I don’t know about you, but I distrust easy answers to hard questions. And we’re facing lots of hard questions, aren’t we? How do we tackle our stubborn levels of poverty? How do we heal from the events of August 11 / 12 2017 and move forward to a better, more just future? How do we balance the need for affordable housing with the desire to preserve the physical character of neighborhoods? How do we fund the necessary investments in our Schools?
Here, I lay out my own answers to these questions. This is very much a work in progress! I’m listening to hundreds of people around the City. I’m talking with leaders and activists. I want to honor the wisdom to be found in our community. If you have a different perspective on these things, please let me know. I want to be a good listener.
Affordable Housing is *the* issue of this election. The causes of the crisis are many: Being known as a great place to live means people want to live here. The University exerts a massive magnetic draw in terms of personnel, students, and business. And we’ve somehow let our existing public housing stock deteriorate to an unacceptable state.
How to move forward? I believe we should avoid both nostalgia about the past and simplistic answers about the future. We should be clear-headed and realistic about what we can do. We need to be honest with ourselves, and with each other, as to what cracking this particular nut may involve. This will require flexibility and a willingness to compromise…
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This is a regional issue; Charlottesville can’t solve it alone. So we need to coordinate closely with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission on the needs and strategies for the entire region. This in turn means we need to work closely with the surrounding Counties.
Rehabbing existing public housing stock is essential. It’s unethical to require people to live in housing that doesn’t meet modern standards for safety and health.
We need to adopt a Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws that are modern and forward-looking. Tons of good work is being done on this right now by members of the Planning Commission. We need to find ways to increase density without damaging the physical character of existing neighborhoods.
Some have called for a total elimination of R-1 zoning in the City. I don’t agree with that. I do, however, believe that R-1 should be both reduced in geographic area and “softened” by reducing requirements around, for example, lot sizes and on-site parking. The idea of permitting triplexes and quadplexes in these contexts should also be explored.
Other ideas are to incentivize Accessory Dwelling Units and sub-letting (by on-site homeowners, not absentee landlords). We should make the approval process for these easier.
A root-and-branch overhaul of NDS and the permitting process is overdue, to be implemented according to the recent NDS efficiency study.
We should also continually remind the University of the role it plays in the housing crisis. It has been suggested that the University change its housing policy to require both first and second year students to live on Grounds. That would certainly improve the housing market for all.
RACIAL JUSTICE AND AUTHENTIC RELATIONSHIP
The events of the Summer of 2017 not only ended in terrible tragedy. They also led to a deep soul-searching by all of us on the question of race.
True, the bitter facts of slavery and of segregation were plenty evident if we had been paying attention. So too were the legacies of these past evils: Neighborhoods that are largely de facto segregated, high levels of poverty among African-Americans, significant disparities in educational outcomes among students, and the implicit racism in so many of our institutions (e.g., criminal justice and healthcare).
The destruction of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s, in the name of “urban renewal,” remains, as one citizen told me recently, a huge gash across our City. Many see the creeping gentrification of neighborhoods like 10th & Page as a slow-motion reenactment of that tragedy…
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The 2012 University Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE) report was a starting point for recent discussions. It spoke of seeking: truth, understanding, repair, and authentic relationship. I believe we as a community should dust off that report, see what progress we’ve made, and continue to move forward.
I am a son of the Deep South. Where I grew up it’s not implicit racial bias that’s the issue; it’s explicit racial bias. So for all our City’s tragedies -- and they are many -- I am heartened that people here have an awareness of, and a desire to overcome, the sins of the past in a way that so many other communities lack.
For my own part, if I am elected, I would prioritize these three things:
- I would recognize that probably the best thing I can do is to listen -- not try to “fix” things. This will involve conversations across a range of contexts - churches, front doors, and neighborhood forums. I’m already doing this, now, as a candidate.
- I would acknowledge that authentic racial justice requires addressing inequities in housing, education, and income. I would advocate for the funding / budget priorities that this entails.
- I would lobby the General Assembly to permit us to remove the Lee and Jackson statues. The case for their removal is -- especially after 2017 -- compelling.
Public education is one of the greatest responsibilities of local government. While clearly our Schools can’t do everything for our children, they can and should do more. The New York Times article last Fall highlighted significant disparities in educational outcomes between African-American and white students. That wasn’t “news” to observant parents, of course…
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I believe that modern, up-to-scratch school facilities -- for all children, no matter what part of the City they come from -- will improve equity. The School Board has proposed (for quite awhile now) that we renovate Buford and make it a true middle school (6th through 8th). This will reduce the number of transitions during these crucial years. Pre-K would be centralized at Walker with a wrap-around learning center. 5th grades would then be moved out to the elementary schools.
