My name's Willie Hilliard, and like the title says I'm an affordable housing advocate seeking a seat on the Richmond, Virginia City Council. Let's talk housing policy (or anything else!)

There's two main ways local governments are actively hampering the construction of affordable housing.

The first way is zoning regulations, which tell you what you can and can't build on a parcel of land. Now, they have their place - it's good to prevent industry from building a coal plant next to a residential neighborhood! But zoning has been taken too far, and now actively stifles the construction of enough new housing to meet most cities' needs. Richmond in particular has shocking rates of eviction and housing-insecurity. We need to significantly relax zoning restrictions.

The second way is property taxes on improvements on land (i.e. buildings). Any economist will tell you that if you want less of something, just tax it! So when we tax housing, we're introducing a distortion into the market that results in less of it (even where it is legal to build). One policy states and municipalities can adopt is to avoid this is called split-rate taxation, which lowers the tax on buildings and raises the tax on the unimproved value of land to make up for the loss of revenue.

So, AMA about those policy areas, housing affordability in general, what it's like to be a candidate for office during a pandemic, or what changes we should implement in the Richmond City government! You can find my comprehensive platform here.

Proof it's me. Edit: I'll begin answering questions at 10:30 EST, and have included a few reponses I had to questions from /r/yimby.

If you'd like to keep in touch with the campaign, check out my FaceBook or Twitter

I would greatly appreciate it if you would be wiling to donate to my campaign. Not-so-fun fact: it is legal to donate a literally unlimited amount to non-federal candidates in Virginia.


Edit 2: I’m signing off now, but appreciate your questions today!

Comments: 1616 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

WillieHilliardRVA520 karma

In the /r/yimby thread /u/theaceoface asked:

What are your views on rent control? What are your views on zoning incentives for building BMR units?

Rent control is one policy where economists are close to universal in their agreement that it’s a bad idea. It causes less housing to be built in the long term and contributes to gentrification. For anyone interested in reading about how it does this, here’s an overview of the relevant literature by the Brookings Institute. It does help some renters who are lucky enough to snag a rent-controlled unit, but the broader harm that it does to other renters and would-be residents of an area with rent control greatly outweighs the benefit to the people it helps. It’s just bad policy to ensure housing affordability, and there are other ways to ensure that people can be housed regardless of income. You raise one of them in your second question:

Zoning incentives to construct some BMR (Below Market Rate) housing is one area that is a promising tool to help ensure housing affordability across a range of income levels, if implemented correctly. Specifically, I support a policy approach called inclusionary upzoning. It basically works like this: developers are allowed to build denser housing (duplexes, apartments, etc.) on a given lot if they set aside a portion of the units for housing people with lower-incomes at a rate below what they could charge on the market.

It has a few advantages. I am opposed to the state of segregation by race and income that we too often take as a fact of life, and mixed-income developments have positive downstream effects on working- and middle-class folks’ upward economic mobility and school equity. Another advantage over upzoning without stipulations is that voters tend to be more supportive of inclusionary upzoning, and politics is the art of the possible. I aim to do the maximum amount of good possible if elected to the Richmond City Council, and a broad expansion of inclusionary upzoning is better than the much more limited, piecemeal upzoning the city has authorized in recent years.

ctenc001150 karma

What is going to happen when the bill comes due and mortgages are too far behind to get caught up, and rent is too far behind to get caught up?

I foresee massive foreclosures in the coming year which will kinda solve the affordable housing porblem short term when the housing market collapses.

WillieHilliardRVA24 karma

It's commonplace to say that the current pandemic/recession combination is unprecedented in the past century, and not for nothing. In the short to medium term we need action from the federal government to support renters and homeowners make it through the crisis, state and local governments simply do not have the resources.

Edit: spelling

WillieHilliardRVA104 karma

In the /r/yimby thread /u/agitatedprisoner asked:

1) Why is the rent so damn high?

2) Why can't many people afford to live near their workplaces?

So, I am in agreement with Jimmy McMillan that indeed, the rent is too damn high. We differ in our proposals to address that.

