david kerr H&S

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Here is a question for you. Should our local governments, perhaps working with federal and state authorities, be doing more to provide affordable housing in our region?

The answer for many may be, why do we need to worry about affordable housing in a county like Stafford. We’re amongst the most prosperous counties in the nation and there is building going on everywhere. So, what’s the problem? Some people, more than most of us realize, are falling through the cracks.

Naturally there are those who would say the government, and certainly not the local government, shouldn’t be involved in providing housing. Thing is, having said that, sorry folks, the government, through guaranteed mortgage loans at the state and national level, as well as rental assistance, already is heavily involved in the housing market. And what’s more, counties and cities throughout Virginia, facing the same problems we are, have established housing authorities to help expand the supply of affordable housing. So, maybe extending that involvement, just a little bit more, to help the “progressively squeezed” middle-and-working class home buyers and renters in Stafford isn’t such a bad idea.

Just to make the point, as recently as 10 years ago housing prices in Stafford weren’t unusually high. Getting a first home, even on a modest salary, was relatively easy and buyers such as first responders and teachers weren’t priced out of the market. And those living on the edge of the housing market weren’t that numerous. However, that’s changed rapidly. In 2014 the median sale price, that means half the prices are above this amount and half below, for all types of homes was $225,000. Forty-eight months later, it was around $300 and rising. It should be no surprise that prospective buyers and renters are getting priced out of the market. Incomes, of course, have been increasing, but they haven’t been keeping up with prices. Not even close. What’s more, the stock of affordable housing, what there is of it, has been progressively declining. In a sense, it’s a market failure. Because of zoning limitations and a bias against lower income housing, builders don’t even want to consider constructing the kind of housing needed to help lower income citizens.

But, it's more than that. While we may be a prosperous county a lot of our community isn’t keeping up. The situation is worse than most of us realize. According to data provided by the Rappahannock United Way, 35% of Stafford’s population makes less than the “cost of

living” for our county. That puts them right on the edge. Or even below it.This means they have little hope of ever qualifying for something as grand as a mortgage. They just have a tough time finding a place to live. These situations can be desperate, with families having to move frequently, often forced to live in substandard housing, and more frequently than most people realize, even having to endure periods of homelessness. You’d be surprised at how many children in our school system have, from time-to-time, been homeless. Is that really appropriate for one of our nation’s most prosperous counties?

That’s why, maybe, it’s time for Stafford, like other Virginia communities, such as Fredericksburg, Prince William and Fairfax, to consider forming a housing authority. The mission would be comparatively simple. It would work to increase the housing stock for lower income renters, and yes, even potential homeowners.

Setting up a housing authority isn’t a one, two, three operation. Nothing in politics works that fast. The Board of Supervisors would have to support the concept, and so far, no member of the board has expressed that support. But, if it garnered at least some notional support, there could have to be some studies, some committees, and maybe a blue-ribbon commission. Politicians just love blue-ribbon commissions. That’s a group that would study the problem and identify a set of solutions would be a good fit for our area and our housing situation.

Would our housing authority work with builders to streamline zoning to make more affordable housing available? Would they have the power to issue bonds in order to fund more affordable housing? How would they be governed? And what would be their relationship with the state and federal government? Also, what kind of oversight would there be?

The idea is a sound one. We have a problem, it's more serious than most people realize, and we need to deal with it. We have people without a place to live and citizens finding it harder and harder to keep up with housing prices. Ideally, we can get ahead of the problem. That is, if we think proactively and get in front of the issue. After all, housing is a basic human right.

David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.

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