The Virginia State Capital seen frmo the bottom of the steps leading up to it, on a sunny day.


Should Virginia Build Housing for Public Servants on Public Land?

Amid widespread rent increases, directing public land to affordable housing could allow people to stay in their communities, as well as reduce commutes and employee turnover.

Virginia State Capital. Photo by Flickr user Paul Sableman, CC BY 2.0

The Virginia State Capital seen frmo the bottom of the steps leading up to it, on a sunny day.

Virginia State Capital. Photo by Flickr user Paul Sableman, CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury.

Almost 60 percent of tenants in Virginia faced a rent increase last year. Localities are regulating starter homes out of existence. The rate of evictions is quickly returning to pre-pandemic levels. The statewide median home sales price broke $390,000 last spring. The commonwealth’s housing crisis can seem like something of an onion: each layer peels back to reveal one smellier than the next—and too much time peering into it could leave you in tears.

However, Virginia’s worsening woes surrounding high housing costs have recently garnered the attention of state leaders from the Governor’s Mansion to the General Assembly. A whole host of bills proposed this session offer ideas on how to make housing more affordable, but the state and local governments could already be sitting on one solution: public lands.

Public Land for Public Servants

Earlier this month Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, introduced a resolution requesting that the Department of Housing and Community Development “study ways to increase affordable housing options for public servants on publicly owned property.” Although HJ 490 was ultimately laid on the table (lawmaker lingo for “killed”) last week, its contents will be conveyed to the state’s Housing Commission for consideration via a letter suggesting agency action on a suite of proposals delegates and senators have put forward this session.

Although the statewide stats on the housing crisis are concerning, VanValkenburg introduced his study bill because of issues facing his own constituents.

“Henrico is ahead of the game on this issue, but we have an affordability problem in that folks who work at Short Pump can’t afford to live near there,” he says. “We’re increasingly seeing public servants in western Henrico moving out to Hanover, Goochland, and Powhatan. Eventually those folks stop teaching, policing, and fire fighting in Henrico because the commute is a killer. Once someone has been in your county for a while they have built up skills, knowledge and relationships that we don’t want to lose.”

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With issues like zoning often becoming a lightning rod, VanValkenburg hoped using publicly owned lands to build housing for public servants would be low-hanging fruit. Had the bill not died in the House, the plan was for DHCD to spend the next year working with localities across the commonwealth to create plans for workforce housing for teachers, first responders, and other civil servants. With such plans in place, the thinking was localities might have then felt more comfortable diving into the issue of affordable housing more broadly.

From Classrooms to Bedrooms

On the other side of Richmond, Chesterfield County has already begun a series of projects to reimagine abandoned public buildings for better use. Last October, in collaboration with the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, the county broke ground on Ettrick Landing, a 10-unit, single-family subdivision on the site of the former Dupuy Elementary School. At first, a community group called the Concerned Citizens of Ettrick (CCE) was worried about what would replace the area’s old school.

“When they realized the school was so dilapidated it was beyond salvageable use, [CCE] went from saying, ‘Not over my dead body, no way,’ to ‘Tell me more about a community land trust. Who will be able to afford the homes?’ and ‘What will this future neighborhood look like?’” explains Nicholas Feucht, Chesterfield’s real estate development and housing coordinator. “It took three years from community engagement to the groundbreaking due to the pandemic, but almost 100 people came out to show their support.”

As part of the land trust, the 10 homes being built on the site will all be permanently affordable. Ranging from one to two stories and 1,500 to 1,800 square feet, the houses are all expected “to be sold for $150,000 to $180,000—a price point that is affordable to households earning between approximately $35,000 and $75,000 per year, or up to 80 percent of area median household income,” according to the county.

Infrastructure like roads and water are going in place now, and the county anticipates Project Homes will have the first half of the homes completed this summer with the remaining units finished later this year. The community engagement for an adaptive reuse project of the much better-maintained Matoaca Elementary School kicked off late last year as well, with an eye toward assisting older residents.

“The single fastest growing demographic in our county is singles over 65,” Feucht says.  “We’re trying to think about how people can age in place without the burden of home repair and lawn maintenance. We don’t have a ton of surplus public property in Chesterfield, but this is a great model of how we can work with a nonprofit to build something that can serve residents not just now but in the future.”

Housing for Whom?

Although neither project in Chesterfield will specifically target public servants, both demonstrate the way in which publicly owned lands can be repurposed to be affordable housing. By explaining to communities why new housing is needed and allowing additional density, local governments can have a surprising amount of influence over the outcome of proposed affordable developments. Localities also have a vested interest in ensuring their employees are part of the communities they work within.

“There is a particular need for public employees to live where they serve,” says Kathryn Howell, associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-director of the RVA Eviction Lab. “If the city worker in charge of transportation doesn’t live in the city, then they may not have the same interests as city residents. If they’re driving in from the suburbs, then they may not want to drive over the speed humps residents want installed.”

Affordable housing for public servants is often branded “workforce housing,” a label that can sometimes be helpful in reducing community concerns around new development. By specifically calling out the most popular public workers like teachers and first responders as the direct beneficiaries, opposition to affordable housing is frequently harder to maintain. As public employees range from executives of economic development to dump truck drivers, the term may function better as branding than a cohesive category of people seeking shelter.

“What do we mean when we say ‘public servants?’ Teachers, firefighters, police officers — the valiant professions?” asks Howell. “Many officials almost never want to talk about other low-wage government workers. Down below 60% [of area median income], it’s really difficult to provide housing. There is a sales pitch that happens for workforce housing, but all housing is workforce housing because almost everyone works.”

Given that many people want a specific type of home—an apartment near lots of retail and restaurants, or a suburban rancher with a two-car garage—anticipating, let alone building, the kinds of homes that public servants want may prove challenging. The more expansive solution to keeping public servants in the communities they serve is to increase Virginia’s housing supply across the board, according to Howell.

“Workforce housing can be dealt with by adding supply because it lowers prices across the board,” she says. “If you don’t have enough housing that’s affordable in Fredericksburg, for example, then the people teaching there will just move further out. Ultimately it keeps bumping people out which makes sprawl worse.”

A future of ever-further commutes for public servants is just the fate VanValkenburg aimed to help his constituents avoid when he introduced his study. Although his bill died this year, he’s hopeful that the growing consensus about the causes behind Virginia’s housing crisis will undergird his push for progress going forward.

“We’ve seen what happens in states that are not proactive on this and have to dig themselves out of a hole,” he says. “We don’t want to get there because then you’re addressing not just a lack of housing but also increased homelessness and the need for more social services. We are in a moment where people in both parties recognize that housing is an issue to solve.” 

The Virginia Mercury noted that a previous version of this column contained an error about  a letter sent to the state Housing Commission. The error has been corrected.

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