Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series covering growth in the upper part of James City County.
James City County is growing—but that doesn’t mean there’s room for everyone.
“People just can’t afford to live here. That goes not just for service industry, it’s teachers and police and firemen,” said Brandi Weiler, executive director for Housing Partnerships, Inc.
In the past decade, residents of James City County have seen a number of new housing developments and businesses come into the area, especially in the upper county near the Stonehouse and Powhatan districts. While the growth may seem good on the surface, there are some downsides to the expansion as well.
“I’ve grown up here and been here my whole life and I’ve seen the growth by leaps and bounds by all means,” Weiler said. “But are we necessarily building to what our community needs? I don’t know.”
With a booming development center in the county, there seems to be more homes available than ever—but many people can’t afford to live in them. A study in 2017 from United Way showed that 37 percent of residents live under financial hardship.
A study from the Virginia Employment Commission showed that 19,000 employees are commuting into James City County because they can’t afford to live in the area.
“Having 20,000 people work in your county, but not afford to live here—it’s unacceptable,” said Stephen Anderson, a member of the James City County Housing Task Force and division manager for HHHunt Homes.
HHHunt Homes is just one of the developers that has moved into the area by building the White Hall town homes in Toano. The James City County Housing Task Force was developed in 2015 to help address part of this issue of affordable housing.
“‘Affordable’ is relative to the buyer,” Anderson said.
Anderson said one of the more difficult challenges for the task force to produce a plan that encourages not only adequate housing options but affordable ones as well.
“That’s a huge part of the issue, these town homes they’re building are gorgeous but they’re building out of the scope of what we need,” Weiler said. “Let’s be real, we can have something that’s not as elaborate but it meets what people need to live.”
United Way’s ALICE—Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed— has provided information on what an individual in James City County needs to survive. The ALICE population represents individuals and families who live above the official federal poverty level, but earn less than the basic cost of living in a particular area, their website said. In the Stonehouse district of the upper county, data showed that 23 percent of households qualified as ALICE.
Part of the issue is that while firms usually pay based on the cost of living in the area, meaning they pay more if the cost is higher, that doesn’t mean that wages in the area can spread to cover all basic needs—especially housing.
“What we’re talking about is the working poor,” Weiler said. “People have their blinders on and think it’s not happening here, but it is. If you work minimum wage at three jobs to provide for your family, you’re still going to have to pick and choose what basic needs you can cover.”
In James City County, the largest number of employers are small firms, meaning they staff 20 or less people, and pay an average salary of $32,080 per person. However, the average household with two adults and two children need $77,328 to meet their basic needs each year, according to ALICE.
A for a lot of people, that means stretching more than they can reach.
“The beast is upon us right now because of growth,” Weiler said. “Now it’s time to decide what we’re going to do about it.”