Homeless SRO Facing Zoning Changes

A single-room occupancy (SRO) facility for the local homeless population has got some tough zoning problems ahead of it, Rachana Dixit writes for the Daily Progress today. SROs are tiny (200-450 square feet) studio apartments, often without per-unit bathrooms or kitchens, and have become popular among cities looking for transitional housing for single adults. Virginia Supportive Housing wants to reproduce here the SRO model that they’ve established elsewhere in the state, and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation has given the non-profit $75,000 to help make it happen. Planning commissioners are trying to figure out how to make such a development possible. The usual requirements for parking don’t apply—many residents wouldn’t own a vehicle—there would need to be on-site social services, and general mixed-use standards may not make sense. Establishing an SRO facility is important to Mayor Dave Norris, though, so expect to see a push to make this happen.

48 thoughts on “Homeless SRO Facing Zoning Changes”

  1. I get that these are meant for adults who might otherwise be homeless, but they sound like the perfect pad for a student, or someone going through a divorce. How will we make sure the SRO spaces will be occupied by those who demonstrate need? Or is that a factor?

  2. Bout time, I think, rents being what they are and a lot of folks are one paycheck from loosing it all… Always wondered why “we” give tax breaks to huge houses and nothing much to ideas like this.

  3. Exactly what tax break am I getting for my big house? Because last I saw, the property tax I sent the city of around 5K did not seem like a big break.

  4. So what we need is a large building with multiple floors of small rooms that would normally be considered too small for a traditional apartment, with kitchen access not necessary in the room, and where parking is not an issue. Also, preferably downtown, with great bus access.

    If only we had a very large, unfinished building that meets just about every one of those criteria already half-completed.

  5. Marijean, if you click on the link to Virginia Supportive Housing, you’ll see that they serve very low-income individuals and individuals with disabilities. I would imagine the process for determining eligibility is similar to the process used in determining eligibility for Section 8-type housing, and I suspect they’re pretty adept at making sure that rich folks looking to save a buck don’t get in.

  6. Exactly what tax break am I getting for my big house? Because last I saw, the property tax I sent the city of around 5K did not seem like a big break.

    If you have a mortgage on your big house, then your interest is deductible on your federal income tax. That’s a pretty big break and it’s one that renters don’t get.

  7. Good point, Harry. My mortgage interest is something like six times what I pay in property taxes.

  8. Well, since that is a deduction on a loan, not a big deduction on a house, and only subject to those that actually still are into their mortgages the sweeping statement is still a bit off. Additionally, the longer you own a house the lower your interest deductions become and the higher your taxes become. And since renters are also NOT subject to equity loss, nor taxes, and are not at risk for loss they do have some benefit.

    Additionally, anyone that thinks your mortgage loan deduction is a dollar for dollar deduction needs to pay a lot better attention to their taxes.

    So when Sara says she wonder why “WE” give BIG BREAKS to homeowners rather than to those that are NOT paying taxes, or at risk of loss, I wonder how she thinks the city funds silly little things like say…education?

    Or would a city filled with SROs be able to pay for itself?

  9. Here is another way to look at costs. If people are off the street and receiving basic services they may cost society less in health care, charitable services, etc. than it costs to provide very basic housing. People living outside are very vulnerable to illness and injury. They cost a fortune in emergency room care.

    The mortgage interest deduction is unfair to renters and to people who completely own their homes. It is bad tax policy. It is a factor in the subprime mortgage meltdown which has led to this recession. And it is such an entrenched entitlement that we are probably stuck with it forever.

