In praise of small places

Invest in rapid transit before urban housing projects

My hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia is abuzz with charged rhetoric about our affordable housing crisis. As the local University and tech businesses boom, poor and low-income families struggle to find adequate housing in our little city.

There’s an apparent disconnect between the image residents hold in their minds and the reality their collective behavior creates. It seems plausible that the good people of Charlottesville will wail and gnash our teeth right into a socioeconomically homogenous, affluent oasis. Perpetually offended progressives swing by sparsely attended rallies on their way to Whole Foods and an IPO.

My family lives ten miles east near a place called Boyd Tavern. Having lived in a variety of contexts, I can say with some insight that my neighbors seem content. Whether they rent or own, they have a real sense of place and belonging. Family networks. Longtime friends. Not only that, but there’s far more diversity—defined however you like—than I tend to experience in the city.

I would suggest that Charlottesville doesn’t have a housing problem, so much as we have an imagination problem. (And, frankly, a smidgen of obstinate utopianism.) What if we let the city do what successful cities tend to do? Higher property values and higher property taxes. I wonder what we could do with all that extra cash?

Cities are for rich people

San Francisco and Manhattan are not anomalies—they are self-actualized cities. Since forever, to live with vanity (or conveniently, if you prefer) is actually quite costly. Cities are a fine place for merchants and shopkeepers to live. And royalty, I suppose. We have to truck in the food, and truck out the waste. Green spaces must be maintained. Streets must be swept. It’s lovely but pricey.

This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

Charlottesville is, evidently, a fantastic place to live. I know this because people who don’t live here keep telling us that it is. And, despite our proven ability to elect and attract bigots of all shapes and sizes, the market appears to be responding to all the flattery. If I had a dollar for every friend who stops to mention how awful they feel about gentrification while talking about their massive renovation project, I could afford to do one of my own.

I say we roll with it. Make it super hard to park. Build nicer hotels and more high-end restaurants. More concert venues and pedestrian zones. Public art! Cafés! At this point, we’re only a few footpaths away from being able to toss a Frisbee from the Pavilion to the Lawn.

Then, we take the taxes from all the affluent people who want to live in such a magnificent city and build a sweet bus rapid transit system so people can get to work!

There is dignity beyond the bypass

Intrepid Zillow user that I am, I have found the affordable housing that Charlottesville so badly craves and it is in the county.

We can talk about the colors.

I’m not advocating for sprawl. There are small places all around Charlottesville with wonderful people living in them. These towns have homeplaces that need humans to love them. I think the trouble is access. It takes a lot to own the sort of vehicle that can traverse Rt. 29 or Pantops each and every day and find a place to park.

I don’t think many people want to live in mixed-use, subsidized housing. I don’t think they want to raise families in cookie-cutter urban infill with matching mailboxes and obligatory playgrounds.

So let’s build some dedicated bus lanes with access straight into the heart of downtown while simultaneously making the city a place with loads of jobs for people of all skill levels. Thirty minutes out. Thirty minutes back. And let’s make them nice buses with wifi.

It’s time for CAT to go pro.

The township model

This summer, drive down to the little farmer’s market in Scottsville—it’s incredible. Or spend a Saturday in Gordonsville or Zion Crossroads. Stop by Crozet. Check out Free Union. These are places that have plenty of room for smart, sustainable—and affordable—housing development. The sort of homes perfect for baristas and maids and cooks and adjunct professors.

Instead of being a planning issue, low-income families could just be—families. Families renting old Mrs. Brown’s basement apartment. Families buying food at E.W. Thomas (the greatest grocery store in the area, by the way). Families owning a dog and going to church and playing basketball in the driveway and growing tomatoes in the backyard.

With improved access to Charlottesville, townships (crossroads along with surrounding homes and land) may be able to nurture cultures and economies of their own. Places people are proud to be from. In lots of ways, our city is already investing in pathways for poor families to better their situation. Now let’s build some roads.