Affordable housing the focus of Staunton leaders

The Top Story by Chris Graham

 

Staunton residents are worried about the apparent lack of affordable housing in the Queen City.

Don’t think that the candidates for the three open seats on Staunton City Council haven’t noticed that.

The citizens of Staunton know what is best, and I trust their judgment. If the citizens say it is an issue for them, then it has to be an issue for me,” said Andrea Oakes, one of the six people vying for the council seats in the May city elections.

Less than half of the residents who responded to a recent survey conducted by the city government rated the availability of affordable housing in Staunton as “excellent” or “good.”

Fourteen percent offered a “poor” rating – up from 10 percent three years ago. This would seem to fly in the face of rapid growth in the number of housing starts approved by city council in recent years.

“We’ve got somewhere around 2,500 housing starts in this community – which is phenomenal. This is growth that I have never seen here – and I’ve been living here all my life,” said vice mayor Lacy King, whose seat is one of the three up for grabs in the spring elections.

The activity, paradoxically, seems to be putting upward pressure on home-sale prices – which, according to the Virginia Association of Realtors, have gone up $34,000 in the Greater Augusta real-estate market, to just over $193,000 for the average home sold, in just the last year.

King told The Augusta Free Press that one problem that city leaders face in light of this trend is trying to determine exactly what the term affordable housing means in today’s marketplace.

“It’s hard to define what affordable housing is anymore, in my opinion. Is $170,000 affordable? What do you get for $170,000 anymore?” King said.

“Council needs to keep looking and keep encouraging as developers come forth. There’s not an awful lot of land left, but that’s going to be what we have to do in the future,” King said.

Candidate Carolyn Dull told the AFP that she favors more mixed-use developments as one solution to the issue.

“Another is that I know that we could probably come up with some partnership with local financial institutions that might be interested in keeping our community vibrant by having houses for our workforce – so they might give some consideration that way,” Dull said.

Council candidate Bruce Elder said the city would do well to focus its attention on getting the state to consider implementing a so-called living wage at Western State Hospital – the largest individual employer within the city limits.

“The most important thing that the city can do is encourage growth that provides good wages for folks. I very much would like to see a living wage for people at Western State. This was addressed at the University of Virginia recently. They did it for the same reasons – to allow people to have a stake in their community,” Elder said.

“What you do is create a floor underneath your economy. Without that, there’s a sort of freefall into whatever the lowest bidder is – and you end up driving people farther and farther out of your community seeking a place where they can live,” Elder told the AFP.

Candidate Roy Hartless is as well thinking about answers on the wage side of the equation – noting that the average weekly wage in Staunton, according to the Virginia Employment Commission, is $498, more than $100 a week below the weekly averages in nearby Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Waynesboro and more than $300 a week under the state average.

“One big thing that the city can do is encourage light industry and manufacturing to come into town to get some higher-paying jobs in the city and work on getting the weekly incomes on an upward trend so that people would be able to afford a little more for houses,” Hartless said.

“The city ought to be working along the lines of bringing in some light industry and manufacturing – not to do away with our retail base, but to help increase the weekly wage earnings of the citizens, to enhance the retail base,” Hartless told the AFP.

Hartless also supports having the city work with developers “to encourage them to build homes in the more affordable range.”

“Of course, there are no guarantees – because it’s a matter of dollars and sense, and we have to keep in mind that there is a limit to the amount of developable land that we have in the city. Most of your developers are into it to make money, and I understand that. At some point in time, everybody has got to step back and say, what is affordable in this area for the people who live here?” Hartless said.

Candidate Don Wilson said city leaders would do well to try to find a “reasonable land-use regulation that would provide for lower development costs – particularly for the smaller developer.”

“I think that everything is geared right now zoning-wise and land-use-wise to a big developer coming in – where Staunton is an old city, and some of the older areas need to have some allowances and other provisions that would provide for small developers,” Wilson told the AFP.

“Staunton has done some good things,” Wilson said. “The community block grant that is in the works for Newtown is geared toward affordable housing. And the block-by-block project in the Johnson Street area has paid off already.

“I would also want to try to encourage a little more active role for the Staunton Redevelopment and Housing Authority. I’m not saying that they’re not being active. It just hasn’t been very visible – and I think it’s up to the city council to try to encourage more activity there,” Wilson said.

The bottom line – this is something that the city needs to address.

“It’s going to take careful study and take some time to get it resolved, I think. But there are some things that you can do,” Wilson said.

“I don’t know what the future is going to hold – but I wonder whether the average person is going to be able to afford to buy a home,” Hartless said.

“We’ve seen such terrific growth in property values that it’s very hard for a person starting out to get a home – and I feel that home ownership is probably the single most important thing in keeping a family together. If you look at economic stability for a family, and being part of a community, home ownership is the number one thing that we should address,” Elder said.

 

(Published 04-03-06)

 

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