Small Size, Commercial Needs Make Williamsburg Housing a Delicate Balancing Act

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City of Williamsburg logoLeaders in the City of Williamsburg want to address the city’s tightening housing situation, but balancing public interests and the city’s future makes achieving that goal a complicated task.

With the city’s population expected to increase by more than 3,000 people by 2040 – and changing demands in the market – city leaders want to increase access to quality housing at affordable rates.

Several factors, including geography, population and economics, put Williamsburg in a more difficult spot when it comes to housing than other areas of the Historic Triangle.

Size Matters

At 9 square miles, Williamsburg is small compared to James City County’s 143 square miles and York County’s 108 square miles. Because a 1987 General Assembly decision prohibits Virginia’s independent cities from annexing land from neighboring counties, the city seems likely to remain as-is.

The issue of the city’s small footprint is compounded by the presence of the College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg, which together control about 2,600 of the city’s 5,781 acres — or nearly half of its land area.

The limited amount of land available for development makes balancing the city’s residential and commercial interests particularly difficult. Commercial properties generally yield greater tax revenues than residential ones; next fiscal year, commercial properties are expected to generate more than $17 million in real estate and other tax revenue.

The city expects to generate $27.8 million in total for its general fund in tax revenue for the next fiscal year.

Much of the city’s land area, such as the state-owned William & Mary land, yields no tax revenue at all.

Williamsburg City Manager Jack Tuttle said the presence of nearby commercially zoned property just over the local line in James City and York counties makes maintaining the city’s commercial land especially important.

“A lot of the commercial land around the city is bigger than the city, so the little bits of commercial space we have in the city is vital to its future,” Tuttle said. “The [commercial land] is what pays the bills.”

The issue of space could become increasingly important in the coming years, as Williamsburg’s population is projected to eclipse 17,000 by 2040 – a more than 20 percent increase over its 2010 estimated population of 14,067.

Table 8-3 Households ForecastJames City and York counties are also expected to undergo major population growth through 2040, expanding from 67,000 to 104,000 and from 65,000 to 82,000 residents, respectively.

Planning Director Reed Nester said the two counties have more options to address population growth than Williamsburg.

“One thing that has an impact in the city is our small size and limited ability for a lot of housing expansion as opposed to the two counties,” he said.

Williamsburg Housing: More Affordable, Less Available 

The city’s small size has been one of the main factors in the development of its current housing situation of limited and aging housing options.

Figures in Williamsburg’s 2013 Comprehensive Plan, the city’s guiding document for future growth, show about 55 percent of the city’s housing stock falls into an affordable range up to $250,000 for a single-family home, based on a formula that takes into account the region’s average income. Less than 40 percent of the housing stock in James City and York counties falls into the same affordable range.

Affordable Housing Units Available in the Historic Triangle
Affordable Housing Units Available in the Historic Triangle

The affordability range is based on a household income of about $35,000 to $56,000, with about a third of that annual income being spent on housing — a general rule of thumb for housing costs.

While a higher proportion of the city’s housing is “affordable” compared to the rest of the Historic Triangle, the actual number of units is far smaller than in James City or York counties. Williamsburg had 5,176 total housing units as of 2010, while the two counties had more than 20,000 each.

“We don’t have a whole lot of single-family housing, but what we do have, it tends to be in the more affordable range regionally,” Tuttle said.

A majority – 56 percent – of the city’s housing is renter-occupied, compared to about a quarter in James City and York counties.

Tuttle said that disparity was largely due to the transient nature of Williamsburg’s population, which includes a large proportion of college students and seasonal hospitality employees. Tuttle also said the presence of college students in a city typically drove up demand and pricing for rental housing.

Older Housing Means Cheaper Rents for Williamsburg Renters

The city’s rental housing stock is largely located along the Richmond Road and Capitol Landing Road corridors, and much of it falls into the affordable range laid out by the one-third of household income formula. Tuttle and Nester attributed the affordability of the rental units to their being older than units in James City and York Counties.

“We have in our existing housing stock a lot of housing in the affordable range, and that’s because we have a lot of areas in the city that developed a long time ago,” Nester said. “Some of our outer subdivisions were developed in advance of similar developments in the two counties. That’s an older housing stock that is more affordable just by its age [and] its size compared to newer housing.”

