Debate around statewide definition of affordable housing belies larger crisis

Debate around statewide definition of affordable housing belies larger crisis
Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond. (Source: AIRVA Photography)

Long before the COVID-19 recession put millions of Virginians on the precipice of losing their homes, the commonwealth already suffered from the country’s worst eviction epidemic. After five Virginia cities landed in the top 10 of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab rankings in 2016, the data served as a clarion call to action for policymakers and local officials.

In the intervening four years, Gov. Ralph Northam has made reducing the rate of evictions across the state a priority. Since March alone the Northam administration has helped over 4,000 families to stay in their homes via the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, provided $1.3 billion in CARES Act funding to localities' eviction diversion programs and announced $4 million in grants to hire more lawyers to prevent families from losing their homes.

Although such actions and the governor’s repeated petitioning for a statewide eviction moratorium have grabbed headlines, an even larger structural problem with Virginia’s housing market has been looming in the background: the state’s worsening affordability crisis.

Underpaid and overburdened

In the state capital, the median sale price of a new home has risen by 56 percent over the last decade. Richmond’s median household income, on the other hand, has only gone up by 20 percent. The dearth in new affordable units coming onto the market is increasingly pushing city residents out of gentrifying neighborhoods and into the surrounding counties as the suburban housing stock ages and decreases in price.

According to the Partnership for Housing Affordability, “the number of persons in poverty in Chesterfield, Hanover, and Henrico grew by 110 percent [over the last decade]—far faster than in the City.” Although the trend in Greater Richmond may seem extreme, it is far from unique in Virginia. Since 2010 the median household income in the commonwealth has increased by just $2,549 while median home prices jumped up to $72,000.

“Affordable housing is hands down the top priority for my constituents,” said Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. “This is a community that is vastly unequal. We are one of the wealthiest cities in the state yet one in five families here in Charlottesville live in poverty. Our school board can’t retain teachers because they can’t even afford to live in town.”

Affordable for whom?

In response, the last session Hudson introduced HB 1104—a bill that would have allowed localities to propose their own definitions of affordability and implement inclusionary housing programs. Sometimes referred to as inclusionary zoning, these programs incentivize the construction of affordable units via tax abatements, expedited review processes, the removal of parking minimums, fee waivers and density bonuses.

Although the broader bill was referred to the state housing commission for further study ahead of the 2021 General Assembly session, Charlottesville received permission to pilot their own program. Elaine Poon, the managing attorney of the Legal Aid Justice Center, applauded the move.

“Localities need the freedom to be able to do what they find appropriate because each locality has very different challenges that they’re dealing with,” she said. “Charlottesville is a great example of somewhat unique conditions. Development is happening here in a rather intense way: Land in town is expensive, but million-dollar homes are going up all over the place.”

Due to the drastic disparities in housing markets across the state, Hudson believes local leadership must form the foundation of any solution for Virginia’s affordability crisis. “We’re trying to create a state code that can flexibly accommodate the many different communities across the commonwealth, all with very different problems. There is a stark difference between aging housing being taken over by students in Charlottesville versus Petersburg desperately trying to incentivize development. My hope is that the state code can set the floor and local legislation can say the sky’s the limit.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.