While surrounding jurisdictions have invested over $500M over the last decade, we’ve gone decades without significant facility investments. This seems unacceptable to me. I realize this is a heavy lift: a $60M to $80M investment.
Operationally, we need to think about class sizes, teacher and staff salaries, and the impact of housing costs on these public servants. This too will require significant, ongoing funding.
I fully support these investments. Everyone in our City benefits from having excellent schools that serve all our children well. We will need to build partnerships with the University and with the business community to help make this happen.
Other key equity pieces here have to do with funding tutoring for younger kids who need it, boosting AVID, rethinking our “gifted” program, and supporting programs to help Instructional Assistants (often persons of color) become teachers. Obviously, the responsibility for implementing these things falls to the School Board. But Council should support their efforts.
REDUCING INCOME INEQUALITY
If you’ve not had a chance to read the Orange Dot Report put out by PVCC you really should. It makes for sobering reading.
In a City with a world-class University, where the median income is $72,000, where collectively our residents make $1.4 Billion per year, fully 25% of families don’t earn enough to cover the costs of basic survival expenses (food, shelter, clothing) plus costs associated with working (transportation and child care).
This sort of stratification is not uncommon for University towns. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow reinforces this.
I believe this situation is unacceptable. What is to be done…
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On the “cost” side of the equation, we need to attack the high cost of housing. We should increase the frequency of bus routes so that public transportation can be a reliable way to get to work. We should explore more and better ways to provide childcare. And we should better coordinate among nonprofits to maximize efficiency of service.
On the “income” side of the equation, the City should strengthen its own GO program. We should encourage programs like PVCC’s Network2Work program. A “living wage” for City and School employees is just a start. We should encourage and incentivize companies that do business with the City to pay a living wage. Finally, the City should fund the TJPDC’s effort to prepare a Regional Economic Development Plan.
There’s of course more to the story than income alone. We need to help people increase wealth. An example here is Habitat for Humanity. A Habitat home not only provides shelter for a family. It also gives them a way to build equity and thus create wealth to pass on to their children.
POLICING IN THE CITY
I want to demonstrate deep empathy toward people of color inasmuch as they are often treated unfairly by the justice system. Black lives do matter. As a parent, I am angry and upset that other parents’ children have a higher-than-average chance of being “stopped-and-frisked,” pulled over, arrested, or shot because of their skin color…
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For this reason, I fully support calls for an independent, fully-funded Police Civilian Review Board. It will provide transparency, accountability, and trust. Though getting the CRB “off the ground” has been difficult and contentious, I am confident we will find a model that works for our community.
We should not have to choose between holding the police accountable and supporting them. They are there to serve and protect, often at great personal risk. They’re people like the rest of us, who want to do their jobs and go home to their families.
To that end, we should give Chief Brackney the support she needs to stabilize and transform the CPD. We should match the pay scales of the University and Albemarle County Police Departments. And we should recognize the impact that lack of affordable housing has on all first responders.
SUPPORTING COMMERCE IN THE CITY
Often lost in our conversations are the needs of businesses and entrepreneurs. There have even been disputes between activists for social justice and the Downtown business community. This seems short-sighted to me.
A thriving commercial culture is crucial to a thriving City. We need businesses not only to bring in needed tax revenue but also to provide jobs to people who need them. They can help reduce poverty by giving people a foothold on the job ladder so that they move up to greater income. (PVCC’s Network2Work program is a fantastic model.)…
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Businesses (including builders and developers) will also play a huge role in resolving the housing crisis and in modernizing our schools.
To that end, we should better support the Downtown Mall as a jewel of Charlottesville. This means investments in parking and better maintenance of the Mall itself. It also means doing whatever we can to resolve that grotesque hulk of a structure that is the Landmark / Dewberry Hotel.
The City should also support the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s effort to prepare a Regional Economic Development Plan. Thinking regionally about wealth-creation through jobs is essential.
I hope that the business community will truly take on-board the very real issues facing our community in terms of housing, education, and reducing poverty. We need their help.
THE UNIVERSITY AND THE COMMUNITY: BOTH GREAT AND GOOD
In my conversations around the City it’s clear that people have mixed feelings about the University. On the one hand, people are so proud of our University. On the other, they see it as the source of many problems: from high housing costs, to creeping gentrification, to dominating the visual landscape.
