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Richmond Relaxes Regulations On Building Homeless Shelters

Entrance to city hall
Richmond City Council approved zoning changes Monday that will allow homeless shelters to be built throughout more of the city. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond City Council approved an ordinance Monday that would allow for homeless shelters to be built “by right” throughout more parts of the city.

Right now, when someone wants to open a homeless shelter or transitional housing they have to go through a special permitting process. Even if they pass that hurdle, Richmond City Council can also block the development. Allowing these types of emergency and supportive housing “by right” would eliminate those barriers.

City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson, one of the sponsors of the ordinance, said clearing the way for more housing services to locate in different parts of the city will help address Richmond’s housing crisis.

“We can’t keep talking about homelessness and [how] we need to provide shelter for homelessness, and not make provisions so that anyone who is willing to do this housing can have a place where they can do it by right,” Robertson said.

The zoning changes would apply not just to homeless shelters, but also transitional housing, like longer-term shelters, and permanent supportive housing that includes healthcare, case management and other wrap around services. They would be allowed by-right in most business districts in the city, as well as some multifamily residential districts.

The goal of the legislation is to stop the game of hot potato city officials have been playing with homeless services for years.

Most recently, the Salvation Army of Central Virginia faced intense backlash in 2019 when it applied for a permit to move its shelter operations from Downtown Richmond to the Northside neighborhood.

Then-Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, who represented Northside, opposed the move. Hilbert argued it was going to jeopardize the progress that’s been made to clean up the neighborhood.

“We saw some positive things happening on Chamberlayne Avenue, but recently we’ve had a spike in drug activity as well as prostitution,” he told VPM at the time. “I’m not sure that’s the best place to put it.”

An unspoken tradition of Richmond City Council is that other members defer to the district representative on zoning-related issues. Had Hilbert not eventually recused himself from the vote, it’s likely his opposition would have killed the proposal.

The city had played a similar game with its cold weather shelter. In 2018, Commonwealth Catholic Charities faced similar backlash when it wanted to build a new homeless shelter in Manchester. Catholic Charities has still not found a site to open its permanent shelter.

The ordinance approved by City Council would still put some additional regulations on shelters that don’t exist for other types of housing. They will have to be within half a mile of a bus stop, and at least a quarter mile away from existing shelters. They will also need to submit an operation plan. The Planning Commission will still need to approve the permit application. 

Council Member Stephanie Lynch, another sponsor of ordinance, said the goal is to ensure homeless services are accessible and deconcentrated.

“Having accessible services everywhere, and having a ‘no wrong door’ point-of-entry system, harmonizes with our overall homeless strategic plan and is a better and more dignified way to serve people,” she said.

According to the most recent point-in-time count from January 2020, 479 adults and 70 children are living unsheltered in Richmond.