Figure 8-1 Williamsburg Housing TypeMost of the city’s major apartment complexes, like Colonial Pines and Parkway, which are both along Merrimac Trail, were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Williamsburg did not see the construction of a major apartment complex from 1984 until 2008 when the 191-unit Sterling Manor Apartments were completed as part of the High Street development.

“The challenge for the city is a lot of our housing now is aging, and of course everything every day gets older,” Tuttle said. “But we started earlier in the region, so we tend to have older apartment complexes, older single-family housing. We want affordability, but we also want the condition to be maintained.”

City Per Capita Income Less Than Regional Average

Tuttle said having affordable rental housing was important for the city, and for some residents, it is their only option. Williamsburg’s per capita income was $22,851 as of 2013, far below the $69,900 average for Hampton Roads, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau-administered American Community Survey.

The city’s figure is lowered by the presence of a large number of college students, who typically do not work full time, but nearly half of the city’s households earn less than $50,000 annually, making them prime candidates for affordable housing.

The areas of the city with the lowest household incomes are north of Route 60 and to the northwest of the William & Mary campus – the areas with the most rental housing stock.

Tuttle also said affordable rental units might also be the only options available to young professionals burdened by student loan debt or people with checkered credit histories who cannot qualify for a home loan.

A Vision for the Future

With potential changes to the city’s complexion on the horizon, the complexion of its housing stock could also change.

“Most people would agree we need more affordable housing and it needs to be more affordable than it is,” Tuttle said.

While a majority of the city’s housing stock falls into the $250,000 range, less than a quarter is $150,000 or less — the likely price point for households at the lower end of the socioeconomic range.

In the 2014 National Citizen Survey, an assessment of the quality of life in a community, 64 percent of Williamsburg responders said the availability of affordable quality housing in the city was less than satisfactory, while 47 percent were unsatisfied with the variety of housing options.

“Clearly the demand is there,” Tuttle said. “The desire for more housing options at a better price point is out there.”

Nester said Williamsburg has struck a good balance of housing options to date, but city officials have explored a number of avenues to increase accessibility to housing in recent years.

The 2013 Comprehensive Plan included six initiatives to guide the city’s housing future:

  • Preserve and protect the city’s single-family neighborhoods
  • Enable a greater residential presence downtown
  • Build new mixed-use neighborhoods
  • Develop more affordable housing
  • Provide more senior housing
  • Develop alternatives for college student housing

Generally, Tuttle said the city wants to increase the housing options available to city residents across the socioeconomic spectrum.

“It’s really sustaining quality neighborhoods at affordable price points,” he said.

The City’s Role in Housing

The powers available to the city to achieve its housing goals are limited. Nester said its two main powers to affect development were zoning and proffers, which are conditions developers agree to meet in exchange for exceptions to existing zoning rules.

affordable housing in cityThe city has used both in recent years to influence the development of affordable housing.

The Williamsburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority developed the Crispus Attucks subdivision off Armistead Avenue and the Strawberry Plains subdivision near Berkeley Middle School.

The city attached a proffer to the redevelopment of the Village at Quarterpath community near the Quarterpath Recreation Center, requiring 10 percent of the subdivision’s units to sell for less than $220,000.

Tuttle also said the city’s decision to remove density limits on housing in the downtown area and allowing hotels to convert to apartments in part or in whole, contributed to achieving its housing goals.

Nester said the city’s zoning and proffer powers were limited, as most of the land in Williamsburg already has a zoning designation.

“When you’re dealing with development under existing zoning [without any changes], there are no proffers involved,” Nester said. “But there’s nothing preventing someone from putting affordable housing into the development mix.”

Areas of Potential Growth

The city’s Comprehensive Plan also outlines potential areas for additional housing options, including city-owned land near Berkeley Middle School and the Wales subdivision off Ironbound Road, along with the possibility of expanding the city-owned housing at the Blayton Building, a city-owned housing development on Scotland Street.

“It’s not just about taking care of the young professionals,” Tuttle said.

Want to learn more about housing in Williamsburg?

You can find out more about Williamsburg’s economy, population and housing by reading the city’s Comprehensive Plan, available online.

Tuttle said the city also had to take into account the interests of other young workers, workers in the hospitality industry and the elderly when setting its housing goals.

“It’s all about balancing those things out,” he said.

For Tuttle, it all comes back to the city’s size.

“[Development] has to be wise, balanced; it can’t go all one way or the other,” he said. “[The lack of land] makes it difficult and every decision is more important.”

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Small Size, Commercial Needs Make Williamsburg Housing a Delicate Balancing Act