City seeks input on housing needs and discrimination

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

In analyzing impediments to fair housing choices, the city is seeking the public’s input — including with a survey and a forum — to find out what people see as Harrisonburg’s most urgent needs. They will also allow residents to share whether they faced discrimination in their searches for housing.

The city’s Department of Community Development, working with consultant Mullin & Lonergan, has already conducted three stakeholder workshops. A survey is available now, and the city will host a forum for public input on Dec. 6.

The city is required to submit plans to the state in order to continue receiving Community Development Block Grant funding. In each annual plan, it has to identify where it will spend its funding to address the national objectives of benefiting low-to-middle/moderate-income people, preventing or eliminating blight and addressing urgent needs when health and welfare are threatened.

Jessica Lurz, senior project manager at M&L, told the city council at Tuesday’s meeting that she expects the city should receive about $504,000 based on last year’s grants once the Fiscal Year 2022 allotments are finalized. That money can be spent on programs like housing rehabilitation, homeownership assistance and public services. 

Council member Laura Dent said in addition to the fair housing protected classes like race, religion, and familial status, the source of one’s funds is also protected, including those with housing vouchers. She also said that there still exist ways for developers to get around that by raising the rent above the voucher cap or charging excessive security deposits.

Lurz said that the standards that property management companies set for who they’ll accept are held true for anyone that’s applying, but that smaller mom-and-pop landlords are typically more lenient than larger, multi-state corporations.

Mayor Deanna Reed said while some landlords work with organizations to find housing for the homeless population, it’s more lucrative for them to rent to college students. 

“It makes it more difficult to have those landlords work with us because they can get their money elsewhere,” Reed said.

Vice mayor Sal Romero said with the community facing a housing crunch, there’s a greater chance for discrimination. He said relying on the reactive measure of working through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address complaints of discrimination isn’t the best approach.

“We address it if we know about it, and if people tell us about it,” Romero said. “But I would be concerned not to address the many that are not reported.”

He said many such instances go unreported because tenants might fear getting wrapped up in red tape or other issues that would create a bigger problem legally. 

Kristin McCombe, the community block grant coordinator, said the procedure is to forward complaints to the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, and she doesn’t hear anything past that. She said she’s only seen three or four complaints come across her desk in the last several years.

Reed said the city hasn’t been proactive enough because she said she’s received more than a few complaints.

“Sometimes we have to meet the people where they are,” Reed said.

Urgency regarding city’s bus driver shortage

As the city continues to face a shortage of school and city bus drivers, director of Harrisonburg Department of Public Transportation Gerald Gatobu asked council to consider increasing drivers’ pay and more aggressively marketing to attract applicants. 

School bus drivers have been making multiple runs at the beginning and end of each day to ensure all students get to school, often resulting in delays and children returning home later than usual. It’s also preventing classes from taking field trips because of the lack of drivers.

He also said the transportation department offers options besides driving for the city’s schools and transit, including a contract with some JMU sports teams to drive to away games and private transit, which can help fill out a 40-hour work week.

“We really do want to serve members of this community, but we need to partner together and see how we can get to have kids go to school, and make sure that we have enough in terms of making sure that people doing their job feel like they’re valued members of this community,” Gatobu said.

Annette Fornadel, a teacher from Harrisonburg City Public Schools, also spoke in support of Gatobu’s request. She said many bus drivers for the school division and city left during the pandemic and wages are still inadequate to attract others. 

School bus drivers in Harrisonburg are currently paid between $15.35 and $15.85 an hour. 

The city is currently offering a $1,000 signing bonus for all new hires and existing drivers, both for the school and transit. Director of communications Mike Parks said the city is still early in the marketing campaign, but they’ve seen good returns so far, especially from ads targeted at JMU students.

Council member Chris Jones asked residents that might be retired or unemployed to help the 4,000 or so children that take city school buses everyday.

“I’m asking if you can make the sacrifice to work because this job has so many more benefits to help the most vulnerable and yet precious resource we have, which are our children,” Jones said. “We need your help, and we can’t get this done without people showing up.”

Council takes step to obtain water line easement

The council unanimously approved using condemnation or eminent domain proceedings, if necessary, to acquire an easement for the Eastern Raw Waterline Project.

In a previous presentation to council, director of public utilities Mike Collins said the Shenandoah River would be a critical part in the future of Harrisonburg’s water supply.

The city already acquired 43 necessary easements for the project, but after continued negotiations with Stagg, LLC, city attorney Chris Brown said the landowner has rejected the city’s offers. Brown said even with the city’s approval, negotiations with the party will continue.

The city needs a 20-foot-wide utility easement that runs across the property alongside Port Republic Road. The landowner owns about 1,300 feet of frontage on Port Republic of the 93-acre property. The city has offered to dig the easement several feet deeper than a utility usually requires after concerns from the landowner regarding how the easement might affect future development of the property or the construction of a commercial entrance.

The city has offered $20,300 for land Rockingham County has assessed at $3,029.

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