Slum busters: UVA funds city inspector


It just got harder to be a slumlord near the local U.

The University of Virginia is paying $115,000 for the city to hire a housing inspector in a two-year program devoted to off-Grounds student housing.

Substandard housing has long been a concern to university officials, but the city maintains it can't afford regular inspections of rental properties.

Parents of UVA students increasingly have expressed concerns that off-Grounds housing is substandard, says Leonard Sandridge, UVA vice president and chief operating officer, in a press release.

A fire in an off-Grounds apartment led UVA President John Casteen to say, "We need to do something," explains UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood.

"When I met with John Casteen and Leonard Sandridge, on their list of concerns was to make sure all students are beneficiaries of good housing," says Mayor David Brown.

Currently, Charlottesville inspects rentals only if there's a complaint, and that won't change– even with the additional inspector, says planning chief Jim Tolbert.

"We'll have a person dedicated to [the university] area working closely with UVA off-Grounds housing," he says. "We haven't gotten to the point of systematic inspections."

And the new inspector will keep an eye out for violations of city code, including too many students living together.

For a couple of years while he served on City Council, former mayor Maurice Cox pushed for regular inspections of rentals every time a property changed hands. "It was always greeted with incredible enthusiasm," says Cox, now teaching at Harvard for a year. "But the manpower needed was so cost prohibitive, the city shied away."

The new inspector's vehicle, computer, salary and benefits will cost $68,500 the first year, says Tolbert.

It's all very well to dedicate a person to keep an eye on student abodes, but what about other city residents who don't go to UVA but who also live in substandard housing?

"The city wants all our residents to live in decent quality housing, but we haven't had the resources to [carry out inspections]," says Brown. The new inspector will allow the other two full-time inspectors to spend more time in non-student neighborhoods. "It's a win-win situation," says Brown.

And, suggests Cox, "As it's a pilot, there may be lessons we can learn that can be applied to the city at large."

Lessons such as how to get the university to subsidize other city services?

It turns out UVA already pays for services citizens expect the city to provide. According to Wood, UVA hires a private contractor to remove trash rather than use city pick-up for its garbage disposal. It paid $150,000 for fire service last year and contributed $25,000 to the rescue squad. And city and county schools were the recipients of $31,000 and $109,000 respectively.

Some argue that since Charlottesville gets no property taxes from the tax-exempt university, it's completely appropriate for UVA to pitch in to pay for city services. Others counter that UVA student renters contribute to the tax coffers without requiring expensive services like schools.

One thing is clear: if UVA wants something badly enough in this world-class city, apparently it's prepared to pay.

Thanks to a UVA grant, Charlottesville can keep a closer eye on how many residents are living in student rentals.