our [Special Investigations Unit] team and appreciate the efforts of Prosecutor [Keller] Blackburn’s office in bringing this crime to a conclusion.”

Rickard initially pleaded not guilty to all charges, but changed her plea as part of a deal with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. Hogan sentenced Rickard according to the terms described in the agreement. 

At the hearing, Rickard’s attorney, K. Robert Toy, agreed with Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders that evidence obtained in the case demonstrates Rickard’s guilt. 

“She is remorseful, and that is something that is sincere,” Toy said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people — usually with much smaller amounts it happens: They take a little bit, they intend to pay it back, and then they take a little more, and they intend to pay that back, and they don’t. And then it snowballed into the tremendous amount that we’re dealing with here today.” 

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn agreed. “What she did was reprehensible and wrong, but her actions after she got caught were among the best that we’ve experienced,” he said, adding that this is reflected in the plea agreement. 

In addition to prison time, the plea agreement specified that Rickard will pay $2,325,395.12 in restitution to AMHA. Saunders said that amount is based upon the Ohio Auditor of State’s investigation into Rickard’s theft, though AMHA acting director Stan Popp told the Independent the state investigation remains ongoing.

AMHA’s last released audit indicates the housing authority had $6.51 million in revenue in 2020 to provide housing for low-income residents of Athens County. 

Popp reiterated the agency’s claim that “AMHA has not experienced any reduction in the services it provides as a result of [Rickard’s] theft. However, the loss of funds has slowed AMHA’s ability to expand its services.”

When Rickard was indicted in February, investigators had identified at least $1.5 million in theft from the organization since 2015. Blackburn told the Independent at the time he believed the total amount Rickard stole was substantially greater. 

In order to pay the full amount of her restitution, Rickard forfeited 50% of assets in bank accounts held jointly with her husband; all bank accounts held by her alone; all money in her Ohio Public Employee Retirement System account and in her deferred compensation account; and all material goods obtained with stolen money.

Blackburn said it is unclear exactly how much money Rickard has in these accounts, but estimated the total amount at around $200,000. Rickard will have to pay the full restitution amount ordered based on her ability, he said.

Toy said, “She is giving up everything that she has.”

“Any restitution of funds AMHA receives will be reinvested into its mission,” Popp said. “Until an exact amount is known, AMHA is not able to be more specific.”

Popp said Rickard was not bonded, and while AMHA’s insurance may or may not cover any of the loss, the housing authority’s insurance policy limit is $250,000. 

“AMHA will never be made whole on the full loss,” Popp said.

Rickard also agreed to forfeit her Albany home and property as part of the agreement. Blackburn said that the home will be forfeited to law enforcement, with proceeds designated to pay for law enforcement investigation. Blackburn said the funding could be used to pay for the state auditor’s investigation. He added that he does not want his office to take in funding from the home’s sale and said he will seek an alternative arrangement with the court.

Rickard’s husband agreed that the property he shared with Rickard and the funding in joint bank accounts was subject to forfeiture. He was not required to accept these terms by law, and he was not indicted in the case.

“He’s going to be suffering because of her actions, and he is an unknowing beneficiary of her actions,” Toy said. 

Toy described Rickard’s family as among the victims of Rickard’s theft from AMHA.

“It’s brought huge consequences for her family and herself — for herself justified, and for her family, they’ve victims of this too, and they understand that, and they forgive her,” Toy said.

Rickard used AMHA funds to pay personal credit card debts as well as her mortgage, according to a February press release from the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. Rickard’s credit card payments showed charges for large sums spent on vacations and the installation of an in-ground pool, the release said.

Rickard allegedly stole large sums of money from AMHA’s General Fund, which has since been closed, and falsified financial reports. Search warrant documents obtained by the Independent paint a picture of highly unusual circumstances that led to the eventual discovery of Rickard’s theft, including an audit related to a 2022 office fire, a death in Rickard’s family which prompted her to take leave and an anonymous tip.

