By Carol Vaughn — The Eastern Shore has just over 29,000 housing units, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
Accomack has around 4,500 renter-occupied homes and Northampton has around 1,800, according to the recently released Eastern Shore Housing Study.
The study’s purpose is to provide government, developers, and the community “with a meaningful sense of the bi-county housing market in order to formulate affordable housing priorities and detail actions for the foreseeable future,” according to the introduction.
The 259-page plan was released in March.
“This plan came out of the regional housing summit in 2019,” said Russ Williams, director of housing services for the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission.
Williams presented the study to the Accomack County Board of Supervisors Wednesday.
A-NPDC was tasked with doing what at the time was called a needs assessment for housing on the Shore.
The A-NPDC selected consultants to develop the plan, on which work began in July 2021.
The work, in addition to physical and statistical analyses, included four public open house events last fall, as well as surveys of residents, landlords, and businesses.
Additionally, “windshield surveys,” in which consultants drove through neighborhoods to do a visual assessment of housing conditions, were conducted in Exmore, Nassawadox, Trehernville, Onancock-Bayside, and Atlantic-Wishart Point Road.
”This is the first regional housing study or plan that has been produced since 2002, so it was sorely needed,” Williams said.
The study shows low-income rental households “are experiencing excessive housing costs,” Williams said.
It suggests multi-family housing may be the most cost-effective way to meet the demand for affordable housing, due primarily to the large increase in building costs, according to Williams.
The study also projects growth in housing demand on the Shore over the next 10 to 20 years and makes detailed recommendations for housing development.
Chapter 6 of the study includes a housing gap analysis.
Williams said the figure of 1,000 additional housing units being needed, as was said during a affordable housing forum earlier this month, is a conservative estimate and the figure is per county, not for the whole region. Housing is defined as affordable when a household is paying no more than 30% of its income for all housing costs, including mortgage, taxes, insurance, and utilities, according to the study.
In 2019, 24% of Accomack households and 27.1% of Northampton households were considered cost burdened, meaning they spent more than 30% of their income on housing.
The rates were higher for renters.
In Accomack, 36.1% of renters were cost burdened, compared to 18.3% of homeowners.
In Northampton, 34% of renters were cost burdened, compared to 23.4% of homeowners.
The study found the housing gap — the number of additional housing units needed for the housing inventory to match the number of households in the corresponding affordability and income level — among renters in Accomack is greatest in both the highest and the lowest income brackets.
For Accomack renters earning 81% or more of the area median income (AMI, as established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development), there are only 513 homes for 1,830 households, and 218 are occupied by lower income households.
For Accomack renters in the 0 to 30% AMI, there are 767 affordable housing units, but 563 are occupied by higher income households. The housing gap for that group is 701 units.
Accomack has an over-supply of rental houses affordable to residents in the 31%-50% AMI bracket. For every two households in this income level, there are three available, affordable rental units.
The trends are similar for Accomack homeowners.
In contrast, Northampton has an overall shortage of affordable, available housing for both renters and homeowners in all income categories.
The housing gap is greatest for the highest income renters in Northampton. Of 795 households in that category, only 144 live in units affordable for their income.
Another 135 households with lower income occupy the remaining inventory, resulting in cost burden to those renters.
The county lacks 516 rental units to fully meet the demand for rental housing in the highest income tier.
For the lowest income renters in Northampton, there is a housing gap of 145 units, worsened by the fact that 283 homes that would be affordable to them are occupied by households with incomes higher than 30% AMI.
For housing to be affordable, the lowest income renters in Accomack should pay no more than $576 per month for all housing costs; middle income renters should pay $576 to $921 per month; and the highest income renters should pay more than $921 per month.
In Northampton, the lowest income renters should pay no more than $354 per month; lower middle income households should pay between $354 and $590 per month; higher middle income households should pay between $591 and $945; and the highest income renters should pay $945 land above.
For Northampton homeowners, there is a housing gap of 321 units for the lowest income tier; 196 units for those at 51% to 80% of AMI; 226 units for the 81% to 100% AMI group; and 1,041 units for the highest income group, with an AMI of 101% or more.
Additionally, the study estimates between 93 and 107 Shore vulnerable residents — including those with substance use disorder, serious mental illness, experiencing homelessness, or with other conditions — need supportive housing, which combines affordability with intensive support services.
In a January 2021, one night, count, 51 Shore residents were found to be experiencing homelessness.
Vacant housing units are far more common on the Shore than in Virginia as a whole, largely due to vacation homes, the study found.
Of vacant homes, 56% are reserved for seasonal or other occasional use.
Only 5% of the 10,083 vacant units on the Shore are available for rent or sale, compared to Virginia’s rate of 25%.
Additionally, nearly 60% of vacant homes in Northampton and 32% in Accomack are categorized as “other vacant,” meaning they either are uninhabitable, being used for storage, owned by financial institutions, or tied up in inheritance or other legal situations, among other reasons.
Among barriers to addressing the Shore’s housing needs, the study found local zoning codes are a barrier to affordable housing.
In Accomack, zoning ordinance requirements for minimum lot size in the agricultural district, a lack of provision for accessory dwelling units as a by-right use; and inconsistency with state laws regarding mobile homes, making the county code “overly restrictive,” all are barriers to meeting affordable housing needs.
Northampton also limits the use of accessory dwelling units, is unclear about mobile home regulations, and “limits housing types and provides few options for multi-family development,” according to the study.
In addition to zoning, other barriers cited include rising construction costs, an inadequate supply of contractors, demographic changes, landlord issues, HUD rent standards, poor infrastructure, limited English proficiency, underfunded programs and services, and public perception of affordable housing.
Goals and Recommendations
Implementing recommendations to improve the affordable housing situation on the Shore “will require a well-coordinated strategy within each county, and regionally in some cases, to set the stage for encouraging and facilitating new housing development,” according to the study.
The strategy “is more complex than building a few additional units every few years,” it said.
“In the face of woefully inadequate funding, an aging stock occupied by households without the financial capacity to maintain and repair their units, poor infrastructure and restrictive zoning that discourages even small rental developments, and local employers who cannot ramp up to their full employment capacity, the Eastern Shore’s housing problem is an economic problem, too,” the study’s authors said.
Among goals the study cites is to harness time and talent from a diverse cross-section of community leaders to guide implementation of the study’s findings, including appointing a leadership team in each county and requiring an annual report from those teams.
An additional goal is to conduct a public awareness campaign to change how people perceive affordable housing.
Additionally, the region needs to expand its housing inventory, by taking measures including updating comprehensive plans and zoning codes; constructing new affordable housing; requesting and supporting increased investment in educational programs in the construction trades; identifying and marketing sites for infill housing development; completing the remaining proposed phases of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District sewer project; and supporting new housing development.
Another goal is to preserve the existing housing stock by continuing community revitalization efforts and continuing to identify communities for Community Development Block Grant projects.
A final goal is to ensure safe housing for people experiencing homelessness, including through management of housing choice vouchers and evaluating the idea of using hotels as emergency shelters.