  10. It seems that danpri has the best overall view of the finances of home ownership. I haven’t gotten a tax break on my house for years. Actually I probably got more from having children.
    I can not believe that anyone in his right mind is promoting living quarters without bathrooms. What do you do in the middle of the night, go knock on your neighbor’s door who is paying the rent in order to have a bathroom? What if he’s not in , asleep or does not like you. Maybe you can use a bed pan or use the portapotty behind the building. In the morning, maybe you can funk your way over to the Drop In center on 4th St. NW or the new downtown day center for the homeless and bath so that you can cheerfully start your day. Stroll down to the Nook or the Blue Moon and get your breakfast and then catch the bus to…
    Studio apartments have been used for quite a while in this country and they contain full baths and a kitchette. However, since these people are supposed “poor” I guess people feel they ought to be glad to get anything at all.
    If the city feels that studio apartments are a desirable housing type for residents of the city then they should be allowed in any zoning where multi-family housing is allowed.
    However, this is zoning specifically for a specific applicant VSH who is in the business of providing one room housing for the homeless and that’s where the rub comes in. They will be required to provide alcohol and drug treatment, mental illness treatment, job counciling, life-skills counseling, and increased public safety monitoring, all for a price starting at $50 a month. Who’s paying for it? VSH does not operate its housing as transitional, its residents can feel free to stay as long as they like. Supposedly, if they leave, they do so voluntarily. That’s why this project needs special zoning and the city wants to determin WHERE this facility can be located and what restrictions can be placed upon the residents and the operation before its built.
    Why does it have to been in the minute 11 sq. mi. of the city and not in, say, the 700 sq. mi. of Albemarle County? After all, the city already supports the largest amount of subsidized housing in central Va and the regions ONLY homeless shelter, and the county has bus service to Pantops and 29N, particularly around the best shopping place for the homeless, Wal-mart. From the VSH point of view, financing.
    The original proposal brought here from Richmond by VSH said it should cost about $6M to build the facility (not operate it) and they were requesting up front that the city consider donating 30% of that, or $1.8M, to them. Now, it has been estimated to cost additional $2M. Since VSH thought that they could only raise $4.2M in the first place, I guess they are expecting $3.8M from the city. If there are unforseen costs, such as improving sewer connections the city can be called upon to kick it in. Does anybody think the Albemarle would enter into this kind of agreement?
    From the “services providers” point of view, its most convenient for them because most of the service providers have their offices located in the city.
    From the surrounding counties (Fluvanna, Louisa, Albemarle, Nelson and Greene, among others), they can continue concentrated their resources on primarily more affluent home owners and tax payers.

  11. It seems that danpri has the best overall view of the finances of home ownership. I haven’t gotten a tax break on my house for years. Actually I probably got more from having children.

    I think Dan’s quite wrong. Soon—if I’m lucky—I’ll have a mortgage. In that first year, nearly every penny that I spend on my new house will be tax deductible. That’s a really significant cost saving from renting. My guess is that there aren’t a great many people out there who don’t owe a penny on their mortgage. If you own a house, odds are good that you’re making interest payments, in which case you’re getting a tax break. Saying that having a mortgage is not the same as having a house is literally true, but it’s like saying that the fact that you own a car doesn’t mean that you necessarily own tires—accurate, but really a distinction without difference.

    I can not believe that anyone in his right mind is promoting living quarters without bathrooms. What do you do in the middle of the night, go knock on your neighbor’s door who is paying the rent in order to have a bathroom?

    Well, no, you use the bathroom, like everybody else. :) Think of it as like a dorm: everybody gets a room, but you share communal bathrooms and kitchen facilities.

    I don’t have the faintest idea whether this SRO is planned without private bathrooms or private kitchens. I only wrote that SROs frequently provide communal bathrooms and kitchens. Doing so makes it significantly cheaper to build and maintain those facilities.

  12. SRO VSH&fr=robo&u=cvilletomorrow.typepad.com/charlottesville_tomorrow_/2009/04/single_room.html&w=charlottesville sro vsh&d=YfsT6UxISytZ&icp=1&.intl=us . Here they are talking about studios with “full kitchen and full bath” as in a “nursing home.” When the Planning Commission discussed the draft ordinance recently Tolbert posed as to whether each unit needed to have both. I did not hear a definitive answer. There was no discussion of any communal areas.
    As for interest, the loan is amortized. Although your mortgage payment will be the same throughout the life of the loan, portion will go to the interest and a portion will go to the principle. At the begining, >90% goes towards interest and

  13. I know too well how a mortgage works. :) My point is that it’s a really significant tax incentive to own a home. Come April 15, somebody spending $1,000 / month on a mortgage is left with a lot more money in their pocket than somebody putting the same amount of money towards rent.

  14. Yes, I have to agree with you there.
    I am glad that Charlottesville and the area counties have formed a regional housing committee whose name I believe has something to do with Housing Directors, possibly operating through the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. I remember David Toscano, while on Council, frequently advising the other councilors that the housing problem is a regional problem and that it would be unwise for the City to forge ahead on its own trying to solve it. He noted that the City and its surrounding counties whose initials form FLANG, shared in the $600k annual allocation for federal HOME funds. However, each locality spent its funds independent of the other. Of course, most of the counties chose to spend their money on home ownership and not on those in their communities who earned too little to own a home. The city, with housing opportunities for that neglected segment, became the Mecca for a lot of those people. He wanted a serious conversation with the FLANG to determine what, exactly, were they planning to do for their own indigent. So far, that conversation has never been held; however, I hope the City will not move forward in providing more publicly subsidized housing until this committee will address the issue. They tax payers of Charlottesville can not afford to house the region while the other counties spend their money on their wish lists.