In short, the rent is high in most metro areas because there are too many people who want to live in too little housing. Landlords can charge a higher rent than they could if there were a free(r) market for housing because of the artificial supply restriction that zoning and flat real estate taxes both contribute to.

There’s a few ways that zoning in most cities (certainly in Richmond) contributes to an inability for people to afford to live near their workplaces. First and foremost is an opposition to mixed-use zoning. In my district on the city’s Northside, in large swaths of it it is only legal to build detached, single-family homes. People live in one place, the jobs are somewhere else. This is not to mention the fact that this overly top-down approach to that is de facto central planning for land use has, when combined with lack of adequate transportation options, created food deserts. Now, there are of course a time and place for these regulations; you certainly don’t want a liquor store springing up right across the street from a school, for instance. But the extent of the regulation in Richmond and around the country far surpasses those common-sense uses for zoning.

shot_a_man_in_reno74 karma

Why doesn't the housing market seem to follow basic economic principles? Many wealthy people use houses as gold bricks, but the inherent value in housing is derived from people living in them, and with, for instance, around 15,000 empty apartments in Manhattan, one would think that the law of supply and demand would kick in and the value of these would lower. But with housing, it seems as though owners, en masse, are never willing to adjust pricing to the levels that renters or other buyers are willing to pay. Is this just a giant long-term bubble that has yet to pop, or is it a sort of informal cartel-like behaviour among property owners?

EDIT: The answers to this are very educational. Manhattan is probably a poor example. My point was that, regardless of city, a lot of houses seem to sit empty on the market without the price budging.

WillieHilliardRVA62 karma

The property tax reform that I support directly discourages using real estate as a speculative asset, by increasing taxes levied on the unimproved value of the land. Without development on a lot, fluctuations in the price of a piece of real estate are mostly the value of the land beneath a property, rather than the building itself. This tax reform does a better job of capturing any unearned gains from land speculation and therefore discourages it.

WillieHilliardRVA39 karma

In the /r/yimby thread /u/toughguy375 asked:

How much does rent cost in Richmond? How accessible are the poor parts of Richmond to the downtown and the major businesses? What changes can be made to improve this accessibility? Does the zoning allow or encourage higher density residential and commercial development? Is Richmond encouraging more development along transportation corridors?

Rent in Richmond can vary widely by housing type and location.

There is also variability in accessibility to the core and commercial sections of the city from low-income neighborhoods, but in general it is subpar. In my district (Northside) this is the case.

To improve accessibility, as I’ve said elsewhere, we need to for starters allow people to live closer to where they work and shop by legalizing more mixed-use development. Furthermore, we need to expand the number of bus routes and the frequency of service among them, in addition to making major efforts to connect the city’s bike lanes and invest in pedestrian infrastructure. I plan to pay for this via progressive property tax reform, which you can read more about here.

Zoning in much of the city - Northside among it - generally does not allow high-density residential development or significant dispersion of commercial development. The city core is marred by regulations like mandatory minimum parking requirements - check out this map to see the result.

The city is taking steps to encourage more development along transportation corridors. Richmond’s draft plan, which has broad support, calls for the city to “prioritize funding projects that provide housing to very low-income individuals and families, including supportive housing, within a ¼ mile of enhanced transit corridors”. I believe more can be done.

WillieHilliardRVA35 karma

In the /r/yimby thread /u/fastento asked:

What happens to property values in neighborhoods that upzone vs. neighborhoods that “preserve their character?”

There is a myth - perpetuated by none other than our esteemed President - that allowing a variety of housing types will reduce property values. It may seem like a contradiction, but upzoning both increases property values and increases housing affordability. How? Well, consider a single-family-zoned lot. If you allow the conversion of the house into a duplex, you effectively remove an artificial restriction on putting the land to more productive use. When the land has more productive potential, its value rises. Some owners in this scenario will choose to convert their property into a duplex, allowing. So if the single-family-zoned house was worth $250k, the land with the duplex might be worth, say, $400k. And so each of the two housed families’ housing costs are less than the initial, singular family’s housing costs were, and simultaneously the original owner of the property still increased their wealth during the upzoning and by developing the property.

