Update Tuesday: Due to Hurricane Florence, the affordable housing public forum has been canceled. It has been rescheduled for Sept. 26 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Stryker Center.
Williamsburg’s citizens have said the city lacks affordable housing options, so city staff and officials will give residents a chance to air their concerns Wednesday at a Planning Commission work session on housing needs.
Rather than having their own discussion, members of the Planning Commission will listen to feedback from city residents on housing topics including affordability, Airbnb and long-term rental units.
“Unlike a regular meeting where you would have back and forth, ask questions and answer questions, this is just going to be getting input,” city spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said. “We want people’s opinions, their ideas, their thoughts, their concerns.”
The insight of residents will then be collated and used to help formulate the city’s next comprehensive plan, according to the meeting agenda.
The comprehensive plan guides the city’s policies regarding land use and is readopted every five years.
Taking stock of housing stock
The comprehensive plan is based on citizen input, including public hearings and online surveys for specific topics.
The city recently released the results of its 2018 National Citizen Survey. Residents were asked to rank their satisfaction with the city on a broad range of topics having to do with their perceived quality of life.
Citizens said they felt safe within the city, experienced an overall ease of travel, were pleased with the local economy and relished the city’s natural environment.
However, only a third of citizens said the city has affordable housing, and fewer than half reported satisfaction with the city’s housing options.
“There’s not as much stock of housing that is affordable to people who have minimum wage jobs or have the typical jobs in the area — teachers, medical assistants, that kind of thing,” said Sarah Stafford, a professor of economics at William & Mary.
Stafford briefed the Planning Commission in August on the city’s current housing market. She filed a housing assessment for the city with the hopes that it would serve as the basis for future policy decisions.
Her report found that Williamsburg’s housing stock is both older, smaller and more expensive on average than that of the surrounding counties. College students seeking off-campus housing also drive the city’s rental market.
“Housing is expensive all across the country, and lots of areas are struggling with housing affordability,” Stafford said. “Really, what I wanted to do with this report was put it in the context of the job market around here and include whether people could afford the typical rentals in the area or the typical houses that are available.”
Her report states that 12 percent of city households headed by someone 25 or older make less than $20,000 in annual income, and an additional 20 percent make less than $35,000. Low incomes can make home ownership economically unfeasible for many families.
“This is a national trend, but we’re certainly seeing it here,” Stafford said. “There are fewer people in the younger age range buying now than compared to 15 years ago.”
She said the lack of young homeowners can be the result of a few factors, such as lifestyle changes and the flexibility and lack of maintenance afforded by renting rather than owning. Some of it comes down to simple economics.
“There’s not a lot of starter homes on the low end of the housing market,” Stafford said. “It’s difficult for younger people to find something that’s affordable. … It puts pressure on the whole system. When people at the lower end of the spectrum can’t find housing that’s affordable, they still have to find housing.”
Stafford said she hopes her report can help guide city staff and officials to developing policies that will solve issues in the city’s housing market.
The comprehensive plan process takes about two years to complete, said Williamsburg Planning Director Carolyn Murphy. The new comprehensive plan will go into effect by the spring of 2020.
“We started in May, so we’re at the very beginning,” Murphy said.
As the process unfolds, the city will review chapters of the city code, stopping for citizen input each step of the way. Just as Wednesday’s meeting is resident’s chance to comment on the city’s housing market, citizens have also had or will have opportunities to weigh in on the Downtown Vibrancy Study, the economy and commercial development, transportation and the environment.
“Housing and neighborhoods are usually a chapter that you get a lot of turnout from citizens,” Murphy said.
After Wednesday’s work session, city staff and members of the Planning Commission will “digest” what they heard from residents, Murphy said.
The Planning Commission has another work session before the end of September, where they will discuss the community’s input from Wednesday’s listening session. Staff will then take direction from the commission and begin drafting an updated chapter for the comprehensive plan, perhaps before the end of September, Murphy said.
If the draft meets the Planning Commission’s expectations they will vote to recommend the chapter for the finalized version of the plan. Once all the chapters are complete the draft will be presented to City Council, who will vote on whether to approve the comprehensive plan after a public hearing.
Want to go?
The community forum on housing will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Stryker Center, 412 N. Boundary St.