"Public Housing in Charlottesville: The Black Experience in a Small Southern City"

by William M. Harris, Sr. and Nancy Olmsted

The following article is included by permission of the authors. It appeared originally in The Review of Black Political Economy, Vol. 46, Charlottesville, May, 1988, pp. 29-95. (F232.A3M3v.46 1988)

The history and public policies related to the public housing program are presented within the context of a small southern city, Charlottesville, Virginia. Consistent with the stormy beginnings of public hous- ing nationally the article reveals that the early days of the program in Charlottesville also were troubled. City policies to affect the residential mix of housing are shown to have limited the quality of affordable housing availible to the poor and especially to low-income blacks. Programs designed by the city to overcome some of these disadvantages through both home ownership and renting also are discussed.

This article reviews the publicly assisted housing programs in Charlottesville, Virginia and describes the factors of race, income and public policy that are determinants of housing opportunities for the poor in this southern city. Of special concern are the impacts of public housing on the black community and, to ascertain these impacts, the study focuses on the actions of the Charlottesville Redevelopment Land Housing Authority (CRHA). The article concludes with a summary of recommendations for the improvement of current policies related to public housing in the city.


Charlottesville is located in Albemarle County in central Virginia, amid the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its picturesque beauty and social history have helped to create a city of diverse neighborhoods and Southern culture. A major influence on Charlottesville has been the University of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson located his "academical village," which opened in 1825, one mile west of Charlottesville. Today, with the city nearly surrounding the university, the institution is more than ever a major part of the city's economy, history, and culture.

In 1870 blacks comprised slightly more than the majority of the population of the city. Currently they make up nearly twenty percent of the city's approximately 40,000 residents, but include nearly one half of all families living below the poverty level. The incidence of female-headed families is nearly three times as great (44% v. 15%) among blacks as among whites. Similar to the national average, blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. Most employed blacks are concentrated in service occupations (38%) and are underrepresented in professional (7%) and administrative (8%) positions. In 1980 one quarter of all employed blacks earned less than $5,000; only 3 percent reported income of $35,000 to $50,000. While only 9 percent of blacks have completed four years or more of college, whites have a completion rate of 35 percent.


In 1950, the Joint Board of Health conducted a housing survey which along with a follow-up survey in 1957, identified housing in critical need of protection and rehabilitation. In order to respond to the housing needs, the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) was established in 1954 by referendum. The objectives of the CRHA were to clear slum and blighted areas and to operate public housing programs. The Authority consisted of five citizen commissioners appointed by the city council. This was changed in 1978, when the city council appointed itself as commissioners of the Authority. At that time, the city manager was appointed executive director, with the daily operations of the Authority managed by a deputy executive director hired by the commissioners.

On March 11, 1960, the city council received an application by the CRHA under amendment 14A: Title 36 VA Code 1950.1 (This section, referred to as the McCue amendment, required a referendum vote on public housing projects; it was overturned in 1971.) The application called for the redevelopment of the Vinegar Hill area and the construction of public housing on Ridge Street and Hartman's Mill Road. The purpose of the project was to clear a substandard area for several reasons—to facilitate the expansion of the downtown business district, to improve traffic flow, and to provide housing for many of the families who would be displaced as a result of the redevelopment.

Although the redevelopment of Vinegar Hill was viewed by many as beneficial to the city, the proposed Ridge Street and Hartman's Mill Road locations for public housing met with strenuous opposition. Three other sites were then considered, with- the Westhaven site ultimately being selected. In March of 1963, CRHA received authorization from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to award a contract for the first public housing development in the city of Charlottesville. The 126 units in Westhaven were completed in 1964.

In June of 1965, CRHA petitioned the city council to hold a referendum on a second public housing project. The referendum was rejected by the voters in November of 1965. In August of 1966, the Authority made another request for a second project, but withdrew the request a month later "because of growing public opposition to the proposal and the lack of unified support among civic leaders.2

A third referendum vote in 1967 considered three smaller scattered sites, and all three sites were approved for public housing. Opposition to these projects came from the NAACP, which believed the projects would perpetuate racial segregation in Charlottesville because the sites were all within predominantly black areas of the city. "We realize and know that people need homes; we are for public housing, but not housing projects."3 The NAACP continued to push for scattered site housing.

