Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Staunton to seize house for Charlottesville nonprofit director: Owner promises sustained legal battle

Wanda Yvonne Stevens, director of Staunton Redevelopment and Housing Authority, wants to seize and sell Gerard Labreque's house at 18-20 Stafford St. and others to Staunton Development Solutions headed by Stu Armstrong, director of Charlottesville's controversial nonprofit Piedmont Housing Alliance. Staunton will get $1.4 million in grant money to boot.
Read the full story: "Owner promises fight over property: Labrecque challenges plan to take over Newtown lot" by David Royer, The News Leader Staunton, Va.

Perspective from Charlottesville

The Piedmont Housing Alliance was created in 1983 under the name Thomas Jefferson Housing Improvement Corporation. The nonprofit was reorganized and renamed in 1997. PHA staff.

In February 2005, the city of Charlottesville announced their intention to use PHA as a middle-man to donate land seized in 1967 to Greater Charlottesville Habitat for Humanity against state law. Sure enough, in September '05, PHA recieved the land and passed it on according to online assessment records.

Update on illegal Habitat houses Dec. 18, 2006. Includes "Council Beat: Habitat for Humanity land grab, 64 signatures in opposition", Feb. 23, 2005 and "Charlottesville gives public land to Habitat for Humanity" Mar. 8, 2005.

"Charlottesville Council resolves support of gay civil rights: Dice urban renewal vote postponed" Nov. 17, 2004, reproduced below. Stu Armstrong misses important meeting asking the city for more land in the Fifeville neighborhood. PHA is criticized for its gentrification program for "affordable housing" in the 1oth and Page neighborgood. Two weeks later, the Council approves the sale.

"Charlottesville Council resolves support of gay civil rights: Dice urban renewal vote postponed"

Blair Hawkins, Charlottesville Indepenedent Media, November 17, 2004

The Dice project has every element of urban renewal for which Charlottesville is infamous. A private developer partnering with the government to purchase, improve at taxpayer expense, then resell private property to a different owner for a profit. Tax value of the property is promised to increase dramatically.

Monday evening, City Council passed by 4-1 a resolution expressing the body's desire that the General Assembly, in its next session, repeal House Bill 751, the Marriage Affirmation Act, which became law on July 1 and can be interpreted to nullify civil contracts between same gender couples who are not related by blood or "marriage." ( Gay Rights Rally at Old Lane High School [Jun 30]: )

The chamber was near full and enthusiastic but dwindled by the time the resolution came to a vote. The public comment at the beginning of the meeting, with a few notable exceptions, spoke to the proposed resolution.

- Then followed the pre-kickoff of the city budget battle which officially kicks off in March and takes effect July 1. Council delayed adoption of the long-term budget guidelines.

- The Downtown Recreation Center, built as a National Guard Armory in the 1930s, was renamed after Herman Key.

- Council exempted proposed Linden Town Lofts on Linden Avenue from the zoning ordinance by allowing 26 townhouses on one acre instead of 21 allowed by zoning. The developer promised that 5 of the condominiums would be "affordable."

- Council resolved to support 8 of 9 bullet point recommendations, setting the "housing strategy" aside for later. One part of the strategy is to make the housing task force permanent. Councilor Kendra Hamilton wondered if the wording of number 6 could be changed "so that it doesn't sound like the city is proposing to get in the business of competing with the private sector to redevelop property." The irony here is that, by funding Piedmont Housing Alliance, a private developer with non-profit status, the city has created an unfair environment for competition and is, and has been for a long time, in the business of redeveloping property. The next agenda item illustrates the point, followed immediately by the gay rights resolution.


Jim TOLBERT, Neighborhood Development Services Director:

"Several months ago, actually earlier this year, Mr. Huja, I believe, came to the Council and talked about a project that would partner with PHA to do some improvements in the Dice Street area and in transition, that's been working through a few issues but it's ready to come back before you now."

There is a proposal that would purchase 4 structures and 2 vacant lots in the 400 block of Dice Street. 2 structures would be demolished and 2 rehabilitated. There would be a new apartment in a basement, 3 new units for a total of 6 housing units when completed. This project would be similar to partnerships for revitalization on Hinton Avenue and Starr Hill.

"The proposal is that the city would invest $148,250. The PHA would directly invest $215,000 plus additional loans and grants for $471,000 for the acquistion, demolition, rehab and new construction and there would also be 350 linear feet of new sidewalks built on the west side of 4th Street which is an area that's had drainage problems affecting these properties for a while. PHA has agreed that these would be provided for home ownership, and that their estimate is that a family earning $32,982 a year, which is 57 percent of the metropolitan median income, would be able to afford these that would have a net mortgage of $128,000 and a gross sales price of $185,000."

"These have a current assessed value of $143,000 and it's projected that would increase to $875,000 when this project is complete. Again it would leverage 148,250 of city dollars with $686,000 coming from various sources that PHA has under its control and provide 6 affordable units. I would also add, excuse me, that PHA has agreed that these would, when the deeds are done, these would go into a capital gains sharing formula and that the monies, if they were resold, would go back into the housing trust fund for the city of Charlottesville."

