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Vaughn Poller, James City County’s housing administrator, said county staff can see there is a need to improve housing conditions and options for low-income residents – they just needed the numbers to prove it.
They can now quantify their observations with a housing conditions study conducted by the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech and Alexandria-based planning consultancy czb.
Findings of the study were presented to the JCC Board of Supervisors on Feb. 23. Representatives from the Virginia Center for Housing Research took notes on thousands of properties last fall and invited community members to attend public meetings or complete an online survey to share their thoughts on housing conditions.
Robert Krupicka of czb explained the strength of the moderate-to-high income earners living in James City County has put “increased pressure” on low-to-moderate earners when it comes to buying or renting a home.
“You’ve got such a strong market at the top that the folks at the bottom are kind of left picking up the bread crumbs and there are not enough bread crumbs to go around,” Krupicka said. “The result is people are paying much higher rates than they would be otherwise able to afford.”
To secure “decent” housing in James City County, an individual must earn $35,000 or more annually, according to the study. Currently, 13,382 households in the county are not in a position to buy or own a home and 5,391 are not in a position to affordably rent decent housing, the study concluded.
Krupicka said a large sector of the county’s economy that includes retail, restaurants and elderly care does not pay workers salaries at or above $35,000.
In general, for every high-income household there is a demand on an economy for two service industry workers, Krupicka said. In James City County, two-thirds of the jobs created are hourly-wage service worker positions, he said.
The more service workers, the greater the demand for workforce housing and thus more expensive, low-quality housing, he said.
There are not enough affordable housing choices in James City County for the economy the county is demanding, Krupicka said, which is motivating service workers to live and spend their earnings elsewhere.
“They really contribute to the quality of life in any community, but you’re going to make it harder for those kinds of services to be available because people will have a harder time putting employees into those jobs,” he said.
For these workers, the high cost to own or rent a home makes it difficult to maintain a home, Krupicka said. The consequence of this can be seen in the approximately 1,000 homes in the county classified as being in “poor quality” condition and the 100 in “extremely distressed” condition, according to the study.
Board Chairman Michael Hipple (Powhatan) said the “cost of affordability” in James City County is different from Hampton or Newport News, where it is less expensive to build a house and where preserving community character does not have such a strong influence on design or construction.
“That’s one of the biggest issues we’ve been dealing with,” Hipple said. “How do we keep our character and how do we meet those demands?”
Krupicka encouraged the board to think about the county’s growth boundaries and efforts to protect rural areas from development when considering where to build more workforce housing. Targeting locations for concentrated workforce housing could allow the county to protect its character and provide “escape valves” to support the housing pressure of the workforce, he said.
Vice Chairman John McGlennon (Roberts) said it is important to reflect on what the county has done for low-to-moderate income residents, which includes approving residential developments like Ironbound Village that offer a variety of housing options.
“We’ve been collectively as a community trying to address this issue for a very, very long time,” McGlennon said. “I tend to think the hardest part of this is the low-end service worker that we depend on so much. Those are the folks that seem to me to be having the hardest time finding adequate housing and where I’d like to see us focus more of our attention.”
Poller added the county uses federal Community Development Block grants to assist low-income residents with improvements on their homes.
“We’re trying to be very diligent and efficient with the dollars we have because we know what the pressures are,” Poller said.
Supervisors Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) and Ruth Larson (Berkeley) said they were interested in identifying locations and partner developers to construct workforce housing.
“I would be supportive of looking at real solutions, rather than just talking about the problem,” Onizuk said.
Planning Director Paul Holt said such solutions should be part of a broader discussion on the county’s strategic plan, adding the housing conditions study can inform the board through its strategic planning process.