  15. I think this is a great idea. There’s no money to be made on the development end of a project like this, which is why the private sector would never do this on its own. It seems like it can only be done through public means. Thank you, Dave Norris, for seeing that some humans beings need a little support and shouldn’t be out on the street because they have an impeding disability.

  16. Why should people who choose to rent have to provide a tax subsidy for people who choose to borrow money to “own” a home? We don’t subsidize most other types of loans through tax policy.

    I believe it will benefit the entire community, fiscally and otherwise, if the homeless population had year round shelter. It is important to eventually make this a regional effort so that no one locality ends up a magnet for the homeless.

  17. “There’s no money to be made on the development end of a project like this, which is why the private sector would never do this on its own.” How do you think Blue Ridge Commons and Garrett Square got built?

  18. “There’s no money to be made on the development end of a project like this, which is why the private sector would never do this on its own.” And WHY do you think Blue Ridge Commons, Garrett Square, and Midway Manor was built. There’s lots of money to be made by the owners of subsidized housing. Just ask the owners of Whitewood and Mall Side.

  19. Just ask VSH. There’re not volunteers doing a public service. They’re paid, well. Subsidized housing is a thriving industry.

  20. Cville Eye,

    If there’s so much money in developing affordable housing, why is there a shortage of affordable housing rather than a surplus? There is a demand for such housing; so, if there’s money in it, why isn’t our private sector responding to the demand? Easy…there’s no money in it. What we do have, instead, is a surplus of ginormous homes that were built for the affluent. Why? The same reason we build dumb, over-sized cars….there’s more money in it.

  21. “If there’s so much money in developing affordable housing, why is there a shortage of affordable housing rather than a surplus?” Now we’ve jumped to “affordable” housing. Before I respond I want to know exactly what Voice of Doom means by “affordable housing.”

  22. The reason I asked Voice of Doom to define “affordable housing” because most people in the industry do not mean subsidized housing when they speak of “affordable” housing. “Affordable” housing usually means housing that the customer can afford to pay for on his own. Perhaps “affordable housing” means subsidzied housing, housing the customer can not pay for on his own.

  23. My apologies Cville Eye. Maybe affordable housing isn’t the correct term. I am probably lumping affordable housing, subsidized housing, cheap housing, and housing for the mentally ill into one big category. I guess I didn’t think the distinction really mattered. Does it? I will venture to say that there is a shortage of and demand for all these and that few investors are thinking “Hmmm, I think I’ll get a good return on my money if I build something for a poor/sick/homeless person or family.”

  24. They are not building for the poor/sick/homeless person. They are building for the tax credits and the guaranteed income provided by HUD programs such as what used to be called “Section 8.” HUD uses these “incentives” for the private sector to provide the housing rather than the government’s having to manage and maintain an ever-increasing housing stock. In order to get the private sector to join in, the government realizes it has to be profitable.

  25. Selling lemonade in front of my house is profitable. It doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.

  26. “Selling lemonade in front of my house is profitable. It doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”

    VOD is that your entry in the non-sequitur of the day competition? Looks like you’ve got a winner! There are still 39 minutes left for someone to snatch it away though, so keep trying.

  27. “Cville eye, How do we house these folks on the street?” I’m not sure I understand the question. Maybe it should be “Is it the City’s responsibility to house these folks and, if so, why?”
    I believe Spenny is actually saying that even without kitchens and baths, the housing would be better than what THESE folks have now, even if they’re sleeping in the woods in the county. If that’s true, then why not get rid of neating facilities or even windows? That’s still more than what they’ve got now. Why not make a yurt settlement for THESE folks in the remainder of McIntire Park?

  28. A fantastic idea! For the sake of better integration though, I wish it could be multiple smaller homes utilizing existing housing stock, rather than a huge new (and possibly ugly) one. I hate the idea of segregating people away into one building or complex, but do understand the need to provide special central services to the resident population.

    Honestly, it does worry me that they (VSH, City) are being so mum about where they’ve been shopping for properties for this project. That tells me that perhaps we’re going to have a challenging time with transparency. It will be very important to make sure that any neighborhoods involved be allowed to have buy-in, rather than cramming this sort of density into an inappropriate spot. If this is allowed to happen, you can pretty much guarantee that the density of this project will then be used by developers and the PC to justify increasing density on any parcels nearby.

    Additionally, will SROs go into neighborhoods that are already bearing a disproportionate burden of LULU (local unwanted land use)– conditions like industrial and commercial blight, etc? Or will they go into the more powerful neighborhoods that have been impacted far less throughout the years? The zoning decisions made during this process will be very interesting.

