The Williamsburg Planning Commission discussed whether there is a real need or a perception of need for affordable housing on Wednesday.
Gathered to review a chapter on housing in the Comprehensive Plan, the members spent nearly three hours discussing how the city can respond to calls for more affordable housing within its limits.
On a National Citizens Survey conducted in May, 38 percent of survey takers (many of them renters) ranked the city’s availability of affordable, quality housing as “excellent” or “good” – a number much lower than other jurisdictions that completed the survey.
But in a presentation Wednesday, Planning Director Reed Nester explained that according to the parameters of affordable housing defined by the federal and state government, 55 percent of the city’s 2,982 dwellings are considered “affordable” because their assessed values are $250,000 or less.
The accepted guideline is that housing should not cost more than 30 percent of a total household income. The baseline used to determine affordability is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Area Medium Income (AMI), which for 2012 is $69,900 for the Hampton Roads area.
Within that range, moderate household income would be $55,920-$83,800; low-income would be $34,950-$55,920 and very low income would be $20,970-$55,920. Looking at the range for low-income households, an affordable house in Williamsburg would be between $150,000-$250,000.
The commissioners wondered how to explain the gap between reality and perception, and whether it’s significant. Commissioner William Kafes initially expressed doubt the National Citizens Survey indicated an actual problem, but Planning Director Reed Nester explained it was considered statistically significant.
Commissioner Sarah Stafford said that, for this issue, perception is important. She said the city might have to come up with a definition of “workforce housing,” noting that many of the city’s workers cannot afford to purchase a quality home within the city limits.
She was supported by members of the audience, who advocated for keeping all of the information included in the Comprehensive Plan draft and asked the commission to do whatever it could to encourage development of affordable housing.
Noah Kim, a student at The College of William & Mary, told the board the responses from the Citizens Survey matter. “Perception is a really big point, whether people decide to live here, work here or move out,” he said. “To dismiss the importance of perception is somewhat problematic. I think it seems affordable for those living in Williamsburg vs. those working, but not living, in Williamsburg.”
Susan Gaston, representing the Williamsburg Area Association of Realtors, agreed and said the need is there, but residents often bristle at the idea of “affordable” housing. “There is a widely held misperception that affordable housing equates to subsidized housing,” she said. “People hear ‘affordable housing’ and say, ‘Not in my backyard.’”
That attitude, she said, is impacting the city’s ability to have a diverse community. “The issue is, in fact, what do you want Williamsburg to look like?” she said.
Dick Schreiber, president of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, told the commission his organization had conducted its own workforce housing study in 2009. He said the city offers “terrific” apartment options for renters, but for the professionals ready to buy a single-family home, it is hard to find “acceptable, affordable living.” Having housing for that income bracket of young professionals is crucial if the city wants to attract technology-based jobs, he said.
The solution, many audience members and commissioners agreed, is to continue to encourage the college and private entrepreneurs to fulfill the student housing needs. Ideally, that would free up many of the single-family homes currently operating as rental properties.
The draft version of the Comprehensive Plan identifies four possible locations where affordable housing could be constructed within the city: the undeveloped portion of the Wales subdivision on Ironbound Road; land south of Berkeley Middle School on Strawberry Plains Road; an undeveloped parcel in the Highland Park neighborhood; and for seniors, the Blayton Building could be expanded.
The suggestions come with notable caveats, however. The Wales property is privately owned and the Highland Park area, owned by Colonial Williamsburg, has difficult topography. A bid for grant funding to expand the Blayton Building failed last year.
In the past, the city has worked with the Williamsburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority to subsidize rental units, plus the development of single-family lots, on Strawberry Plains Road. They’ve also worked with WRHA to obtain Community Development Block Grants for the Wales, Strawberry Plains and Braxton Court areas. The Comp Plan draft notes the existing zoning ordinance contains provisions to encourage cluster subdivisions, varieties of housing types, student housing and multifamily housing.
City Council to Meet Monday for Manager Evaluation
City Council has scheduled a special meeting for 4 p.m. Monday in the second-floor conference room of the Municipal Building.
Council will go into closed session to conduct the annual performance evaluation for City Manager Jack Tuttle and to discuss the sale of real property.
CSX Crossing Repairs Begin Monday
A portion of North Henry Street will be closed for two days, starting tomorrow, as the CSX Railroad crossing is reconstructed.
Contractors for CSX will begin the repair work at 6 a.m. Monday, and during the anticipated two days of work, traffic on North Henry Street will be rerouted via Lafayette Street.
City crews will repave the crossing on Wednesday, but traffic will resume. The amount of time it will take to complete the repairs and paving will depend on weather conditions.