Home Housing summit brings stakeholders together; CFCBR hopes to maintain momentum

Housing summit brings stakeholders together; CFCBR hopes to maintain momentum

Crystal Graham
hand with keys
Photo by Kate Simon for the Community Foundation’s “This is Home” project. Image courtesy Chris Lassiter.

A summit was held last week to address housing insecurity and homelessness in Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County.

The SAW Housing Summit, led by Augusta Health, Valley Community Services Board, the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission and the Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge, had more than 175 people participating over two days.

“The level of participation in both days of the summit reinforced for us that housing is something that is weighing on the minds of individuals from all sectors of our community,” said Dan Layman, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge, the organization who recently put together a comprehensive look at the unhoused situation in the region through a project titled “This is Home.”

One key goal of the summit was to bring together city and county staff, elected leaders, public agencies, business leaders and nonprofit organizations to learn from each other and begin work on a community-wide solution to housing insecurity and homelessness.

“The SAW Housing Summit was an excellent opportunity to bring all of those individuals under one roof to share common ground and begin charting a path forward,” said Olivia Raines, housing program manager with the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission, or CSPDC.

In addition to stakeholders, people with lived experience were also included in the discussion and served on several key panels.

“We rooted our planning for the summit in months of listening and learning from neighbors in our community who have experienced housing insecurity,” said Layman. “We’re committed to ensuring that those most affected by housing insecurity have a voice and power in this ongoing work.”

Topics for the summit included education on affordable housing, the current state of housing in the SAW region, models of success elsewhere and potential next steps for the region to address the crisis. The CSPDC shared it is working on a regional housing study which should be complete in the spring of 2024.

Waynesboro City Councilman Kenny Lee said he was impressed with the number of organizations who are committed to tackling the issue of affordable housing and the homelessness it causes.

Lee also said he looks forward to the assessment on affordable housing in the SAW region. He said he has asked Waynesboro City Manager Mike Hamp about the possibility of a council briefing prior to the completion of the assessment “just to have an idea of potential next steps related to the results.”

“I think there is mutual agreement that there are no short-term solutions, but rather we have to find a way to realize small successes to build upon,” said Lee. “A long-term goal for me would be to tap into state money to create avenues/paths to creating affordable housing without creating pockets of public housing throughout the city.”

Lee said he also plans to meet with Kim Byrd with Waynesboro Redevelopment and Housing Authority to “continue discussions on how to better support her efforts as well.”

Dr. Clint Merritt with Augusta Health gave a presentation illustrating how individuals who experience homelessness are at a great risk of severe health consequences.

“As a community-based healthcare system, Augusta Health believes we are one of many critical voices at the table when it comes to finding a long-term solution for housing insecurity in our community,” said Krystal D. Moyers, M.Ed., CHES, administrative director of Community Outreach and Partnerships at Augusta Health. “More and more hospitals are playing a role in the housing space, as research shows that only around 20 percent of an individual’s overall health is impacted by health care. Thirty percent is impacted by health behaviors and genetics. The remaining 50 percent is impacted by the physical environment and socioeconomic factors.

“In short, housing equals health, and this was vocalized over and over at the summit by many of the participants,” she said. “From our work with those experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness, many individuals have a higher-than-average number of chronic, complex diseases (often unmanaged – which can lead to other health issues).”

Due to rising house prices and increased interest rates, lower-income households are often forced to rent versus own. However, the vacancy rate for rentals is 2 percent or lower in Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County. In the SAW community, 35 percent of households are considered cost burdened, where they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income for core housing expenses. These households are at risk of losing their housing if something should happen to disrupt their budget like expensive car repairs or chronic health issues.

“We know that many individuals in our community are one unexpected bill away from being housing insecure, and the number one cause of this is a medical emergency,” Moyers said.

One week after the conclusion of the summit, the organizers are beginning to digest everything they heard and learned over two days.

“We knew that we would not end the summit with a list of concrete investments to being making immediately,” Layman said. “Our focus was on assessing the themes and priorities that were resonating with the participants, as well as identifying what might be missing that we need to address in order to make progress.”

The prominent themes that emerged, Layman said, were:

  • We need a better and shared understanding of what is “affordable”
  • Homelessness is something that happens to individuals and not an outcome that is deserved due to their actions
  • We are not creating housing nearly fast enough to meet the local demand
  • Political will to enable housing development is one of the most important contributions that local leaders can make

“As for what is missing in our community, summit participants noted that we need broader community awareness and understanding of housing so that we can move forward together as a community,” Layman said.

On the second day of the summit, participants spent nearly four hours brainstorming potential housing solutions.

“The CSPDC along with our SAW Housing Summit planning group partners feel very optimistic about the ability of our region to move forward and create housing solutions and are in the process of synthesizing everything we learned at the summit to start visualizing next steps,” said Raines.

Moyers said the next steps also include two upcoming community conversations open to the public.

  • Oct. 26, 9 a.m.: “Challenges of Renting in the Valley” Sip and Speak coffee and conversation presented by Elizabeth Coltrane, Blue Ridge Legal Services, Embrace Waynesboro Community Center, 932 First St., Waynesboro
  • Nov. 9, noon: “What is the Housing First Model” Lunch and Learn presented by Lydia Campbell, Valley Community Services Board, Staunton Innovation Hub classroom, 26 N. Augusta St., Staunton

“The planning committee will be meeting routinely through the end of November to formulate our next steps, which include the development of a cross-sector working body or coalition to begin setting shared goals and creating immediate steps and longer-term plans,” said Layman. “We also envision subsequent housing summits to bring the community back together to review progress being made, collect more ideas and maintain positive momentum.

“From the standpoint of the Community Foundation, we stand ready to invest our resources into housing in appropriate ways.”

The SAW Housing Summit sessions will also be uploaded online at www.sawhousing.com

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.