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How can local government help with affordable housing?

Housing Trends in Recent Years

As with most of the country, Staunton is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. A perfect storm of pent-up demand due to pandemic restrictions, supply chain interruptions, and inflation has led to an extremely low housing inventory. This has catapulted a buyer’s market into a buyer’s nightmare. Most potential buyers–particularly younger, first-time purchasers and lower-income families/individuals–simply have no affordable options at this time.

“46% of people in Staunton are struggling to make ends meet. That number is a 16% increase since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and among comparable localities, Staunton had the highest increase of any municipality in Virginia.”

Source: United Way, cited in Staunton News-Leader, July 20, 2023

Since many of these frustrated would-be homebuyers currently rent, the normal turnover in rental vacancies has slowed, compounding itself as these conditions drag on. This has led to even more pressure on an already limited local rental market, resulting in higher rents and less mobility for all renters, whether potential homebuyers or not.

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Low inventory is clearly a key driver of the housing issue. Homeowners may be reluctant to sell, given current economic uncertainty, higher interest rates on new mortgages, and the lack of homes for sale. Normally, low inventory combined with pent-up demand would lead to increased residential development. However, developers have faced not only the above factors but also workforce shortages, higher development and material costs, and scarcity of building lots. These in turn have impacted profit margins, affecting market conditions and builders’ incentive to construct new homes to meet demand.

Can we see any positive signs?

Fortunately, many of the same factors that had been stifling new home construction have begun to moderate in favor of homebuilders, and residential building permits for all housing types in the city have grown year over year since 2020. At the planning/zoning level, since I joined the Planning Commission in 2018, the number of residential land use applications has been trending upward. Multi-family/apartment options have seen a dramatic increase, with numerous developments under construction along Middlebrook Road, the repurposing of downtown buildings into residential units, and apartment expansions in The Villages.

Quite a few Staunton residential developments that began during the last housing boom of the mid-2000s have stagnated for more than a decade. But thanks to this improving climate for these developers, they have at last resumed building out many of them (at least their current phases).  These include:

  • Bell Creek Drive, Collinswood Drive, and Stocker Street on the West Side;  
  • Olde South, Forest Ridge Road, and the townhomes behind Breezy Hill Spa on Augusta Street on the North Side; and
  • Red Oak Drive, Campbell Street, and Oakstone Run on the South Side.

But housing markets, dependent on so many variables, have always been tricky to predict. It is important to remember that the housing market is cyclical, as is any other economic trend. The challenge, of course, is recognizing these cycles in real time. 

When my wife and I lived in Northern Virginia and married in 2004, friends and family urged us to enter the housing market as soon as possible, as it would only be going up. Four years later? Not so much. Fortunately, we were able to buy our first house as the market was cooling in 2007. Nevertheless, we still needed to rent it out for our first three years in Staunton before an opportunity arose to sell that home for a slight profit in 2017.  If we had waited until after the COVID pandemic to sell, we could have paid for our children’s college. But so the real estate market goes….

So what is the city doing?

I commend and support the efforts of Brad Arrowood and the other members of our City Council for directing the city to establish a Housing Commission.  This should go a long way toward bringing the problem front and center.

Additionally, to support a planned townhouse development by Habitat for Humanity of Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro, the Planning Commission recently considered and recommended they be allowed to take ownership of (vacate) an abandoned alley on A Street (on the west side of Gypsy Hill Park golf course). This reflects Habitat’s widening focus beyond accommodating only low-income residents. Their expanded mission will include the next group up the income ladder–those above the low-income threshold, but not qualifying for financing in the current market.  

Both topics were recently discussed in a News-Leader article from July 20th. I agree with the vision of Lance Barton, Habitat’s local executive director, for developing Staunton’s Housing Commission. The body should act as a “think tank” of citizens, city staff, developers, non-profit organizations, and industry professionals. This would position it to collaborate effectively and consider ideas for public/private partnerships and other creative solutions for housing issues.

There are challenges to direct city involvement in local housing solutions. But the city can consider other ways to address housing. Examples might include:

  • Ensuring residential zoning requirements in city code allow flexibility to respond to market conditions.  
  • Incentivizing housing developers to include a percentage of residential units designated for lower-income buyers and tenants by allowing higher densities on residential properties. (There may be other opportunities to reduce development fees in exchange for affordable housing options.)  
  • Looking to help improve existing properties. Realistically, Virginia localities have limited power to facilitate infill of abandoned or derelict properties in existing neighborhoods. But to support existing city homeowners, the city can seek opportunities for partnerships to implement home improvement cost-sharing grants. These would enable lower-income individuals to invest in the city’s housing stock, immediately improving the lives of the homeowners, while also lowering barriers to future home sales.

The city’s role in directly influencing housing affordability is somewhat limited by code. But the city is allowed some flexibility in the consideration of residential housing types, and there are doubtless opportunities to review and improve the process. 

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administers the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, whose mandate is to provide funding for projects to improve the lives of residents, help develop strategies for bringing  partners and resources together, and implement approved projects effectively. The specific types of community projects CBDGs may be used for include housing rehabilitation, neighborhood revitalization, and housing solutions for low- and moderate-income residents. 

With Staunton’s recent hiring of Rebecca Joyce as Housing Planning/Grant Specialist to manage its CDBG program, there should be opportunities  to pursue affordable housing  solutions that may not have been viable before. At this Thursday’s City Council Work Session, Ms. Joyce will be presenting “Staunton’s Pathway to Affordable Housing and Housing for Working Families.” I encourage you to attend. The Work Session is open to the public and begins at 5 PM in the Rita S. Wilson Council Chambers at City Hall, with her 20-minute presentation scheduled for 5:25 PM. (View the agenda here and then scroll down to view a copy of the presentation.)

Finally, we must recognize that this issue affects our entire area, and our responses to it must be not only local, but regional. To that end, the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro Housing Summit will take place October 11-12 at the Holiday Inn in Staunton. You can learn more about the Summit at Thursday’s meeting or view its agenda here.

The current crisis did not arise in a vacuum. It is important for city decision-makers to be mindful of the market and to foster the necessary relationships between government, developers, and citizens that can generate ideas and resources. I fully support city initiatives to help address this issue. Collaboration with the appropriate stakeholders, including local government, is a step in the right direction toward finding solutions.