WillieHilliardRVA25 karma

In the /r/yimby thread /u/oldnewspaperguy2 asked:

How far are you comfortable going to maximize density?

Also, what community givebacks offered by a developer would be most beneficial to this city?

In practice, to actually be implemented in Richmond the allowance of additional density likely will have to fall into two basic buckets, the city core and transit/commercial corridors where the densest construction would be permitted, and the remainder of the city, where I would push to allow ‘missing middle’ housing.
The city’s draft plan for long-term development and growth calls for the city to, among other measures: “Amend the rehabilitation tax abatement program to provide incentives for for-profit developers to create mixed-income residential housing where at least 20% of the units are affordable to households earning less than 50% of the AMI”. I believe this is a reasonable ask.

WillieHilliardRVA21 karma

/u/UtridRagnarson asked:

If you succeed in making a previously exclusionary area so inclusive and affordable that some folks living in poverty can afford to move to dense appartments there, will the existing residents have to pay more in taxes to subsidize social services and police to help and keep safe those disadvantaged new residents? How will children living in poverty be supported in previously exclusionary public schools for their success and the success of existing students?

I would push back on the premise of your question some, as Richmond already has a far-too-high poverty rate that was more than a quarter of residents even before the pandemic and recession hit.

Removing artificial restrictions on the productivity of Richmond’s most valuable land will by itself increase the city’s tax base. I am also the only candidate in the race to support a shift to split-rate taxation, which is a significant step away from our current, flat-rate property tax system and a step towards a system of land value taxation. This would be the source of revenue beyond the additional amount that would come into the city coffers from further developing our land. It would raise the revenue in a fundamentally fairer way, asking only those Richmonders who can truly afford to fund essential city services like schools and roads to do so. And that’s a select few we’re talking about - property taxes under the current flat rate system are too high for too many as it stands.

What the Council can do to support students living in poverty who begin to attend schools which were previously more segregated along class and racial lines is to fully fund Richmond Public Schools. We need to require periodic financial and equity audits of RPS, and target additional funds wisely into neglected areas like teacher recruitment and retention to reduce turnover. Most of the nitty gritty of overseeing integration falls to the School Board.

fishdump19 karma

Do you have any ideas for streamlining the paperwork for self-built houses? We were aiming to build a house last year (not near you) but the paperwork is a freaking labyrinth for anyone new to pulling permits. We ended up scaling back to just cleaning up the property rather than building a small home because the paperwork issues ate up nearly a year.

WillieHilliardRVA17 karma

We absolutely need to revamp the permitting process in Richmond. It is one of the most significant barriers to building and renovating in the city, and all the zoning reform in the world doesn't do you much good if nobody can get the permits to actually build the darn housing!

Zahn113817 karma

What do you think of the impact of foreign investment and speculation on residential real estate prices? Do you think that the US should forbid foreign ownership of housing?

WillieHilliardRVA22 karma

A tax on vacant properties held as speculative assets is one thing, but wholesale prohibition of foreign ownership of housing smacks of xenophobia. Vancouver tried this without touching the fundamental supply constraints on housing and - surprise surprise - the measure had very little impact on actually making housing more affordable.

WillieHilliardRVA15 karma

/u/KarenEiffel asked:

How's the new BRT doing? How do you see it impacting (positive or negative) affordable housing in the city?

The reorganization that brought about the Bus Rapid Transit line (known as “The Pulse”) has had mixed results. A Virginia Commonwealth University report that ridership is up overall, and it has increased accessibility to and between the sections of the city it serves. However, the same study reported that certain low-income and disproportionately racial minority neighborhoods saw decreased service, which goes without saying is a policy failure. On the whole, The Pulse is a net win for affordable housing, as there have been multiple upzonings along the high-frequency route, for instance in the neighborhoods of Scott’s Addition and Monroe Ward. But we can and must do better.