In April of 1968, the Charlottesville Housing Foundation was formed as a private, non-profit organization to: expedite the construction of new living units in locations outside ghetto areas or areas which are generally in a deteriorating condition for low-income families who are unable to obtain adequate housing on their own.4

In March of 1969, the city council issued the following formal housing Statement: We realize that our problems cannot be resolved without a positive effort on the part of every individual, group and entity, both private and public, within and without the community, to make every effort to increase the availability of housing and to upgrade the quality of such housing.5

Charlottesville's last public housing project was privately built and Subsidized Rental Housing in Charlottesville named Garrett Square. While the development is privately owned, it has been managed by CRHA since its construction in 1979. This privately owned, publicly managed, category includes 480 dwelling units.

Since the 1970s, housing programs for low-income families have placed less emphasis on redevelopment, public housing, and the clearing of blight; instead, they have focused on scattered site development, rehabilitation of existing units and affordability of home ownership. These programs involve both public and private financing. In the 1980s, more emphasis was placed on the following: providing housing for "special groups," such as the elderly and the handicapped; racially integrating and modernizing existing public housing; privately developing low- and moderate income housing; and increasing the revenues from public housing as subsidies from the federal government declined.

Today the CRHA owns 266 non-elderly-occupied LRPH units in six locations within the city (See Figure 1). These units provide low-income persons with housing at below-market rents. The apartments, constructed with federal funds, operate with revenues from tenant receipts and HUD subsidies. The high-rise accommodation for the elderly operated by CRHA contains 105 apartment units. Qualifying persons pay 30 percent of adjusted family income for CRHA units.


The 1980 Census revealed 80.4 percent of Charlottesville's population to be white and 19.6 percent nonwhite (non-white consist of blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and native Americans). The percentage of non-whites in the population had increased from the 15.5 percent reported in the 1970 Census. However, in 1980 only 12.7 percent of owner-occupied housing units in Charlottesville belonged to non-whites, although this represented an increase over the 10.6 percent reported in 1970.

Although Charlottesville is predominantly white, Charlottesville's public housing has been predominantly black since its inception, and continues to be so. In 1989, 70.1 percent of public housing heads of house holds were black (Table 1). This increases to 82 percent when the high rise accommodation for the elderly is not included. Currently, 84 percent of the children living in Charlottesville's public housing are black.

The 1989 demographics of Charlottesville's public housing (Table 1) also indicate that among all residents (both black and white) heads ofhouseholds most commonly are female (77%), those 62+ years of age (33.4%), and single (87%). There is an average of nearly 2.3 children per head of household in the units having children present. The only project that meets Charlottesville's desired goal of the 65 percent / 35 percent black/white racial mixture is the aforementioned high-rise building with the elderly and disabled as tenants.

As of October 1989, 69 percent of residents paid $200 or less per month rent, with the largest share of these (41%) paying $101-$200 per month. Nearly equal shares of the tenant population (28% and 31%, respectively) paid "$0-$100" and "$201 and over" in rent.


Charlottesville offers a number of housing programs that are designed to achieve several goals: meet the housing needs of the poor; provide subsidies that will enable those with low incomes to afford rents; and create opportunities for low- and moderate-income people to purchase their own homes (Table 2). These programs involve a combination of federal, state and local funds generally administered through the CRHA.

Community Development Rehabilitation Program: The Community Development Rehabilitation Program (CDRP) provides funds for rehabilitation of substandard owner and rental housing.

Homeowner Rehabilitation: Federal, state and local funds are provided to enable qualifying homeowners to make the repairs necessary to rehabilitate their homes. Two hundred and seventy-one units were funded through the program between 1975 and 1989.

Rental Rehabilitation: Owners of substandard rental units are provided federal, state and local funds to make necessary repairs. Once rehabilitated, units initially must be occupied by low- or moderate-income households. As of December 1988, eleven rental units had been renovated.

CDRP provides homeowners with both technical assistance (in determining necessary repairs and estimating cost) and material assistance (in paying for these repairs). The Charlottesville Housing Improvement Program, Inc. (CHIP) supplies much of the maintenance and repair work.

Funding is available in the form of deferred loans or grants which provide 40 percent-80 percent of the costs. No interest accumulates, and the loan is repaid when the house changes owners. Loans tailored to meet specific needs of the applicant also may be obtained. Financing for the program is provided by Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, Virginia Housing Partnership funds, and by city funds through their Homeowner and Rental Rehabilitation Programs.

