A Cavalier Approach to Housing?

By. Neil Williamson, President

See the source imageAn oft handed remark at a business meeting, a twice repeated comment at a Planning Commission meeting and a recent Facebook reply have caused me to reexamine the potential of 21st Century “Company Towns”.

During a brief discussion regarding University of Virginia (UVA) long range student housing plans, a business meeting attendee stated

It’s not the University of Virginia student housing causing gentrification, it is the faculty generated housing demand.

This speaker went on to describe several neighborhoods currently seeing significant redevelopment throughout Charlottesville.  While anecdotal, I sense there is some economic truth to the causality that an expanding faculty has expanding housing demand.

Twice in the last three months, Albemarle County Planning Commissioner Bruce Dotson has mentioned the bad (and illegal) idea of punishing any employer paying less than $15 an hour with a penalty to be paid into an affordable housing fund.

Then yesterday, while arguing for a city wide downzoning (a terrible idea) to increase leverage on developers, Lonnie Murray stated on Facebook:

Also with this… There should be a good implementation of form based code that expedites good projects, and which deters bad ones. There should also be specifically a workforce housing program to work with private companies and developers to build guaranteed housing for people who already work in Charlottesville. Lastly, there should be an expansion of AHIP, and strong support for renovation of older homes (the only really affordable properties anywhere).

These three comments, completely independent of one another, got me thinking about a different type of home ownership model. . . An Employer Land Trust.

We already have a Community Land Trust.  The definition of a community land trust according to our own Thomas Jefferson Community Land Trust:

Community Land Trust (CLT): a nonprofit corporation that is a developer and and steward of permanently affordable housing on behalf of a community.

While I have learned a great deal about the land trust model of home ownership and how the trust owning the property and the homeowner owning the improvements makes sense for long term affordability, I continued to have uneasiness of the homeowner sharing property rights with a charitable entity.

That got me thinking about “company towns”.  Michele Lent Hirsch wrote about the company town model in the September 4, 2015 issue of Smithsonian:

During the Industrial Revolution, company towns—communities built by businesses—sprouted up across the country. For anyone who wants to tour what remains of them today, it’s helpful to remember two things. First, as Hardy Green, author of The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy, says, these places ranged from the awful to the enviable. Towns built by coal companies, for example, were often more on the prison camp end of the spectrum in terms of poverty and abuse. Meanwhile, settlements like Hershey, Pennsylvania, built by the Hershey chocolate company, were meant to be closer to paradise—to woo workers with fancy amenities rather than mistreat them.

Second, as Green explains, to speak about company towns in the past tense is to overlook that they still exist. The original coal and textile towns in America are now largely ghostly, but places like Hershey and Corning, New York, which was invigorated by the Corning glass company, are still going strong. Plus, as the LA Times writes, businesses such as Google and Facebook today are providing housing, amenities and transportation for their workers—meaning that while we think of company towns in sepia tones, they’re also in digital blueEmphasis added – NW

Clearly the employer that first came to mine was UVA.  Just last month, UVA President Jim Ryan presented his ten year strategic plan. Annabel Jones of The Cavalier Daily reports:

Among the ten initiatives are SuccessUVA, which expands financial aid and other services, and Citizen-Leaders for the 21st Century, which prepares students to be “servant-leaders.” The Third Century Initiative aims to recruit teachers, researchers and mentors; Pathways to Research Preeminence serves to stimulate research, and Cultivating Staff Success is intended to support an inclusive workforce. The Good Neighbor Program partners with Charlottesville and neighboring counties to address local challenges; Emphasis added – NW

I contend the idea of a University driven Faculty/Staff Land Trust Model is worthy of discussion.  The concept, as with a Community Land Trust, would be to eliminate the cost of land in the housing equation to better serve a specific population cohort, UVA faculty and staff.

In my opinion, this concept is more logical than the community land trust in the land holder has a vested interest in the success of the homeowner, the employee is likely closer to their work assignment, the University could choose to build a diversity of housing types to match the diversity of employees they seek, and finally the University may have longer term plans for the land beyond the 99 year tenant lease hold.  Many years ago, when discussing a locality’s 20 year Comprehensive Plan, a Senior UVA official once told me:

Twenty year plan…that’s nothing we have a 200 year land plan

Based on all of the above, it would be strategic, perhaps even inspired, to see what could be done to create this University based Land Trust model.  It is not the silver bullet for affordable housing in our community; but it may be one of the many tools needed to help make our community more inclusive and accessible.

Respectfully Submitted,


Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credit: Pintrest

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