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Richmond seeks more power to help residents cover housing costs

Delegates are sworn in
Shaban Athuman
VPM News File
Del. Mike Jones (D-Richmond) takes the oath of office with fellow Delegates during the first day of the Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday, January 10, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

The proposal would allow the city to help low-income residents purchase property.

City Council and Mayor Levar Stoney are requesting the General Assembly approve several changes to Richmond’s charter. Those include a change that would allow Richmond more power to help low- and moderate-income residents cover certain housing costs.

According to legislation submitted by Del. Mike Jones (D-Richmond), the city would be able to make grants or loans to residents to purchase property, or grants to landlords to cover unpaid rent. In addition, the city could defer property taxes for low- and moderate-income residents.

At a recent press conference, Stoney pitched the proposal as a way to provide aid to residents previously left out due to state policy.

“This essentially gives tax relief to lower-income or working-poor residents who are struggling to stay in their homes,” he said. “Currently, we offer relief to seniors, to the disabled and … for veterans as well. … We think we should add socio-economic status to that.”

But unlike exemptions offered to seniors and disabled people, residents given a tax deferral would still have to pay in full at a later date.

Localities in Virginia can only offer exemptions to certain groups of people specified in the state constitution.

Stoney said the measure is based on one that already exists in Charlottesville’s charter. According to Charlottesville Commissioner of Revenue Todd Divers, the city government previously provided grants for residents to directly cover property taxes. But the city recently reconfigured its relief program over concerns it wasn’t authorized to act by the charter section.

“There's not a section in state code that says if your income is low, you're exempt from taxation,” Divers said. “Our code was kind of granting an exemption where we probably didn't have the authority to do that.”

Instead, Divers said, the city now provides grants through its social services department, which low- and moderate-income homeowners can use to cover any housing cost. Those grants are authorized by a separate section of state law.

Divers added that he’s not aware of any programs in Charlottesville using the powers authorized by the charter section Richmond is hoping to copy, nor does he expect any to pop up soon.

“These things that are contemplated in this charter are incredibly labor intensive, and they would require just a ton of administrative input,” Divers said. “Maybe Richmond's got that. We don't have that.”

Another property tax proposal sponsored by Del. Betsy Carr (D-Richmond) and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) also has the support of Richmond’s local government. It would amend the state’s constitution to allow property tax exemptions for long-time owners of single-family homes who have low incomes.

“We've seen our real estate tax base increase by 99.7%, roughly 100% in the last decade,” Stoney said. “Obviously, that's good for the city. The city economy is growing. However, for those residents who've lived here for the long term, you know, ‘70s, the ‘80s, shouldn't they be able to live in Richmond in the 2030s and the 2040s, moving forward?”

The proposal has been previously rejected by the General Assembly, including last year when it passed the Democrat-controlled Senate before being voted down by a Republican-led House subcommittee.

Stoney said this year, with Democratic majorities in both chambers, he’s hopeful the amendment can make it through.

Even if it does, Richmonders shouldn’t expect the relief program to be rolled out any time soon. The amendment would need to pass the state legislature again following the elections in November 2025 and survive a ballot referendum following that.

If the amendment passes those hurdles, the General Assembly would still need to pass an additional law allowing Richmond’s government to grant the exemption.

Connor Scribner is the assistant news editor at VPM News and also reports on the housing market and public housing.