Section 8 Rental Assistance Programs This program enables low-income persons to live in standard housing by subsidizing the difference between 30 percent of tenant income and the market rent of the unit.

In June 1989, CRHA (acting as an agent for the Virginia Housing and Development Authority) was provided funds by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to assist an additional 25 existing units and 62 moderately rehabilitated units. CRHA was already administering 78 existing units and 122 vouchers through contracts funded by HUD in previous years.

House Bank Program: CRHA purchases vacant and deteriorating homes in targeted neighborhoods and rehabilitates them with CDBG funds. The renovated homes are then sold to qualifying low- and moderate-income persons for not more than $37,000. Proceeds from the sales are reinvested in the program. In order to provide housing for low- and moderate income persons throughout the city, CRHA has purchased 19 existing units, 11 of which will be renovated. The others will be sold or demolished, with new units being constructed on the sites.

Downpayment/Closing Cost Assistance Program: This program was begun in 1986 with $85,000 in CDBG funds that are used to provide deferred loans for downpayments and closing costs. To qualify, the prospective buyer must meet the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) income guidelines for low or moderate income, be a first-time home buyer, agree to occupy the home after purchase, and have at least $500 with which to buy the home. Loans at 4 percent must be repaid if the home is rented or sold within five years of the purchase. If the home purchaser resides in the home for a period of five years, the interest on the loan is forgiven and the amount borrowed becomes due when the home changes ownership. Table 2 shows the city's achievements to date.


Today, there are still not enough units of housing for the low-income; there is increasing homelessness as the very poor are excluded from subsidized housing. Moreover, the current policies have not desegregated existing housing projects.

The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority currently has 21 employees overseeing its programs and maintaining its public housing units. The Authority receives federal funding through the HUD Section 8 and CDBG programs (currently channeled through the Charlottesville Department of Community Development), and state funding through VHDA.

The management of the CRHA has been criticized virtually from the organization's inception for its lack of ability to make headway in meeting the need for public housing in Charlottesville. Sites recommended by the CRHA were opposed consistently by voters. In regard to chosen sites, CRHA did not have the support of the surrounding residents or the community as a whole before the construction proposals were put to a vote. The previously mentioned objections of the local NAACP to what was perceived as CRHA's perpetuation of a segregated system through the sites selected for public housing projects caused such projects to be viewed as "black" housing, making the siting of projects even more difficult.

As did many other communities, Charlottesville maintained segregated housing in the 1960s. CRHA's first application to HUD was for "Negro" development. Westhaven, Charlottesville's first public housing project, was built in a black neighborhood, and the project remained virtually all-black until 1980.

Frustrated with the City Council's lack of commitment to public housing, the chairman of the CRHA commission suggested in 1978 that the Council become the CRHA commission, thereby putting the responsibility for public housing back onto the City Council. Even after this occurred, public housing has been only half-heartedly supported by the city of Charlottesville. While there seems to be support for providing public housing for city residents, there is a fear that public housing will attract too many non-city residents.

In 1980, CRHA put into effect a new tenant selection policy designed to achieve a 50/50 racial mix in public housing. The policy was later revised to state that "whenever more than 65 percent of the residents in any public housing development are black, white applicants are given preference for admission."6 As a result, black applicants had to wait longer for available units than did white applicants.

In 1980, CRHA made economic diversity the first priority on its list of tenant selection criteria. Under the policy, the Authority favors families that can pay "top dollar".7 The deputy director of CRHA stated, "In order to survive, we've got to turn down some of the poor.''8 The city manager of Charlottesville exemplified the concern with attracting non-city residents to CRHA when he said, "We don't think it would be wise to become a magnet for the poor from the rural counties."9

In 1981, the Richmond-area HUD office commended CRHA for its attempt to desegregate; however, its selection policy was suspended by the national headquarters of HUD after further review. Eventually, HUD brought suit against CRHA, claiming the policy violated 42 U.S.C. Sec. 3604(a)-(c). On July 21, 1989, the court ruled the policy was indeed a violation (United States v. Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority) (718 F. Supp. 461 [1989]). CRHA has since suspended use of a tenant selection policy based on racial quotas.