  29. “Honestly, it does worry me that they (VSH, City) are being so mum about where they’ve been shopping for properties for this project.” Government agencies are allowed by law to remain mum and the discussions are allowed to be held behind closed doors in closed sessions.
    “Or will they go into the more powerful neighborhoods that have been impacted far less throughout the years?” Is this a way to say “This is a great idea but not in my back yard?” If it’s such a great idea, every neighborhood should be welcoming the 60-unit apartment building, I would think.

  30. They have a propery in mind and are in the process of buying it now, this will not solve the homeless problem, it will only be another section 8 type housing project

  31. VSH would be stupid to buy land in the city now if they do not have the assurances that the property will be re-zoned for special studio apartments.

  32. I say lets put it in what’s left of McIntire Park. That way they will have easy access to the YMCA to keep in shape There’s plenty of land there too, so they could probably farm enough to feed themselves. If they need pocket money, the Parkway would be a great place to panhandle when it gets backed up. Hitching a ride to the downtown mall ought to be easy too when the Parkway is moving. I can’t imagine any feeling human being saying that softball is more important than people. Once those fields are gone, the main obstacle to finally making good use of that land will be gone. Simple common sense here people.

  33. Cville Eye– no it’s a way of saying that this is a very good idea. However, from a zoning perspective, we’ll need to make sure that this doesn’t create a high-density zoning ripple effect in an already stressed neighborhood.

    SROs are a fantastic idea, but one must never underestimate the greed of people who see something like that and view it as an opportunity. It’s not the VSH, the SROs, or the homeless themselves we should be suspicious of– it’s the people who see this as an opportunity steamroll a neighborhood.

    So the zoning language will need to be tight, and the impacted neighborhood will have to make it crystal clear that the presence of an SRO should not be an open invitation to developers, NDS, or the PC to then start going down the block picking off properties one-by-one for redevelopment. For instance, if it’s adjacent to R-1 or -2, they need to build in a good buffer so that the next property over doesn’t become the quasi buffer (see Belmont for a good example of this happening currently).

  34. Victoria, you are still not being very clear. What about the proposal is a very good idea? And, are you saying it should be placed in any R-3, B-1, B-2, B-3, M-1, or any of the mixed-use areas?
    “It’s not the VSH, the SROs, or the homeless themselves we should be suspicious of…[its the developers and their cohorts in city hall (paraphrased)].” I can agree that this type of spot zoning has often given the ammunition for developing the rationale to extend multi-family zoning in an area. 1800 JPA is a good example. 30 years later it was thought to be the norm for future development in the area. However, VSH, SROs and the homeless should also be scrutinized. For example, how effectively has VSH been in managing its other sites? Blue Ridge Commons, Garrett Square, and Ephitha Village to name a few have had a history of poor management practices have contributed very negatively to their environs. It makes sense that an SRO that introduces alcoholics and drug addicts still in need of services into an area will need highly competent management in order for it not to have similar negative effects. The homeless population is a varied population, including, among others, the mentally ill, substance abusers, prostitues and other criminals, recent parolees, and child moesters. Which of these populations will be allowed into the SRO? How effective will the screening be of those not allowed? If the property changes hands in 15 years and new management comes in, who will be watching it?

  35. Here is the question….Who is the SRO’s biggest supporter? Hint (he is over 6 feet tall and has red hair and a beard)

    Now, who is worried about zoning?

  36. Council will be voting to give VSH $125,000 in order to buy property tonight, although the City insists, for zoning purposes, that VSH will not necessarily be the provider of SRO housing.

  37. Tom, perhaps I’m a bit obtuse, but Dave Norris isn’t in charge of zoning for the City. Those duties are handled by NDS and the Planning Commission.

    Cville Eye, wherever the SRO goes, my hope would be that it doesn’t go into a neighborhood that has a long history of being a dumping ground for the City. Tops on that list would be Carlton, followed by Rose Hill and Fifeville. It wouldn’t be good PR to put it where the residents would feel that it’s only going in their neighborhood because others are more powerful and politically tied in. Ideally it’ll go where that unique zoning has the least negative impact, but also has the amenities (stores, transportation) needed for the residents.

  38. Thanks, Victoria. I think it’s also important that it’s not located in Garrett/Sixth, Ridge, 10 & Page or Southern Belmont. In fact I would like to see it go out into the county along the 29N corridor, near Wal-mart. Mostly likely that’s where the residents will work and shop and that area has the best bus service.
    Although the City hasn’t even a valid concept, just as with the 50-year water supply proposal, it just voted to give VSH $125,000 to purchase the land. It’s a bit disengenuous to say at this point that VSH may not be the City’s partner.