Councilor Kevin LYNCH: Is anyone from PHA here?

TOLBERT: Stu Armstrong was here but had to leave.

LYNCH: You've called this the Dice Street Home Improvement, but 3 houses are on 4th St. and 1 on 5th St.

TOLBERT: It's part of the Dice Street neighborhood.

LYNCH: I thought it was the Fifeville neighborhood.

TOLBERT: The neighborhood and police department call it that.

LYNCH: Can you give us an update on the Piedmont Housing Alliance progress on 10th St and 9th/10th? I'm concerned we're getting too far ahead.

TOLBERT: I don't have the numbers. Anderson St. is almost finished and other spot houses. Problem with replanning the property at 10th and Page intersection. They are resolved and moving forward.

LYNCH: In total there were 26 or 28 houses. Anderson is 4 houses.

TOLBERT: At least half the houses are built and occuppied, "probably closer to two thirds."

City manager Gary O'CONNELL: We'll get a status report.

Mayor David BROWN: Any other questions?

Councilor Kendra HAMILTON: What is the status of the houses you plan to demolish?

TOLBERT: Under condemnation or in and out of citations, continual problems. Much cheaper to rebuild than rehab.

Councilor Rob SCHILLING: Disturbed that property sale prices are so far above fair market assessed value. For example, one property assessed at $3,800 is to be purchased at $25,000, 670% over the assessed. Cumulative under-assessment of $112,000. Why is there such a discrepancy in one? Why are we paying so much more than assessed? For that reason I cannot support this.

LYNCH: Good point about under-assessment of some properties.

HAMILTON: Some neighborhoods have consistent under-assessments, some properties selling for triple the assessed value.

LYNCH: Wants PHA to explain progress on 10th St. before approving this. I'm concerned because they demolished a number of houses on 10th St. that have not been replaced as promised.

TOLBERT: Mr. Armstrong would have that information.

Councilor Blake CARAVATI: I find it ironic that some councilors are complaining about under-assessments related to real estate taxes. Three concerns: the houses not be sold to a family earning more than 57.6% of Charlottesville median income, 3-year deadline, and would like to see the "profit recovery mechanism in writing" since we are about to codify the contract.

BROWN: We need a mechanism to prevent affordable housing from becoming market housing. Perhaps we should postpone this decision.

CARAVATI: I withdraw the motion.

LYNCH: Motion to postpone for 2 weeks.

The Council voted unanymously to postpone the funding of this subsidy.


The Council discussion and vote on this controvery was anti-climactic. Caravati introduced the resolution and read it. A couple paragraphs were removed. Hamilton expressed her support. Schilling said the topic was beyond the business of Council. The proclamation passed with only Schilling voting no.


Perhaps not since 1775 has the irony been so great. That's when Patrick Henry gave his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Not only did the speech claim that the colonies were already in a state of war with Great Britain, but also that, by restricting citizenship rights, Britain desired to enslave the colonists. Patrick Henry himself was a slave owner.

At Monday's Council meeting, the audience seemed unconcerned that property rights were being trampled before their eyes. It may have been a different story if the Dice neighborhood property owners were gay.

The Dice project has every element of urban renewal for which Charlottesville is infamous. A private developer partnering with the government to purchase, improve at taxpayer expense, then resell private property to a different owner for a profit. Tax value of the property is promised to increase dramatically. The desire by one councilor that the purchase price be limited to fair market assessed value brings in the issue of eminent domain, otherwise someone would have pointed out that these higher prices are simply the prices set by the owners. To pay less than what they are asking, you have to invoke eminent domain.

Through its partnership with the city, is the Piedmont Housing Alliance asking Council to take this land and give it and taxpayer money to the PHA in the hope that assessments sky rocket? Is PHA petitioning Council because the PHA cannot acquire the land in any other legal manner? If the PHA told me they could force me to sell my house at their price so they can resell the property to someone else, I would definitely believe them.

Last spring, city native Kenneth Jackson ran an unsuccessful bid for City Council on the Republican ticket. On WINA radio, he informed the public that old-fashisoned urban renewal is alive and well today while his Democratic opponents remain in a bizarre denial.

In the summer, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that economic development is not, and never has been, a Constitutional justification for use of eminent domain. The power to take private property is restricted by due process and eminent domain. Economic development is neither one of those. ( Michigan Supreme Court rules: Economic development is not eminent domain [Aug 2]: )

The US Supreme Court announced on September 28 that it will hear an urban renewal case in New London, CT, where the city wants to use eminent domain to take land from homeowners so developers can build oceanfront condos and office parks, employing the same logic and methods used here in Charlottesville. I heard about it at noon on CBS radio news on WINA. ( )

Will the highest court in the land follow Michigan's example and rule that eminent domain real estate manipulation schemes have been unlawful ever since the Constitution was ratified in 1789? How ironic is it that the Number 1 city in the USA would have no regard for property rights for one minority but care about civil rights of a minority that is even more hated?

