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RGGI funds reinvention of Virginia public housing


Myrtle Houchens moved out of downtown Charlottesville’s Friendship Court 15 years ago. But her former neighbors never let her stop calling the public housing complex home.

That’s why the 66-year-old has been in high demand as the nonprofit Piedmont Housing Alliance invited residents to take charge of reinventing the uninspired rental townhomes built more than four decades ago in the aftermath of urban renewal. Starting this autumn, Friendship Court will be rebuilt in phases as an appealing mix of 450 apartments and townhomes. 

Myrtle Houchens

Community members having a seat at the planning table is uncommon enough. What’s even rarer is this: The design folds in top-of-the-line energy efficiency measures that likely would have been left on the cutting-room floor if Virginia had not followed through on a proposal to join an East Coast carbon cap-and-invest enterprise last year.

Houchens’ official role is as one of four at-large members of the Friendship Court Advisory Committee. However, because of her outspokenness and the unbreakable bonds she forged in her 26 years as a renter, she has become a mentor-in-chief for an audience accustomed to being dismissed.

“I’ve seen the progress of the residents, to where they now feel comfortable voicing their own opinions and their wishes,” she said about meeting regularly with the eight-member elected advisory committee. “To have lived there so long and then be part of what Friendship Court is going to become is absolutely amazing.”

For instance, complaints about exceedingly high electric bills didn’t lie fallow. They evolved into discussions about how contractors could save residents money and lower the new community’s carbon footprint by investing in airtight windows as well as insulation, finely tuned HVAC systems, heat-pump water heaters and other green infrastructure.

“We figured, if we were going to do this, let’s do it right,” she said. “We should have the best materials possible.”

Sunshine Mathon

Houchens knew those extra investments wouldn’t come cheap, but she had faith that the alliance’s executive director, Sunshine Mathon, would solve that math problem because of the value he placed on quality of life.

“The work residents have done as co-designers is awe-inspiring to me,” Mathon said about their diligence in absorbing basic lessons on urban planning and taking field trips to other cities. 

His stomach knotted in spring 2020 when COVID-19 delayed phase one construction plans. Building costs skyrocketed, and he feared extra energy efficiency measures would have to be axed to meet the budget.

“Miraculously, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative passed in the General Assembly,” Mathon said. “Funding became available and frankly it has saved us.”

RGGI, started in 2008, is designed to curb the emissions of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuel power plants by auctioning carbon dioxide allowances. The 11 member states decide independently how to spend the dollars. 

This first year, Virginia legislators directed roughly half of the estimated $100 million in annual auction proceeds to a range of energy efficiency programs for low-income households. The state Department of Housing and Community Development is administering the program.

Mathon’s alliance is in line to receive $1.5 million in this initial year of RGGI funding.

Pause, reevaluate and retool

Mathon, a Vermont native, was hired by the alliance four years ago, a couple of years into the Friendship Court redevelopment discussion. Before he moved from Texas to take the job, he made it clear that he wanted to revisit the original master plan calling for 600 multifamily dwellings on the almost 13-acre site only minutes from the city’s popular pedestrian mall.

“That original version struggled to connect the dots of hopes and fears residents had expressed,” he said, citing missteps. “If I was going to come on board, we needed to pause, reevaluate and figure out how to retool.”

Residents didn’t like living on an isolated island with limited access. They wanted to be part of the larger community, with doorways opening onto neighborhood streets.

Friendship Court was built in 1978 on a vacant site where giant swaths of a Black neighborhood had been razed several years prior. The median annual income of current residents is $14,000.

Two decades ago, the alliance and the Washington, D.C.-based National Housing Trust/Enterprise Preservation Corporation purchased the complex as 50-50 partners.

“The existence of Friendship Court has clear racist underpinnings. Where we are today is not an accident,” Mathon said. The zoning rules, loan denials, redlining and other long-term roadblocks “in general have created a housing system constructed on a foundation of racist principles and white supremacy,” he said. “We need to be investing in communities who have historically been ignored.”

Rebuilding Friendship Court is directly connected to a U.S. Treasury Department program that uses population and poverty statistics to allot low-income housing tax credits to states annually. It has funded millions of affordable housing units nationwide since 1986. 

A few years ago, tax-credit recipient Virginia Housing followed the lead of development authorities in other states by providing developer teams valuable extra points for backing housing projects proven to meet “passive house” and “zero-energy ready home” efficiency standards.

At about that time, Mathon’s alliance was awarded $1.6 million of Virginia’s share of tax credits. Selling those credits to equity investors will earn the alliance about $15 million over 10 years. That’s not quite half of the $35 million needed to complete phase one of Friendship Court, the most expensive phase because it includes soil excavation and a leasing office.

Briefly, the tax credit program is designed to attract buyers who gain benefits such as depreciation costs. That subsidy allows building owners to reduce debt load by paying down construction costs and also continue to maintain the property while keeping rents low.

