Housing Needs Assessment Draws Concerned Citizens

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By Stefanie Jackson – The Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission (A-NPDC) is overseeing the Eastern Shore Housing Needs Assessment, a process that includes engaging the community through public meetings and online surveys to identify barriers to obtaining affordable housing and discuss how those barriers may be removed.

A-NPDC is funding the housing assessment through grants provided by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, a state agency, and Virginia Housing, a not-for-profit organization.

The grants are paying for the services of housing and community development group M&L Associates, of Pittsburgh, the primary consulting firm for the project, and the Engineering & Planning Resources firm (EPR), of Charlottesville, Va.

Will Cockrell, of EPR, led the community housing assessment meeting at the Exmore Town Hall  Oct. 19.

Housing data from approximately the last five years suggests the demand for housing in Accomack and Northampton counties has increased and prices have risen sharply.

The data spans the first quarter of 2016 through the second quarter of 2021. During that period, total home sales increased approximately 250% and the average time a property spent on the market before it was sold dropped from nearly eight months to about four-and-a-half months.

The average sales price increased from about $150,000 to about $240,000.

But the housing situation on the Shore may have buyers at a worse disadvantage than the data shows. Brenda Smith, of Onancock, said she has observed many homes be sold in as little as a week.

Other meeting participants disputed the accuracy of the data on vacant and occupied housing in both counties, including A-NPDC housing counselor Hugh Hennessy and Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski.

According to data supplied by EPR, 26% of Northampton’s housing units are vacant, as are 34% of Accomack’s housing units. Both Hennessy and Kolakowski doubted that was accurate, based on anecdotal evidence of citizens who have reported their struggle to find available homes.

Smith wondered how the housing units were counted and noted that an available home is not necessarily in livable condition.

Denise Topping-Griffin, who attended the meeting with her sister a business partner Joyce Topping, agreed there is a lack of “decent” housing that buyers or renters could acquire without spending the majority of their income.

And it’s not just low-income households that are struggling to afford housing. For example, the Eastern Shore’s newest Habitat for Humanity home was built for a teacher – a professional – who is a single mother of two children, Smith said.

Joyce Topping, who has purchased 13 acres of farmland that she wants to develop for housing and owns two residential group homes for the intellectually disabled  – one in Accomack and one in Northampton – also supported the idea of “affordable housing for everyone.”

Topping-Griffin said there are benefits to developing mixed-income communities, which lack the “stigma” attached to a low-income housing project. Lower-income families who live in mixed-income communities appear to be more likely to maintain their property, she said.

Cockrell added that kids who live in mixed-income communities do better in school than those who live in low-income communities – likely because they have more neighbors with connections to advancement opportunities.

To supply “affordable housing for everyone” will mean not just buyers but renters. In Smith’s 10 years on the Shore, she has observed an increase in home rentals and a decrease in owner-occupied homes, she said.

But to ensure that rental homes are both affordable and decent, the Shore needs more “accountability for landlords,” Topping-Griffin said.

Smith said in New York, rental homes are inspected every 15 months – but there’s no such requirement on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Poor living conditions that could be identified during a rental home inspection include the presence of mold. Because the Shore has so many bodies of water on and around it, the mold problem in many homes is “insane,” she said.

Mold in the home can negatively affect children’s health, particularly those with asthma, Smith said. Topping-Griffin added that she knew a child who died after suffering a major asthma attack caused by the use of kerosene space heaters in the home.

Smith said many renters haven’t been educated on tenant rights and don’t speak up for their rights. Hennessy added that most Shore renters have no written leases but verbal agreements with their landlords.

Smith referenced the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, which sets standard housing rental terms and conditions that are legally binding even if a landlord does not offer a lease.

More education should be provided to renters, including “financial literacy,” Topping said.

Education also can help change the mindset of people who have accepted poor living conditions, overcrowding, and homelessness as normal and don’t appear motivated to change their situation.

Smith said when she was growing up, “We were taught … If you want something bad enough, you go for it. ‘No’ is not an option.”

“It seems that the people I know who’ve been homeless accept ‘no.’” If they sought help at an agency like A-NPDC but the requested resource was not available, they would not be likely to  say, “OK, how do I get it? What do I do next?” she said.

“Very few people do that,” Hennessy agreed.

Title IX, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act defines homelessness as not having an adequate, regular, fixed place to live and sleep – and that includes doubling up with family or friends for reasons such as loss of housing or economic hardship.

Many homeless families don’t recognize that they’re homeless, Topping said.

Lack of housing or poor housing also can contribute to mental illness, particularly in children, due to trauma from one’s surroundings, Topping-Griffin said.

“How can you expect these kids to function as children when they’re thrown into … bad situations, and then when they come to school, you expect them to leave that on the doorstep – they don’t,” she said.

Part of that burden is on landlords who have to make the “tough call” to eliminate substandard housing but risk leaving tenants with no housing, Smith said.

Not only does the Shore need more decent housing, it needs more types of available housing – not just single-family homes but multi-family housing such as duplexes and townhouses, Topping-Griffin said.

Topping also would like to see a tiny house community, perhaps a pilot project of three or four homes on donated land. The tiny houses could be rented to traveling nurses or new teachers.

She believes a tiny house community could work if it was built to have a certain “vibe” that would attract potential occupants. For example, if Topping created a tiny house community near Cape Charles, the homes would be built in a “coastal” style that would mesh with the nearby Chesapeake Bay beach town, she said.

When Cockrell asked participants where housing is needed the most on the Shore, Smith’s answer focused on towns where schools are located, because teachers need housing.

Topping-Griffin added that infrastructure also is needed to support the new housing.

Cockrell called infrastructure “a tough nut to crack” but agreed “that’s what makes housing possible.”

Addressing the Shore’s housing needs will require a “team effort” of the community, government, private developers, nonprofits, and churches, he said.

Eastern Shore residents and landlords are encouraged to participate in A-NPDC’s housing needs assessment by taking an online survey, found at https://surveymonkey.com/r/ANPDC-Resident for residents and https://surveymonkey.com/r/ANPDC-Landlord for landlords.

The deadline to respond is Nov. 5.