The Council holds regular meetings the first and third Mondays in City Hall at east end of Downtown Mall. The meetings run from 7pm until about 10pm. These meetings are open to the public but closed sessions are not uncommon. The open meetings are broadcast live on Adelphia Cable channel 10. I hope Adelphia will decide to replay the meetings a few times in between the live broadcasts so interested people can have a better opportunity to become involved and prepare for the next meeting.

The gay resolution is over. But Dice urban renewal is up for a vote at the next meeting.


Piedmont Housing Alliance
Neighborhood Development Services
Office of Economic Development

Is Charlottesville the next Staunton? (Letter to Editor)
How to bring Free Enterprise back
"is staunton the next charlottesville?" ("City on a Hill: Is Staunton the next Charlottesville", Feb. 19, 2004, The Hook) I hope not.

I have friends and relatives in Staunton and have visited many times, and I grew up in Charlottesville. I've been telling people that Staunton is how Charlottesville used to be.

"Once stately facades in the central Beverly Street district deteriorated into ramshackle shells. And because Staunton had no preservation laws, owners were free to demolish their buildings at will. Finally, in 1971, as a new highway project threatened to decimate the old railway district known as 'The Wharf,' concerned citizens formed the Historic Staunton Foundation to stop the demolition madness. It was a start. But by that time, 50 historic buildings had fallen victim to the 'urban renewal' impulse of the 1960s..."

In Staunton, urban renewal is 50 properties demolished by their owners because the buildings were literally falling down. In Charlottesville, urban renewal is 500 properties demolished by city government under protest of the owners. If you include properties after 1980 and other forms of eminent domain abuse, such as widening Preston Avenue to clear out a mixed-use, mixed-income community, that number may be over a thousand.

When's the last time you read an article stating the total number of properties that comprise Charlottesville's urban renewal? You haven't because we're still counting. This is so serious that you couldn't write a story called "is charlottesville the next staunton?" Charlottesville has a long way to go.

In Staunton, you can buy or rent a big old cheap house without fear that a wrecking ball will show up if the assessments go down. People are less cynical and feel better about the community in Staunton.

Charlottesville would have plenty of cheap old houses today, ready to renovate, if not for the "demolition madness." Everybody would feel more secure, too. But instead, urban renewal has become a permanent part of Charlottesville's culture, its defining symbol.

Here's how Charlottesville can catch up with Staunton:
(1) Stop abusing eminent domain.
(2) Tally the number of cases.
(3) Compensate the victims.
(4) Establish penalties for the abuse.
(5) Change the city charter.

Because Staunton can talk about its urban renewal, we can all talk about the town's entire history. That's not yet the case for Charlottesville.
Charlottesville Independent Media, March 15, 2004. Submitted to The Hook February 22 and printed April 1.

U R A dope
by 3Nation
cheap old house's dont "tax" well...thats why they were torn renew the urban area and enlarge the tax "base".

About Taxes
by toblerone
Conservatives are wrong when they say that taxes = theft. Liberals would be just as wrong if they tried to picture all taxes as good.

City governments have a vested interest in making sure the tax base stays high, but the reason they should care is because greater revenues = more services to citizens (in theory, anyway). More services/infrastructure, in general, means a better quality of life for residents.

Therefore, if an old home could be torn down and replaced with a higher use (read, higher assessed use) they should only do so if the gain to the quality of life through higher taxes outweighs any damage the higher taxed property might impose on the community (or the loss to the community from the original use).

I do believe the city has been overly enthusiastic about converting older homes which contribute, for want of a better name, cultural capital to Charlottesville. I believe the city is becoming more conscious of this now then it has in the past.

I'd be interested in joining with other Charlottesville citizens to create a cultural atlas of the city, helping to identify properties, environments, neighborhoods, and hangouts that should be preserved for the cultural capital of the city.

taxes or theft?
by Blair Hawkins
The "higher tax base / more services / quality of life" reasoning of transferring land from you to someone who has more means to make it more valuable was precisely the policy of Great Britain before the American Revolution. They called it the public good.

Originally, eminent domain meant that the King's government could take land for any reason. So the King did so often. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution redefined eminent domain as public use, a major restriction on the power of government to reward the rich with the land of the poor.

America defined and implemented Free Enterprise:

1. Private property exists and is good and taxable. If theres private property, there must be public property.
2. The government's power to take your property is limited by due process and public use. These limitations will lead to limited government.
3. If these limitations are exceeded, that is theft.

You tell me. Is a land transfer the same as a tax? Hmmm. So they can take my house if some affluent person can build a more expensive house in its place? Oh, I don't mind paying the tax. How much is it? Please, don't take my humble land, I'll pay the tax. How much do I owe?


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