Mathon was hopeful the new Friendship Court could meet both of the new stricter efficiency standards even though they didn’t come cheap. Then, an optimistic donor with an interest in “passive house” design committed $100,000 to explore how to maximize airtightness. 

“It was a leap of faith to pursue that,” Mathon said. “But it was a catalytic moment that set us on that path, even if we weren’t sure how we would pay for it.”

When Virginia finally committed to linking with RGGI, he was part of a stakeholder group with expertise in energy efficiency and low-income housing that began brainstorming how to quickly distribute the roughly $55 million that would be available in the fiscal year that began July 1. Some $33 million of that total were put into an existing state “bucket” designated for renovating affordable housing such as Friendship Court.

The alliance’s $1.5 million share of that money was Mathon’s ticket to folding extra-green measures into Friendship Court.

“We wanted to ensure the money would be going to something that was above and beyond what would be done anyway,” he said. “Otherwise, it ends up being the same old, same old.”

Department of Housing and Community Development spokesperson Alexis Carey said applicants for RGGI funds must meet strict energy efficiency requirements for new construction, adaptive reuse and rehabilitation projects.

“Affordable housing developers in Virginia [already] build quality, energy-efficient projects,” Carey said. The RGGI funds “are an opportunity to provide additional support to developers aiming for very high energy efficiency performance.”

A map shows the four phases of the Friendship Court redevelopment plan. Credit: Piedmont Housing Alliance / Courtesy

An investment in the collective future

The Department of Housing and Community Development estimates that RGGI money will help to build or preserve more than 1,200 units of affordable housing in the first funding year. It’s difficult to predict future revenues because auction prices will fluctuate and the number of allowances will decline over the next decade, Carey said.

“As far as what will come forth with climate change, the people we serve are most at risk,” Mathon said, adding that maximizing energy efficiency goes beyond the boundaries of Friendship Court. “These are investments in the collective future of the community.”

Nationwide, buildings consume about three-quarters of the electricity used across the country and account for 40% of the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions, according to figures from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. 

Houses meeting “zero-energy ready home” and “passive home” standards use significantly less energy than those built with standard construction practices. 

In addition to high-end windows and heat-pump water heaters, improvements focus on fresh air circulation, airtightness, and eliminating moisture by installing adequate insulation, ventless dryers, and vents in bathrooms and kitchens.

KC Bleile, executive director of Viridiant, served on the committee with Mathon that advised the housing department how to best deliver RGGI dollars across the state.

Viridiant is a Richmond-based nonprofit that expanded into Virginia more than 15 years ago to spur state agencies and developers into creating a pathway to energy efficiency standards for buildings. Bleile is impressed with how the state has latched onto those green construction advances since then.

RGGI money allows developers to cover the costs of continuing to push the envelope on energy efficiency, Bleile said.

“This is really the housing of the future,” she said, referring to how airtight homes can eventually maximize rooftop solar. “When we switch to renewable energy, we’re able to make that property carbon-neutral.”

Bleile has high compliments for how housing department officials engaged stakeholders in conversations about distributing RGGI funds. Instead of making unilateral decisions, they listened and addressed gaps that will allow energy efficiency practices with affordable housing to jump to the next level.

What matters to Houchens about RGGI is that sleeker heating and cooling systems plus lower electric bills add up to a Friendship Court “that is a nice place to live. It was always my wish to see change in that community.”

When she moved there as a renter in the 1990s, it was called Garrett Square. Water runoff that caused persistent flooding was just one issue that propelled her into a role as an advocate for tenants’ rights.

“Back then, my perspective is that the attitude of the city was, ‘We provided you with a home, so be satisfied with that.’ But we’re still residents of the city of Charlottesville.” 

As frustrating as that dismissal was, the forgiveness mantra she shares these days is, “it’s never too late to begin the process of change.”

Houchens knows patience. She retired after 34-plus years as a reading specialist for Charlottesville elementary school students. She has no regrets about dedicating the past six years of her life to guiding the next iteration of Friendship Court.

“You can get more out of a long process,” she said. “It’s better than a quick fix.”

She’s excited that what she describes as a city within a city will attract a blend of renters and buyers. Residents insisted on preserving space for those with very low incomes and also including affordable and market-rate housing. Gardens, playgrounds, recreation areas, and parkland, as well as a community center, an early childhood classroom, and nonprofit office space, are also part of the future.

“We wanted to see tiers of housing and we wouldn’t back off on that requirement,” Houchens said about the goal of attracting teachers, police officers, nurses and other professionals to the area. “This way, everybody gets something.” 

The development will take place over four phases through 2028 so current residents won’t be displaced during the transition.

Houchens moved away to care for her elderly mother, who lived in nearby Louisa County. After her mother died, Houchens decided to stay in the family homestead permanently.

Might she ever be tempted to return?

“If I had the opportunity, I might consider it,” she said. “But even though I don’t live there, all this work will not be done in vain.

“To see it come together for future families is what’s rewarding.”

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