Dejesus_H_Christian14 karma

From what I've seen housing prices started rising so much in conjunction with almost no new apartment buildings being built since the 1960's and 1970's. Those big, rectangle-ish, concrete apartment buildings were ubiquitous and basically the only large residential buildings around. Then somewhere along the line only small, expensive, luxury condos with really bad architecture, weird and small layouts, often with nowhere to even put a couch and television, low square footage etc became the norm. And they just don't build "normal" buildings anymore, and almost never buildings specifically for rentals.

Why aren't normal-sized apartments built, at all, anymore?

WillieHilliardRVA9 karma

I can't speak to the country wide situation, but in Richmond it is to a large degree a question of zoning. Now, why don't we zone to allow the kind of apartments you're talking about? That's a massive other can of worms you could (and many people have) written books and theses on.

neuromorph10 karma

Thoughts on CA prop 13?

WillieHilliardRVA24 karma

They really shot themselves in the foot on that one.  Chronic underfunding of essential government services like schools for decades now.

ArchyRs6 karma

Hey Willie! I recently returned home to Michigan after four years of study in RVA. While I studied in and frequented the Henrico area, I also spent lots of time volunteering in the city. One of my first realizations that I had trying to learn the public transportation system as a kid from the suburbs was how accommodating GRTC was for the more suburban focal points. This seemed strange to me.

GRTC and public transportation in general is a lynchpin in making sure people can support their 9 to 5 lifestyle. A roof over a head means nothing if you don’t even have the agency to move around and get to where you’re trying to go on time. How can Richmond take steps to ensure GRTC is effectively accessible by everyone from Memorial Ave to East End?

WillieHilliardRVA8 karma

Three measures that will require more funding (paid for by property tax reform): more routes, more frequent service along those routes, and continuing to keep the GRTC free of charge after the pandemic has lifted. The more people who come to use the GRTC, the broader the public support for keeping service humming along - if not expanding it. It's good policy, and then downstream from that good politics, and loops back around to being good policy.

Heysteeevo5 karma

The politics of land use is truly toxic (SF resident here). Have you had any successful examples of bridging the divide with homeowner NIMBYs or tenants rights anti-gentrification groups?

WillieHilliardRVA6 karma

The Richmond 300 Planning Commission has worked out a broadly equitable and supported series of compromises on land use issues. I suppose a Hilliard victory this November would represent the assembling of a coalition across those groups, as well!

scubalopsey4 karma

Is there a labor shortage for builders to get home built? If so what can we do to fill the gap to get more young people in to construction?

WillieHilliardRVA5 karma

There is a shortage of "skilled" laborers for builders. I would enhance the Richmond Technical Center's programs to meet the needs. An apprentice program needs to be created with these companies that will allow a seemless transition for these youth right into the working field.

Littleferrhis24 karma

How did the rise of VCU’s prominence in Richmond affect housing? I grew up in Chesterfield and remember seeing how, particularly after the final four appearance of VCU, Richmond transformed into a college town. I’m guessing there were more causes than just the final four appearance, but especially since a lot of the restaurants and other meeting spaces in Richmond are now mostly geared towards college age people, and the campus takes up a significant portion of the city, I’m wondering what the overall effect of housing has been. Were a lot of people who lived in those areas slowly pushed out. Was it like a reverse white flight kind of thing?

WillieHilliardRVA6 karma

VCU's growth and the increased demand for housing by students, combined with sluggish growth in the housing stock, has gentrified and continues to gentrify some neighborhoods in particular like Oregon Hill. But the broader increase in prices and displacement of longtime residents can be felt citywide to a degree.

toeofcamell3 karma

Instead of focusing on providing cheap housing what are your thoughts on promoting higher education and promoting higher paying careers in low income areas?

WillieHilliardRVA5 karma

Higher education is paramount to success and the ability to acquire true family supportive wages! We can never take our focus off of housing affordability within our communities though.

ottonomy3 karma

I see a lot of people in my college town hometown wanting to send homeless people to the larger regional cities, saying this shouldn't be a problem absorbed by 60k population cities. But competition for rentals there is wild, and there's hardly any availability. What are the best few things a small city should do?

