By Stefanie Jackson – Eastern Shore residents turned out by the dozens Jan. 29 for an affordable housing workshop at the Exmore town hall, led by the Berkley Group, the consulting firm helping the Northampton planning commission through the process of updating its county’s comprehensive plan.
A second housing workshop was held simultaneously in Cape Charles.
In Exmore, Rebecca Cobb, a Berkley Group senior planner, guided a small-group exercise in which participants learned the basics of affordable housing and discussed which housing options make the most sense for the Shore.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as a home that a family can obtain for 30% or less of its gross income.
In Northampton County, the median income is $56,020 annually. A household is considered low-income if it makes less than 80% of the median income.
Northampton families earning less than $44,816 annually are considered low-income households that qualify for affordable housing. Families with higher annual incomes may qualify depending on the number of people living in the household.
Small groups worked together to fill out questionnaires provided by the Berkley Group.
Who should benefit from affordable housing?
“Everyone,” said Northampton planning commissioner Janet Sturgis, “because we can’t have economic growth if we don’t have the employees.
“We’re not going to attract the employees if there’s no place to live. If there’s no place for the teachers to live, they’re not going to come teach in our schools. So everybody’s a winner.”
Ava Wise’s group said those who most need affordable housing are low-income families, single parents, and the elderly and disabled.
The types of affordable housing needed most on the Shore include rental apartments, single-family homes, duplexes, and housing for senior citizens, participants said.
Exmore and Nassawadox were named as areas ready for growth, but other towns got mentions, too.
Eastville could provide workforce housing for employees of the new Eastville Community Health Center. Cheriton was noted for its proximity to the busy tourist town of Cape Charles.
But there was a clear consensus on which areas of the Shore should not be targeted for housing development: “down the necks.”
Northampton supervisor Betsy Mapp favored towns with mixed-use buildings that have commercial space on the first floor and residential space on the second floor.
Participants agreed “livable communities” are a good fit for the Shore – affordable housing in and near the towns along Route 13, providing access to grocery stores, restaurants, retail stores, and transportation.
Bobbie Jo Wert, of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, reminded her group of one caveat: the area along Route 13 can’t be overdeveloped like “one big strip mall,” because it’s the Shore’s groundwater recharge zone.
Her organization will be critical to the success of a local affordable housing initiative, along with the Eastern Shore of Virginia Housing Alliance, board of supervisors and planning commission, participants said.
Other important but underused resources for finding or building affordable housing include Community Partners of the Eastern Shore, local banks, and tax incentives.
One of the biggest barriers to the affordable housing initiative is Northampton’s zoning ordinances, which the planning commission is working on, Sturgis said.
Northampton has many large lots that could be divided into smaller lots, she added.
There is also a need for rehabilitation of homes that were abandoned or became dilapidated because the owners could not afford the upkeep.
Participants voiced concern particularly for seniors who may need financial assistance to repair their older homes and “age in place.”
Others saw a need for multi-generational homes for seniors who may be taking care of grandchildren.
The input will guide Northampton administrators as they decide which grants they should pursue and which strategies they should use to create affordable housing opportunities for every citizen in the county.