Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Housing, sewers top City Council priorities for legislative session

James River with rocks peeking out of it
Richmond's more than 150-year-old sewer system overflows directly into the James River during heavy rainfall. City Council members cited acquiring additional funding for improvements to the system as one of their top priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In December, City Council unanimously endorsed a list of Richmond’s legislative and budget priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session that begins Jan. 11. 

The seven-page document asks Richmond’s seven state legislators — four delegates and three senators — to support various positions. It’s a familiar discussion each year, but there are some changes.

“I think the issue areas are extremely familiar, because some of the challenges that not only Richmond faces, but our commonwealth faces, have remained,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, a Democrat who represents Richmond’s 71st House District.

Paying public defenders as much as prosecutors, keeping the state out of local climate action plans and automatic restoration of rights for those convicted of felonies are among the policies the city wants to support in Capitol Square.

But three topics stood out as City Council priorities.

Richmond casino

At the top of the list is legislation about a possible casino in the city. Richmonders narrowly rejected a casino ballot measure in November 2021 — 51% to 49% — but city officials tried to hold another referendum in 2022 before state politics got in the way.

State Sen. Joe Morrissey (who represents parts of the city, as well as Petersburg) succeeded in including budget language that prevented Richmond from holding another referendum. Petersburg wants to keep a Richmond city casino from competing and lowering possible revenues at a project proposed in Petersburg now called Live! Casino & Hotel Virginia.

Bourne indicated that supporting a casino wasn’t high on his list of priorities.

“My focus is really on helping Richmond address the affordable housing issue. My focus is helping Richmond pump more money into the public school system [to] help pay their teachers,” he said. “Those are the issues that I’ll really sink my teeth into and focus my time and brainpower on. Only by necessity will I focus on who gets what casino. … There's just a lot of moving parts to that.”

Sewer improvements

Richmond is also nearing a state deadline to prevent sewage overflows into the James River. During large amounts of rainfall, the city’s drainage system — parts of which are 150 years old — is overwhelmed. As a result, raw sewage and stormwater flow directly into the river.

The city needs to fix the system by 2035 but legislators, such as state Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford), have tried to move that deadline up. Without substantial state funding, Richmond residents would have to fund the new infrastructure through their sewer bills. The total cost of the project is estimated at more than $1 billion.

“It's a really challenging set of responsibilities that Richmond has got to address,” said Peggy Sanner, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia executive director.

About 200,000 pounds of "nitrogen” comes from Richmond, Sanner said, more than double the amount from other Virginia localities, Alexandria and Lynchburg, with similar drainage systems. 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin included $100 million for improvements to Richmond’s sewer system in budget amendments he announced in December.


Four major housing policies were also put forward in the city memo, ranging from legislation enabling zoning changes to constitutional amendments.

Officials are requesting a constitutional amendment that would allow the city to expand property tax abatement and exemption programs beyond a few categories of people: the elderly, certain veterans and people with disabilities. A long-term owner occupancy program would allow the city to lower property tax bills on certain homes, but officials want a constitutional amendment to be broadly written to have the flexibility to reduce taxes for others as well.

The city also wants Virginia law amended to change how assessments are determined for subsidized housing. Currently,  the law considers income to landlords in how it assesses properties operating under select government housing programs. The city wants assessment flexibility for all subsidized rental properties for those making less than 80% of the area median income — or $80,550 for a family of four.

“We are a fan of anything that allows tax reductions for the use of affordable housing and the development of affordable housing,” said Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association. McCloud said 30% of apartment complexes’ operating expenses are taxes.

The city also wants property owners to be able to negotiate payments on tax-delinquent properties for longer periods of time. Current law allows payment arrangements for up to 60 months. Extending the period would fight gentrification and lower the monthly payments for paying back taxes, the city memo said. Bourne said he is sponsoring a bill on the issue: “I think it could bring some real relief and an added measure of security for people.”

He added that while the economy has seen some good times, there are anxieties over an economic slowdown in the coming months.

“We want to make sure that we provide as much protection support and resources to the people that we represent,” he said.

Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a nonprofit working on housing discrimination and housing counseling, has been working with the city on some of these housing proposals, including the city’s desire to enable more inclusionary zoning.

“This is incredibly important,” said Isabel McLain, a research and policy analyst at HOME. “Zoning has been used in the past and is still … used as a way to enforce housing discrimination and continue to divide residential areas by wealth and income.”

Richmond wants to be added to the list of cities that can maneuver around zoning laws in order to increase the stock of affordable housing.

When asked about his support for the city’s legislative package, a Youngkin spokesperson wrote in an email that the governor will consider any legislation that comes to his desk.

VPM News wants to hear your responses to one question: What do you want to learn about the most during the 2023 General Assembly session?

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.