WillieHilliardRVA6 karma

Depends on the city's financial situation. I would say that giving the homeless residents of a locality bus fare to another city to 'make them someone else's problem' is a moral failing and indicative of the low value we place on the dignity of the unhoused. Smaller cities typically have room to build, and should legalize doing so! Even without direct government support - which for many homeless individuals is absolutely a necessary part of the equation - a large chunk of the housing insecurity crisis could be alleviated just by allowing people to build small, affordable homes or apartments to purchase or rent.

WhyAlwaysMe_452 karma

What can the local government do to ensure that every last one of us has a roof over our head?

WillieHilliardRVA4 karma

In the short term (for the duration of the recession) freeze evictions and directly put our money where our mouth is to house the homeless, support eviction diversion programs, and supplement very-low-income individuals' rent payments. In the longer term, address the underlying supply issues by legalizing the construction of enough housing and removing or reducing the tax disincentives to build enough housing.

Diet_Coke1 karma

Hi Willie, thanks for doing this! It seems like one big part of the affordability crisis in Richmond is the existence of VCU. Students don't want to live on campus, so they rent apartments for $600 - $1000 per room. If you're investing in a property, that's going to mean you'll be able to spend a lot more than someone looking to live there.

How would you tackle land speculators and non-local landlords?

WillieHilliardRVA3 karma

I've commented elsewhere in this AMA that "the property tax reform that I support directly discourages using real estate as a speculative asset, by increasing taxes levied on the unimproved value of the land. Without development on a lot, fluctuations in the price of a piece of real estate are mostly the value of the land beneath a property, rather than the building itself. This tax reform does a better job of capturing any unearned gains from land speculation and therefore discourages it."

Jane98121 karma

Historically and globally, the most successful (some argue only) solution to affordable housing has been heavy government subsidies. Is this on the table? Why/why not?

WillieHilliardRVA1 karma

Legalizing the construction of affordable housing in a way that it's currently prohibited in too many areas of Richmond is a necessary but not sufficient part of the solution. It will put a large dent in poverty, but not eliminate it by any means. Low- and no-income households will continue to need direct government assistance to make rent, and in some cases to build wealth. But even with progressive property tax reform, Richmond still only has so many resources, so any investments in the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, etc. need to be targeted toward those who need them the most.

Gooner6950 karma

Thank you for doing the AMA. I went to University of Richmond, but live in DC now. Most of my friends and I would love to move back to RVA, but the necessity of owning a car stops us from doing so.

  1. Do you factor in cost of transportation when considering housing costs? I pay basically the same amount to not own a car and rent in DC as I would to own a car and rent in RVA.

  2. Is there a conversation in RVA surrounding the abolition of minimum off-street parking requirements? Those requirements account for a surprisingly high amount of construction costs, and also make neighborhoods less walkable and more car-dependent.

  3. Would you support a transition from Euclidean zoning to a form-based zoning code?

I dream of a day when a street car is on Monument Ave again!

Thanks again

WillieHilliardRVA2 karma

1) While transportation is deeply linked with housing policy (and land use policy in general) I think it is better to keep both of them under a broader "cost-of-living" bucket.

2) There certainly is a conversation now! I'm the only Northside candidate to be calling for citywide abolition of these parking regulations. Could not agree with your assessment of their effects more.

3) yes, I support the draft master plan to encourage a transition to form-based zoning code.

WillieHilliardRVA1 karma

  1. While transportation is deeply linked with housing policy(and land use policy in general) I think it is better to keep both of them under a broader cost of living bucket.
  2. There certainly is conversation now! I'm the only Northside candidate to be calling for citywide abolition of these parking regulations. Could not agree with your assessment of their effects more.
  3. Yes, I support the draft master plan to encourage a transition to form based in zinind code.

XmossflowerX0 karma

As a concerned citizen, what can I do to help my local region?

WillieHilliardRVA7 karma

Get involved in local politics, it has the lowest barrier to entry to make a real difference in peoples' lives! Give pro-housing testimony at city/county board meetings, knock doors for candidates, etc.. Heck, maybe even run for office yourself!

henryefry0 karma

Train good?

WillieHilliardRVA1 karma

Train good, but train have specific use and not necessarily best tool for every job.