Friday, March 1, 2024

Virginia has ‘Systemic’ Housing Issue, but Candidates Mostly Quiet About It

Sales sign outside of the newly constructed Carver Square townhomes in Richmond. (Kaiana Lee/VCU Capital News Service)

RICHMOND — Despite the fact that many Virginians struggle with housing, candidates have not made it an election priority.

Virginia has a housing inventory shortage, rent costs have risen sharply and many people pay over 30% of their income toward housing, according to a recent Richmond City Council resolution. The City Council earlier this year declared a housing crisis in Richmond.

Capital News Service examined the websites of all General Assembly candidates, or looked up a profile if no site existed, to see if candidates directly mentioned housing as a top priority.

Housing was listed under “platform” or “issues” on the websites of 42 House candidates, out of 174. That’s 24% of the candidates vying for a two-year term.

Seventeen of 79 Senate candidates listed housing as a top priority. That’s 21.5% of total candidates vying for a four-year term.

Democrats built housing into their platform much more than Republicans: 83% of the candidates who mentioned housing were Democrats.

Few candidates have detailed plans to address housing. Although housing was listed as a campaign priority sometimes it was just one word on the website. In general, very few candidates flesh out details for any listed priority.

Affordable housing isn’t mentioned often because it isn’t projected to get candidates elected, according to Alex Keena, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

When it comes to voting both parties are focused on issues that will get them elected. This means directing attention toward known voters.

Though young people are more likely to express concern about affordable housing, their voting habits are unpredictable, Keena said.

“There is a focus on senior citizens because senior citizens dominate and they’re the most politically active group in terms of voting,” Keena said.

Several of the candidates proposed helping seniors find affordable housing solutions, and finding tax solutions other than real estate because skyrocketing property values can tax some seniors out of their homes.

 Susanna Gibson is the Democratic candidate for a key Henrico County House race. She is also a nurse practitioner with a specialty in geriatrics. In her priorities it is explained that 6% of senior households have an annual income of less than $10,000. Gibson wants to expand safe and affordable housing for seniors.

“If there’s a conflict between the preferences and interests of young people and the interests of older Americans, then it’s always older Americans that prevail,” Keena said.

“Real estate” or “construction” groups held the No. 3 spot when campaign donations are ranked by industry, according to a Virginia Public Access Project analysis. Donations from organizations that fall under that industry totaled $29.5 million from 2022-2023.

“There isn’t a direct correlation between people’s donations to candidates and what politicians do in office,” Keena said. “A lot of times, groups will donate money to campaigns because they want to preserve the status quo.”

But, he said, the current system benefits luxury builders and investors.

“These groups may not necessarily be opposed to affordable housing, but it’s not at the top of their priority list,” Keena said.

Campaigns focus on suburban voters, according to Keena. Suburban voters are more likely worried about home ownership rather than affordable rentals.

“Developers and real estate investors want to build luxury housing and they are not particularly interested in building affordable housing,” Keena stated. “Affordable housing is not always as profitable.”

The average amount needed to buy a house in the Richmond metropolitan area, which includes multiple counties and cities, has gone up 25% since last year, according to data analyzed from the American Community Survey.

Laura Dobbs is the director of policy at Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a nonprofit that works to ensure equal access to housing.

A New York Times article in 2018 listed Virginia as one of the top states for eviction, and helped bring national attention to the issue. That helped usher in some changes that addressed “a lot of the low hanging fruit,” Dobbs said.

“Over the past couple years, I’ve heard a lot more from legislators who, you know, bring the housing issue to me rather than me trying to ring the bell,” she said.

Dobbs worked with individuals affected by the housing shortage before and during the pandemic.

“I saw how policies helped drive down evictions when we had a public health emergency, but now that those protections ended over a year ago we are seeing evictions go back to pre pandemic levels,” Dobbs said.

The removal of these provisions has harmed tenants and kick-started eviction rates, according to Dobbs.

“We stand out in terms of our eviction rates and you know, it’s not that we have higher poverty than other areas,” Dobb said. “Those sorts of factors are pretty similar to a lot of other states that have lower eviction rates, but there are structural things.”

Virginia evictions cost $50 to $70 to file, lower than the cost in other states such as Georgia where it is closer to $100. That’s one reason why eviction and housing are issues, according to Dobbs. The lower the cost of eviction the more landlords can view eviction as a business model.

Increasing the eviction filing fee could reduce the amount of evictions, Dobbs said.

Several legislative efforts to tackle increased eviction notices, and housing and utility costs were shot down during the last Virginia General Assembly session.

“We still have a systemic problem that sets Virginia apart from other states and we it’s time that we really took those seriously and I’m encouraged that there are a lot more legislators who are listening to their constituents,” Dobbs said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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