Last October President Jim Ryan formed the UVA-Community Working Group. He wants to build bridges between the University and the community. In his words, UVA should be not only great but also good…
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The Working Group has submitted its report to President Ryan. The Group put forward four areas the University should prioritize in its engagement with the community:
- Jobs and Wages: Foremost here was the $15 living wage recently announced. Important, too, was the goal of providing work opportunities -- along with training -- such that marginalized populations can both get into and advance through the workforce.
- Affordable Housing: UVA should work with partners in the community to push forward practical affordable housing solutions.
- Public Healthcare: The University should work with partners in the community to ensure that all people in the community have access to affordable, quality healthcare.
- Education for our children: The University should collaborate with community partners to ensure that all our kids have the educational -- including early-childhood -- opportunities they need to thrive.
The report emphasizes that all partnerships should be: grounded in equity, community-centered, foster long-term relationships, be built on cultural humility, and prioritize progress and results.
The report also highlights the importance of institutional accountability at UVA. It’s one thing to promise to do better; it’s another to follow through on commitments. To that end, it recommends appointing a Vice President of Community Partnership who would oversee an Office of Community Partnerships and Social Impact.
Let’s all wish President Ryan the best as he works to implement the Working Group’s recommendations.
TRANSPORTATION AND TRANSIT
I believe we need to change the mindset around public transportation. It needs to move from being something primarily intended for folks who have no other way to get around. It should instead become so reliable and prompt that everyone will want to use it. That way it will improve for all residents. The key here is to increase the frequency of routes, which will require financial investment.
We should also strengthen the Regional Transit Partnership (JAUNT, CAT, UTS) as recommended by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
Obviously, whatever we can do to increase multi-modal transportation is important. One concrete proposal here is to fund and complete the Greenbrier Greenway Trail System. This won’t just benefit folks in Greenbrier. It will provide a way to get from Bodos on Emmett up to Greenbrier Elementary and then down to Downtown. Refugee children who live in Hearthwood Apartments will be able to safely get to school. And folks who’ve lost their licenses will be able to ride a bike to get to work…
THE ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE
The most significant levers of policy and action to prevent catastrophic climate change are obviously at the federal and state levels. Still, there’s much we can do here in Charlottesville.
There’s a fantastic network of environmentalists here in Charlottesville, ranging from non-profits like LEAP and the Charlottesville Climate Collective, to staff members at the University, County, and City…
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As a City, we should remain committed to the Global Covenant of Mayors greenhouse gas reductions agreement which calls for carbon neutrality by 2050 (per the IPCC). Charlottesville’s Climate Protection Program has completed Phase 1, the Inventory of Emissions. Phase 2 - Targets for Reductions -- is due soon. Strategies for the City will then follow.
Here are some specific ideas:
- Higher density in general, makes us less impactful on the planet. We should emphasize redevelopment over new development.
- We should improve out tree canopy and greenery more generally.
- We should ensure that new zoning laws are less car-centric.
- We should emphasize multi-modal transportation, as with the Greenbrier Greenway Trail System.
- As to renewables, we should incentivize solar panels for residences and businesses, and should require them on City buildings.
- As to energy efficiency for municipal properties and systems, we should: Require LEED standards for renovations and new construction; pursue Energy Star Certification for all our buildings; perform retro-commissioning and update building automation systems for HVAC systems; improve fleet standards; deploy smart grids; and install LED lighting.
- As to energy efficiency for residential and commercial properties, we should subsidize energy audits and weatherizing.
- As to recycling, we should set a City policy that no single-use plastics are to be used in its facilities or at its functions. We should put “positive peer pressure” on local businesses to move from plastic to paper bags.
- Finally, in terms of climate resilience, we need to prioritize infrastructure improvements like installing / upgrading storm sewer systems.
CIVILITY AND THE NEW NORMAL IN CHARLOTTESVILLE
Many residents, especially older ones, are concerned about a loss of “civility” in Council meetings. They hope for a return to a “normal” government.
After all, it’s hard to get the City’s business done when meetings are interrupted and speakers are shouted down. Outside entities -- bond ratings agencies, for example -- lose confidence in our ability to properly manage our affairs. More significantly, many people have “checked out” of civic life because they find the current environment hostile and polarizing.