Eiselstein, with the state auditor’s office, said, “Criminals can certainly be clever and when they have the keys to the store, they can be hard to catch. A lack of fiscal controls enabled Jodi Rickard to obfuscate her criminal actions for years. As the sole bookkeeper operating under little oversight, Rickard was able to conceal her actions by falsifying documents and altering transaction records. Previous audits had identified weaknesses in financial reporting and oversight by management, but these recommendations were never implemented which allowed her to continue her grift against the taxpayers of Athens County for years.”

According to an affidavit included in the December 2022 search warrants served on AMHA, Rickard’s activity was successfully concealed for many years in part through “a lack of Board monitoring” and “went undetected by the Board due to lack of reviews and monitoring.” The affidavit alleges the board saw only summary income statements and performed no review of bank accounts or reconciliations.

Former board chair Mary Nally recently stepped down from the position after moving to Meigs County, she said. Gregg Andrews, a local realtor and Hocking Athens Perry Community Action’s longtime Housing and Community Development Director, now serves as board chair, Popp said.

The housing authority has taken steps to address the issues which led to Rickard’s theft, including changes to its financial processes.

Athens County Court of Common Pleas Judge George McCarthy presided over Rickard’s criminal case until May 18, after which Hogan took over as judge, according to Bre Woods, who works in McCarthy’s office. The court initially requested a visiting judge on Feb. 14, the day following Rickard’s indictment, Woods said.

Woods said the court sought a visiting judge because both McCarthy and Judge Patrick Lang appoint members to AMHA’s board, which was considered a conflict.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect comments from the Ohio Auditor of State’s office.

The post Former Athens housing authority director sentenced for multi-million dollar theft appeared first on Athens County Independent.

Lodging revenue continued climb in 2022, led by short-term rentals, report shows

Rural Communities Are Upbeat About the Future Despite Persisting Issues

A shortage of quality housing and struggling downtowns were among the top challenges rural community members face, according to consultants who help small towns identify and solve problems.

Save Your Towns is an Oklahoma and Mississippi-based group co-founded by Becky McCray and Deb Brown. They work to educate people on low- or no-cost solutions to problems in small towns across the U.S. and elsewhere. 

Since 2015, the women have been surveying residents about their towns. Survey participation is voluntary and self-selected, not based on scientific polling methods, but the online survey does offer a range of responses from people who identify as rural.

This year’s survey found that in addition to housing and downtowns, other challenges were not enough volunteers, losing young people, and a lack of childcare. 

Brown said the top community assets are natural resources, outdoor recreation, tourism, committed people in a good workforce, effective leaders, and arts, culture, and events. 

“Having said all of that, there are some big disconnects,” she told the Daily Yonder. “We uncovered that between what rural people want and what services and assistance are commonly offered to them.”

Brown said business owners and leaders said usable buildings are harder to find than loans, and they showed little interest in needing support with business plans or pitch competitions. 

The survey was open from November 11, 2022, to January 31, 2023. A total of 315 responses were collected online from subscribers and visitors to SaveYour.Town and, from media coverage and cooperating groups that publicized the survey.

Respondents self-identified themselves as rural, and 206 identified themselves as business owners. Participants included 295 from the United States, 11 from Canada, and six from Australia.

The self-selected participants were more optimistic about the economy than people who participated in the Daily Yonder’s 2022 scientific, randomized poll of rural voters.

In the Daily Yonder’s survey in October, nearly three quarters of rural respondents said the economy was not working well for them, and half said they expected their financial situation would get worse in the next year.

Poll director Celinda Lake said at the time that she was stunned by the depth of pessimism in the responses.

In the SaveYour.Town survey, nearly 40% of participants responded positively to the question, “Do you think your community will be better off in 10 years?”

“Rural people were twice as likely to say they were optimistic about their community’s future, as were negative about their community’s future,” she added. About half of respondents were neutral on the question.

“I was very happy to see how optimistic people were. And I think the thing that really surprised me, I was really pleased and surprised to see that events and arts and culture and education, and tourism were listed as one of the top community assets.”

McCray said the pair love to hear that people are using the survey results for educational purposes.

“We know it gets global attention,” McCray said. “Because what rural people say they need doesn’t always match the things that they’re offered, or the stories that we read, or the things that we hear on TV, or the reports, for example.”

The post Rural Communities Are Upbeat About the Future Despite Persisting Issues appeared first on The Daily Yonder.