A dilapidated unit in Bermuda Estates Mobile Home Park before replacement. Image by project:HOMES

Just two weeks after Richmond City Council passed an ordinance declaring Virginia’s capital to be in the throes of an affordable housing crisis, that same body rejected a special use permit to allow a local nonprofit to manufacture affordable housing on the city’s Southside. The cognitive dissonance required to make such a decision was not lost on the councilwoman behind the sole yay vote, Ann-Frances Lambert of the 3rd District.

“I’m a bit confused,” she told the Times-Dispatch afterward. “We stood together a couple of weeks ago with the mayor addressing affordable housing as a crisis in our city. Project:HOMES has been there for 22 years. They’re helping us with our crisis. What is the problem with building homes to help us with our crisis?”

But to focus on just two votes in April is to miss the forest of racist zoning for the trees.

“This was never about affordable housing”

Beyond the details of the drama between 9th District Councilmember Mike Jones — a rising star in the commonwealth’s Democratic Party — and one of Richmond’s premier housing nonprofits, the impasse boiled down to whether a warehouse should be sited next to single-family housing. The lot Project:HOMES hoped to turn into a production facility for manufacturing affordable mobile homes is currently zoned R-3, not industrial.

The need for a special use permit proved Jones’ opportunity to have a bigger conversation about why less desirable land uses often end up in the city’s poorer, Blacker, and Browner neighborhoods south of the James River.

“This was never about affordable housing,” he said in an interview. “We want affordable housing here in the 9th District. We just don’t want a warehouse next to homes. This isn’t about NIMBYism, this is about why is it always in my backyard?”

The site of the proposed Project:HOMES warehouse. Image via GoogleMaps.

The one-third acre parcel Project:HOMES hoped to rezone lies just a stone’s throw away from Rosie’s Gaming Emporium, a gambling hall the 9th District couldn’t reject due to the area’s bounty of B-3 zoning.

80% of the city’s B-3 zoning that allows for all “adult uses” including strip clubs, night clubs, adult novelty shops, and tattoo parlors is in the 8th and 9th Districts south of the river, according to the councilmember. In contrast, the far whiter and wealthier 1st District encompassing Richmond’s posh West End doesn’t have a single parcel zoned B-3.

“For me, that is problematic,” said Jones. “Zoning is the new redlining. I couldn’t stop Rosie’s because it was by-right zoning,” Jones said. “That’s my problem. Our community had no say in Rosie’s, and that is the travesty in zoning.”

A citywide zoning code rewrite is expected to kick off later this year, which may create an opportunity to pursue systemic reforms that tackle inequities head on.

The problem persists

With Project:HOMES’ plans for an innovative facility to manufacture replacement units rightly or wrongly now on ice, the problem of substandard housing across the region’s mobile home parks persists. In 2016, the Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia released a scathing report detailing the often unsafe and unsanitary conditions many residents face.

Of the 54 parks surveyed encompassing some 4,735 mobile homes, just 18 parks scored above 50% on the quality of housing conditions.

The overwhelming demand for higher quality manufactured housing became abundantly clear to Project:HOMES’ CEO, Lee Householder, after his organization acquired Bermuda Estates Mobile Home Park in Chesterfield County to the city’s south. The proposed manufacturing warehouse is intended to help lower the cost of replacing decrepit units with quality homes to keep the complex as affordable as possible.

“Manufactured housing is the largest form of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country, but these are mostly units built in the 1970s that serve as the housing of last resort,” he said. “Most of the manufactured housing in the region is substandard, so unit replacement is a big part of the solution and we need to look at how we can get to scale to produce more affordable units locally.”

A decaying trailer in Bermuda Estates that has since had to be demolished. (project:HOMES)

The irony of a desire to protect single-family homes from an industrial use in a city in which most new multifamily housing from Scott’s Addition to Manchester to Chamberbrook is popping up in industrial areas is not lost on Householder.

“It’s more palatable to have apartments and density next to industrial spaces, but if it’s a single-family house with its own yard then there is a hesitance to have a commercial use next door,” he said.

Although Project:HOMES could wait for Councilmember Jones to leave City Council for the General Assembly later this year (he’s considered a shoo-in in a heavily Democratic district with no primary challenger), Householder and his team are using the setback as an opportunity to expand their original vision.

“This site was meant to be an innovation laboratory at a scale that might allow us flexibility in the future to get us more units,” he said. “As the idea matured and we attracted attention, we would actually like to have a site that could be at a little bit larger scale and accommodate future growth.”

Since City Council shot down the warehouse’s initial Southside location, Project:HOMES has heard from the neighboring counties of Henrico and Chesterfield who would be more than happy to find a site for a model affordable housing nonprofit looking to grow.

Could the manufactured housing facility still find a home in Virginia’s capital? Despite his no vote on the 9th District site, Jones is supportive.

“I’m all for it,” he said. “The City should help Project:HOMES find a suitable place. We have enough warehouse space in the city — on Southside of course — that this could happen.”