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How a “Great Place” Tackles Housing Affordability: Q&A with Maurice A. Jones

In an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow, LISC CEO Maurice A. Jones unpacks the myriad fronts on which government, community developers and residents must intercept the affordability crisis. In addition to smarter policy and much more investment, development and preservation, “you also have to go at it from the people side,” says Jones. “Helping people get on a viable pathway to a living wage career” is crucial to making serious inroads on our housing challenges.

The excerpt below was originally published:
Q&A with LISC President and CEO Maurice Jones on preventing displacement
By Emily Hays, Charlottesville Tomorrow

When asked how to solve local affordable housing shortages, LISC President and CEO Maurice Jones barely has to think before he answers. 

Originally established by the Ford Foundation, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. focuses on connecting communities to the resources they need to narrow health, housing and other inequities. The nonprofit works in hundreds of communities across the country and pulls together millions of dollars of public and private funds. 

LISC recently partnered with Sentara Healthcare to invest $100 million in Hampton Roads to improve health outcomes tied to housing, transportation and job development. LISC also has shown interest in becoming more involved in Charlottesville through new nonprofit New Hill Development Corp.’s efforts.

Jones himself has Virginia roots. He grew up with his grandparents in the town of Kenbridge, near Farmville, and studied at Hampden-Sydney College before becoming a Rhodes scholar and graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law. 

He went on to become a publisher of The Virginian-Pilot and second-in-command of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama. He is currently a member of the UVa Board of Visitors. 

Jones was the keynote speaker at the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s Philanthropy Day on Tuesday. Charlottesville Tomorrow pulled him aside before his speech to ask him to weigh in on how to solve the affordable housing shortage in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Q: Are the solutions for solving Charlottesville’s affordable housing shortage and the legacy of race-based housing discrimination like racial covenants and urban renewal the same or different?

A: I wish I could tell you there was only one solution to the housing challenges in Charlottesville. 

As in many other places, there is no question that you have a market where you have more demand for housing than you have a delivery system that can supply. Part of it is demand just completely outpacing our ability to supply and to supply housing for folks at incomes across the spectrum. That’s one piece of it. 

A second piece of it is that the cost of housing in Charlottesville and this Piedmont region, like in other places, just has increased: supplies, labor, etc. It has increased so much that, again, going back to the market, it now is tougher to make the economics work, except for housing at the higher end of the spectrum. That’s just a pure economics challenge that we have to solve. 

Meanwhile, we still need housing for our teachers and our firefighters and our first responders and our nurses, etc. So, the question is: How you help that market be better at supplying houses for folks across the economic spectrum? And I haven’t even mentioned race yet.

Now, there’s no question that a third component is the legacy that race has played in this place just like any other place, and we need to have a better understanding of that and we need to be open and honest about the role that race has played in the design of this place and that continues to play in access to capital and access to neighborhoods and access to credit, etc. 

No question, all of those factors are at play, and a great place attacks all of them. That’s what we’re seeing. And I didn’t list all of them. That’s an illustrative list. 

Q: What do you think is the most important investment Charlottesville could make to solve its affordable housing shortage?

A: So, here’s the deal. I want to make sure people don’t think that solving the affordable housing shortage solves all the problems. Affordable housing has to be attacked on several different areas.

One area is that you have to build more. You have to build more at prices that are affordable to people across the income spectrum, so supply. Increasing supply is one.

The second one – just as important – is preserving what you have. Preservation is a big piece of the affordable housing solution. There are some houses and units of housing that are affordable and what they call naturally-occurring. You’ve got to preserve them, which often means that you’ve got to make sure that housing is in the hands of folks who are committed to affordability. We do that in a lot of places. We help nonprofits, for example, acquire units of housing on the market that are at risk of becoming market-rate houses and not affordable. 

So, preservation has to be a big piece of your solution toolbox and protection of people who are living in areas where gentrification is occurring and who have been there for a long time and who are at risk, because of the value escalation, of getting essentially booted out. 

So you’ve got production, you’ve got preservation, you’ve got protection. But in addition to that and just as important as that, you’ve got to help people acquire the skills that they need to get higher wage jobs. Some argue that the best affordable housing policy is a job and a career making a livable wage. I’m not going to go that far, but it is a crucial part of the solution. 

You’ve got to go at it from the housing and real estate side. You also have to go at it from the people side – helping people get on a viable pathway to a living wage career. You do both of those things, with vigor, with patience, with stamina, and you can make serious, serious progress on the affordable housing challenges in Charlottesville. 

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