  39. “Dave Norris isn’t in charge of zoning for the City. Those duties are handled by NDS and the Planning Commission.”

    The authority to amend the zoning ordinance or rezone property rests solely in the hands of the elected officials in every locality in Virginia. The Planning Commission is merely an advisory body. They advise the Council on such matters, but Council makes the real decision. NDS, being in the executive branch of the local government, is responsible for enforcing the regulations.

    Bottom line, in Charlottesville, if you want to amend the zoning ordinance or rezone property, you only need to convince 3 Councilors to vote for the proposal.

  40. Hey, one point I read that was not commented on enough was the ability to mitigate problems by requirments in the code, specifically for units having their own kitchen and bath. PLENTY was said on the subject, starting with a question I asked of the VSH as to what they prefer and why. They highly recommended to go with each unit having both, otherwise there are many more management problems. Even though it is less expensive to build otherwise they only build units with kitchen and baths. In police work we see that having your own place with your own essential spaces reduces problems enormously. If it isn’t in code the next builder may take that short cut and try to do without and we the taxpayers will pay for that by being forced to address the problems afterwards.

  41. Mike, absolutely agreed. I think it’s key for the residents to have the dignity of their own facilities especially with the added benefit of making the facility more peaceful. So glad they won’t cut corners on that, and I appreciate your looking for loopholes.

    VSH has a seemingly good track record with SROs. I’m hopeful that anyone else who attempts to develop a facility of this type here will need to pass serious scrutiny re licensing etc. As with the fly-by-night sort of old folk’s homes, the potential for abuse here is huge. I can easily imagine that there are people out there right now looking for ways to make money off of this zoning code, even if it means tangentially targeting surrounding properties and hanging on to them for the proverbial rainy day.

  42. Frankly, I have no problem with people wanting to make money. Why else do they work 40 hours a week? If they don’t, then they either have a trust fund or are looking for welfare.
    The problem here in the city is that we have too much spot zoning going on. Such as that ridiculous restaurant proposal in Belmont. Those owners, as did everyone else, knew the zoning before they moved in. If the zoning was not right for them, they shouldn’t have moved there. The other residents had an agreement on use and have reasonable expectations that the agreement would be honored. Why should people have to move out in order to accommodate one family.
    I do have doubts that studio apartments need special zoning here in the city. Many homes already have rentable studio apartments. If they are allowed in R-1 zoning, why not R=2,R=3… M-1, etc. which are supposed to allow R-1 zoning. I think it’s just City Hall’s way of trying to control where that specific population can live in some kind of concentration.

  43. @Victoria, of course VSH will be the agent. Council just voted to give them $125k of local tax money for them to purchase the land. I doubt seriously if VSH will then turn the money over to another group, which is probably or should be illegal. BTW, what if VSH does not construct the housing. Do they return the money? Do they sell the property and keep the profits? Will the local tax payer get a return on this money if the property sells for more than the orginal purchase price?

  44. @eye- For the record, I too am all for people making money, in win-win situations where the taxpayer doesn’t get the short end of the stick, thus planning. And deciding where something should or shouldn’t go is as old as planning gets.

    @V- Nothing is done just yet, if anyone has opinions you should share them as some are pushing for shared common areas, even if VHS says they won’t do that.

  45. Cville Eye, I realize that VSH will be the agent. My concern is if anyone else (a developer for instance) decides to make money off of another facility. VSH does it because their mission is to fill an important need, not specifically to make money.

    Completely agreed on spot-zoning. Add to that the ridiculous lack of buffers between conflicting zoning in the city and you have a problem that’s only going to get worse.

    Re the units, what we’re talking about here is not just a few studio apartments, but greatly increased density– 60 units, I believe. That sort of density abruptly plopped down in a low-density area will have seriously detrimental effects down the road. Therefore, adequate buffers would have to be employed if it were to work. It’s not the presence of the residents (i.e. homeless) I worry about, it’s the potential zoning precedents.

    If we could all agree that we– the city and citizens– would work together to ensure this wouldn’t be allowed to alter adjacent zoning in the future, then it wouldn’t be an issue. But when the two worlds of development money and zoning density meet, all bets are off.

    Over the years I’ve seen perceived blight used too many times as a justification for shameful decisions, in my neighborhood and many others. The 85-foot-tall proposed parking garage (unbuffered, of course) in Fifeville is only the most recent example of an abuse of by-right zoning. You’ve gotta have some real stones to inflict something like that on the nearby residents without blinking.

  46. @Victoria, I agree with everything you said except “VSH does it because their mission is to fill an important need, not specifically to make money.” Housing people with special needs is big business and puts money in lots of pockets.

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