I can certainly appreciate these points. However, I think the following is also an important perspective: We should acknowledge that anger is a valid emotion and that many of our residents have justifiable reasons to be angry. If I lived in substandard housing, or if my son were “stopped-and-frisked” for no apparent reason, I would be angry, too…
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As to the word “civility” itself, it really speaks to formal politeness, a way of speaking and acting that have the form of “respectable” language and behavior. But I believe that what people really want is substance: generosity of spirit, sincerity of action, genuine care. People -- when they speak and act -- want to be treated as humans, with all the rights and dignity that entails.
It is undeniably true that historically marginalized groups (especially African-Americans) have been pushed to the side in the past. They’ve been told (in so many words), “Be quiet.” For them, past “normalcy” was not a good thing. So it’s altogether right and fitting that their voices take a central place. Those of us who have not experienced such marginalization -- people like me -- need to listen and listen well.
These things said, the following also seems true: In our desire to elevate all voices, it is self-defeating to dehumanize, along the way, others who disagree with us. And the thing about dehumanizing behavior and language is that it’s specific to the individual. What one person thinks is fine to say, another may find deeply offensive. So, for example, yelling at someone, or calling them a “racist,” when debating housing policy seems wrong.
Both love for neighbor and justice for all requires that we extend to others the courtesy that we desire for ourselves. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That is what I aspire to do.
Charlottesville has a City Manager form of government, which is a very common model for cities of our size. City Council hires, provides oversight and general direction to, and holds accountable a single professional. The City Manager is then responsible for the actual management of all City government functions…
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Some have called for a “strong Mayor” form of government. This is largely due to the City’s failures during the events of the Summer of 2017.
I personally see no value in pursuing such a change. It would first require approval by the General Assembly, which would be difficult to obtain. Beyond that, I worry that a “strong Mayor” form would overly politicize the role. It would also be challenging to find a person who combines both the technical expertise and the political mandate to fit the bill. Finally, changing the City’s chief executive every four years would produce uncertainty among City employees.
I believe that if City Council and the new City Manager -- Dr. Tarron Richardson -- can build a strong relationship, we can make our City’s model of government continue to work. This means respecting the office and role of the City Manager and avoiding the temptation to somehow work around him.
It’s worth asking as to the actual purpose or role of the City government proper. People -- including me! -- often say that the City should do this or do that. But obviously city governments can’t do everything.
The following seem to me the essential things:
To meet those needs of a community which can only be met by an entity that has actual power. So, public safety, land use, and taxes are key here.
To set the conditions -- working with other partners in the community such as the non-profit sector -- for the entire community to thrive. So, allocating funds for specific needs via the budget process is critical here, as is having the city “machinery” (in particular, City employees) implement policy in an efficient and competent manner.
I believe keeping these things in mind will allow Charlottesville to prosper and thrive.
TOWARD A WELL-FUNCTIONING CITY COUNCIL
There is a perception, among a broad swathe of Charlottesville’s voters, that recent City Councils have been dysfunctional. True, the events of the Summer of 2017 were highly unusual and difficult to manage. Still, the perception remains.
Most visibly, this has spilled over into City Council meetings. Many residents feel there’s been a breakdown in “civility” which means that only the loudest voices get heard.
I think it’s worth asking two questions: What is the role of a City Councilor? What is the role of a Council meeting…
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To start with the second question, I believe that Council meetings should first-and-foremost be the venue in which the business of the City is conducted for all citizens -- not just those physically present. Second, Council meetings are a place to listen to requests from citizens, a point at which elected leaders can engage with the City’s residents.
What about the role of a City Councilor? Councilors are representatives of the electorate not mere designees. They absolutely need to be responsive to all citizens. They also need the freedom to exercise their own judgment.
I believe, too, that there’s a distinction between a Councilor being an advocate versus being driven by a narrow agenda. Councilors should absolutely advocate for initiatives that are important to them. But I believe that narrow agendas -- either over a radically divisive issue or toward future political office -- have no place on Council.
A successful Council requires strong relationships among Councilors. One often overlooked piece here is the challenge posed by Open Meeting Laws. These admirable laws, which ensure transparency in government, have the unintended consequence that Councilors can’t just “hash things out” in private.
As a result, Councilors should have lots of one-on-one, personal contact and relationship-building among them. Relationships are like plants: You’ve got to nurture them if you want them to exist. Waiting for a crisis is too late.
Honoring people and their personal story is a core value for me. I intend to build strong relationships with everyone on Council -- existing and new -- so that Council and the City function well.