While historically it appears there have been acceptable technical results by the CRHA staff, the failures have equally been visible in the political arena. The housing authority has not been able to move the public to accept low-income housing in white residential neighborhoods. Similarly, there has been only a very modest production of homes for purchase by low-income people; none of these was placed in white residential areas. It is evident that all levels of the city's management and the housing authority need to more effectively commit to, acquire resources for, and produce housing for ownership [and rental] by blacks and others in lower-income brackets.


The medium-sized southern city of Charlottesville, Virginia, founded in the mid-eighteenth century, is a classic paradigm of race regulations for the area. Experiencing increasing growth for more than two centuries, the city's current population of nearly forty thousand is slightly less than 20 percent black. Over time, race-specific decisions in the city have resulted in segregated public housing. 10

In the 1960s, the city built its first public housing units on a segregated basis. The city has expanded publicly assisted housing programs to include both rental and owner-occupied units for low- and moderate income citizens. These programs continue to encounter a legacy of criticism by the black community that policy and program activities have not sufficiently addressed the need for housing on a fair access basis.

The article suggests that discrimination related to race is a reality in Charlottesville's public housing. First, racial discrimination is evidenced by public policy that has limited the opportunity for fair housing. Second, racial discrimination is clearly present when considered on a spatial or site-specific basis.

The article makes several recommendations that are designed to correct racial discrimination in public housing in the city of Charlottesville. In summary, the following proposals are offered:

The city should initiate housing policies that will abate segregation patterns through the establishment of a Human Relations Commission empowered to monitor and enforce discrimination related to housing. A Human Relations Commission should be empowered by the city to do the following: advocate fair housing policies and practices, test for housing discrimination, " and educate the "house poor" and the larger community about matters related affordability.

The city should try to increase the private sector's interests in building low-cost housing by: streamlining regulations related to site plan approval, exploiting slow work seasons (usually winter) for builders, and affirmatively discouraging redlining 12 by lending institutions.

The black community should act in self-advocacy to acquire funds to purchase property and homes to increase home ownership. Local black fraternal, religious, and civic organizations may form housing cooperatives, sweat equity3 organizations, and political housing advocacy groups to increase the amount of housing for the low income in the black community.

Local employers should institute affirmative measures to remove barriers to employment that limit the ability of blacks to rent or purchase housing. The university and major local employers could expand the number of blacks working in middle income positions through aggressive recruitment and training, use of specific target goals,4 and faithful enforcement of antidiscrimination laws.

These recommendations reflect the findings of a review of publicly assisted housing programs in Charlottesville and are limited to that scope; they are not offered as a complete solution to the historical problems of racial discrimination in housing in the city.


1. "Text of City's Petition," Charlottesville Daily Progress (April 18, 1960), p. 2.

2. Karl Runser, "Housing Site Dropped," Charlottesville Daily Progress (September 9, 1966), p. 1.

3. " NAACP Again Says No to Housing, " Charlottesville Daily Progress (April 21,1967), p. 25.

4. "Foundation Plans 82 Housing Units,'' Charlottesville Daily Progress (October 22, 1969), p. B-l.

5. Bill Akers, ''Council Agrees on Housing Needs in Formal Statement," Charlottesville Daily Progress (March 4, 1969), p. I I .

6. Kathleen Brunet, "City to Fight HUD on Housing Policy," Charlottesville Daily Progress (August 8, 1986), p. A-1.

7. Jim Ketcham-Colwill, "Some Are Too Poor For Public Housing," Charlottesville Daily Progress (July 24, 1983), p. A-l.

8. Ibid, p. A-12.

9. Jessie Bond, "City Unlikely to Add Public Housing, " Charlottesville Daily Progress (October 7, 1985), p. A10.

10. G.A. Tobin ed., Divided Neighborhoods: Changing Patterns of Racial Segregation (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1987), p. 230.

11 . Timothy M. Kaine, "Housing Discrimination Law in Virginia,'' The Virginia Bar Association Journal (Spring 1990). p. 16.

12. In an unpublished working paper completed in September 1990, the author and Ted Shekell found support that redlining practices appear to be present in two majority black neighborhoods in the city of Charlottesville.

13. Mittie Olion Chandler, Urban Homesteading: Programs and Policies (New York: Greenwood Press. 1988), p. 31.

14. Gerald D Jaynes and Robin M Williams, Jr eds., A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society (Washington, DC National Academy Press. 1989). DD.. 315-323

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