Housing Forum Seeks To Address 1,000-Unit Housing Shortage

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Congresswoman Elaine Luria, right, talks about affordable housing while Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development capacity development specialist Ramona Chapman listens. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.

By Stefanie Jackson – Elaine Meil, executive director of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission (A-NPDC), had staggering statistics to share with participants of a housing forum hosted by Congresswoman Elaine Luria on Monday in Eastville: 

Accomack and Northampton counties are short 1,000 housing units, and A-NPDC can produce only 10 to 20 units per year.

“Obviously, that’s not something that one independent group is going to be ever able to fix. It’s going to take a whole host of developers and people … to make up that particular gap. It needs to be done by the whole community and not any one individual,” Meil said.

A-NPDC historically has assisted low- and very-low-income households that earn less than 30% of the area median income of approximately $46,000 in both Accomack and Northampton counties.

Due to issues in the private housing market, now the greatest housing needs are in middle-income households that earn 80% to 120% of median income and don’t qualify for federal assistance, Meil said.

A-NPDC was not tasked with assisting households earning more than 80% of median income until recently, she said.

Meil was “very shocked” at the statistics, which appeared to justify remarks by Luria and past candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates Finale Norton, who both said Accomack and Northampton must “go big” to solve the housing shortage.

Norton’s suggestion to go big was to buy the former hospital in Nassawadox, which is still owned by Riverside Medical Group, and convert the six-story building into apartments.

But whether the Eastern Shore’s focus in building housing is a few large-scale projects, many small-scale projects, or a combination, there are barriers that must be broken down before the housing stock can be built up.

One barrier is a lack of local tradesmen who are willing and able to do the construction work.

Warren Thomas, CEO of RMT Construction, the contractor building six new homes for the New Road Legacy Project in Exmore, said many employees on the project come from Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Richmond, and they do the work for less than what would be charged locally.

The local high schools and community college offer training in building trades, but Accomack technology and engineering teacher David Sabatino said many of his students don’t stay on the Shore after they graduate high school; they go to college to study engineering.

Karen Downing, of Virginia Organizing, said Tina Stratton-Taylor, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act coordinator for Eastern Shore Community College (ESCC), is working toward improving the school’s trades program, and changes are coming soon. 

Ava Gabrielle-Wise, executive director of the New Road Community Development Group, suggested developing a program in which building trades students could intern with RMT Construction in Exmore and then be hired by the company.

There would be plenty of training opportunities as the Legacy Project is only in the first of three phases, she said.

Another barrier is zoning restrictions in both Accomack and Northampton counties. 

Rich Morrison, Accomack’s deputy county administrator, had noted earlier that many of the county’s housing needs are in areas with agricultural zoning.

Northampton planning commissioner Janet Sturgis said Northampton is working on updating its zoning code to promote housing development, turning the conversation to another barrier to affordable housing – public opposition.

Sturgis lamented that a few Northampton citizens, whom she believes represent a minority, are packing public hearings to oppose zoning changes that could promote workforce housing, with “the whole rest of the community … going to Little League and working that second job,” and no one is available to speak in favor of the proposed changes.

Chris Thompson, director of strategic housing for Virginia Housing, noted the importance of sending the right message when addressing the public, “because when you mention housing, there’s a lot of triggering … subsidized housing, Section 8 housing, affordable housing, workforce housing, any of those terms can … mean something different to someone.”

Virginia Housing responds to public pushback in part by describing the scale of the housing project in question. “We’re not talking about coming in and building something that’s totally out of character,” Thompson said.

It’s helpful to “make it personal” and explain how the project addresses the community’s needs and who will benefit. For example, “this is for someone who’s working at Royal Farms, or this is (for) someone who’s a teacher who’s working at … the high school down the road,” he said.

Rich Zabawa, a U.S. Navy commander, shared a “trade secret” that’s key to getting things done: It’s an attitude of “yes, if,” not “no, because.”

It’s essential to identify decision-makers, “and if the right person’s not at the meetings, then you need to reschedule the meeting, because all you’re doing is spinning your wheels,” he added.

Earl Howerton, executive director of the Southside Outreach Group, a community housing development organization, discussed several projects his organization completed in Halifax County and elsewhere in southern Virginia to meet a variety of housing needs.

Sunnybrooke, a subdivision with 22 homes in Halifax County, was built between 2007 and 2009 for low- and moderate-income homebuyers.

Many partners helped get the project done, including the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (VDHCD), which provided multiple types of funding, including a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and down payment assistance.

Ramona Chapman, VDHCD capacity development specialist, noted VDHCD offers many programs, not just for housing but for “whatever a community needs to build itself up, to revitalize itself.”

Virginia Housing and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development served as mortgage lenders for the Sunnybrooke project.

Perry Hickman, state director of USDA Rural Development, highlighted its Section 502 programs for prospective homeowners: the Direct Loan Program for very-low- and low-income families and the Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program for low- and moderate-income families.

Of the $2 billion USDA Rural Development spent in Virginia in fiscal year 2021, $1.1 billion supported its housing programs, he said.

The Sunnybrooke project’s local partners included the Southside Planning District Commission, which provided grant administration services, Halifax County, which waived building permit fees, and the Town of South Boston, which waived utility connection fees.

Congresswoman Luria pointed out that the housing development process should not be turned “upside down,” with developers expected to make the first move, contacting localities. She suggested that towns and counties should take the initiative to start and find ways to support housing projects.

Sunnybrooke subdivision homebuyers were matched to properties that would cost no more than 40% of their gross incomes, and to make homeownership more affordable, the houses were outfitted with energy-efficient appliances, Howerton said.

Buyers were provided housing counseling both before and after purchasing their homes, and 16 years later, none have experienced foreclosure, he said.

His organization’s members realized that not everyone can afford to buy a home, such as very-low-income individuals who only make $600 or $800 a month. That prompted the Miller Homes project in South Boston, Va. The town took out the construction loan for 46 multi-family apartments built using low-income housing tax credits, which are provided to housing developers and investors to allow the units to be rented for less than the market rate.

The Castle Trailer Park project also was tailored to the needs of the community. The town of Blackstone, Va., was faced with the dilemma of what to do about a mobile home park of 10 dilapidated single-wide trailers and their tenants.  

Blackstone partnered with DHCD to purchase the mobile home park and the town demolished the 10 old mobile homes, replaced them with 10 stick-built homes of similar size, and sold the homes to the tenants who had lived in the mobile homes.

The town was able to cut costs by using its own public works department to do the demolition and site development and update infrastructure.          

Virginia Housing’s Chris Thompson said the Southside Outreach Group’s success story is “an example of highlighting partnerships and really where the local government is taking the lead, stepping up, and trying to make a difference.”

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