Attitudes about affordable housing are changing, from a necessary burden on the county to an essential tool in the county’s economic growth.
The change in attitude, pointed out by Windy Hill Foundation Executive Director Kim Hart, is especially apparent in some county leaders’ preferred term: workforce housing.
“For the first time, workforce housing is being seen as being connected to and important to economic development,” Hart said.
“A house is where a job goes to sleep at night,” said Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian), a longtime proponent of affordable housing. “I think that we need to marry this truly in the Department of Economic Development, because our economic development are the guys that are on the front line. Nobody wants to move a business to the county if the county says, we’d love your business to be here, but we don’t want you to live here.”
That idea has popped up both in the Board of Supervisors newly updated strategic plan—which calls for increasing “the use of partnerships to provide affordable housing as a means to support a vibrant economy”—and among the new county positions unfunded in the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget but listed as “critical needs.” Far down that list of critical needs are two proposed new positions that county staff members say would be necessary to move affordable housing land development oversight and regulation out of the the Department of Family Services’ housing division.
“When we talk about affordable housing, it’s workforce housing,” Volpe said. “The next time you go out to dinner and the movies with your family, think about the guy that’s handing you your popcorn, the guy who’s handing you your ticket, the waitress at the restaurant. All these people need a place to live. It’s not just bankers, lawyers, and doctors that need a place to live.”
The county board recently revised the rules of its Affordable Dwelling Unit program to so it would qualify for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Virginia Housing Development Authority grant funding. But the idea of including affordable housing under the purview of the Department of Economic Development is a new one.
“We’ve always been engaged in the conversation about workforce housing and affordable housing, but we’ve never really been an active partner or a player in that,” said Department Executive Director Buddy Rizer. “I can definitely see some synergies. I personally don’t have as much background on that as I would like to have if we were going to be involved, but I’m a fairly fast learner, so I think we can pick that up.”
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) agreed with Volpe’s push, but advised her to wait until a housing summit that Randall hopes to hold in late summer or early fall. Randall said detailed planning for that summit will begin when annual budget work wraps up.
“It’s a little different for me, because I’ve been struggling with this for a long time,” Volpe said. “I’ve seen it ever since I’ve lived in Loudoun County, where you literally have 50 families standing there, and they’re basically pulling eight names out of a hat to decide who can buy one of the eight townhouses that’s going to be built. And the other 42 families walk away crying, thinking that they’ll never be able to buy a home.”
County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said marrying affordable housing and economic development in county government is an “aspirational statement,” but that county staff can start to put together proposals for concrete action to implement it.