County housing task force discusses outreach strategy

jojacobs@vagazette.com

How to effectively inform the community and draw data from it to guide affordable housing solutions was a focus of conversation among members of the county’s housing task force as it discussed its communication strategy Tuesday.

A county housing study found too few accommodations are available for low- and moderate-income individuals. Twenty-nine percent of county workers earn $7.81 per hour ($1,354 per month), or $16,248 per year if they work full-time. In 2016, the median gross rent (rent plus utilities) was estimated at $1,148 per month in James City, according to the 2016 study.

The study found a household needs an annual income of at least $35,000 to afford adequate rental housing.

The task force, which began meeting in January, was formed to study the county’s housing profile and eventually provide recommendations on ways to address the county’s lack of affordable housing to the Board of Supervisors.

The 2035 Strategic Plan serves as a road map for the county’s future investments, public services and plans for two decades. That plan calls for expansion and diversification of the county’s economy, which includes workforce housing.

The task force discussed several potential efforts to facilitate the conversation about affordable housing in the community to the task force members, including fliers and podcasts. Task force members voiced mixed feelings on the proposals.

The group discussed the proposed #Afford_JCCVA campaign, which would utilize fliers in buses and other locations to publicize the hashtag and spur conversation about affordable housing, specifically how residents and workers in the county would define the term, whether affordable housing should be a goal of the county, and similar topics.

The idea is that residents and people who work in the county will share their thoughts and experiences, such as anecdotes about struggling to find housing, using the hashtag on social media.

“This is a good way to get the data on what people are thinking,” task force member Christina Hartless said, adding that data gleaned from the campaign can be used to inform future projects.

“I think that’s a pretty powerful message for people who feel disenfranchised at this point,” said Stephen Anderson of HHHunt Homes.

Task force member Susan Gaston, of the Williamsburg Association of Realtors, worried the campaign could miss populations that aren’t low-income.

“I don’t want to lose focus on those populations,” Gaston said, referring to teachers and first responders who may not commute to work in the county on buses.

Others worried the campaign would be unclear to some people, who may contact the task force looking for immediate housing assistance and become frustrated.

“You can’t ask a story without a solution,” Janet Green, who represents Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg, said. “I’m really concerned. There are real people who need real solutions today.”

Green added that if personal experiences were wanted, her organization could provide that information now.

The fliers would be a stepping off point, and more focused data collection would follow, James City Planning Director Paul Holt said.

“It's a grab bag to get out there and dials the community in. We may get folks to respond, we may not,” Holt said, referring to the #Afford_JCCVA campaign. “We need a first big push to get stuff out there.”

More generally, coordinating with other localities and communicating with community organizations are key to disseminate information and gather feedback from the community, said Lisa Sturtevant, who is an economic consultant assisting the task force.

A database of community organizations, ranging from political action groups to social service departments, with contact information and meeting schedules would be useful to organize communication, task force member Gregory Stoerer said.

From there, task force members can move through the community to raise awareness and support of issues around affordable housing, Sturtevant said.

“The idea is for you all to be the foot soldiers for the messaging moving forward,” Sturtevant said.

The task force also plans a series of podcasts in which members will discuss the value of affordable housing for first responders, county employers and economic development.

“They’re designed to be an easy conversation,” Holt said.

The task force staff expects to go back to the drawing boards to incorporate members’ feedback into the communications strategy. Those updates are expected to be completed in June, and the task force will kick off its campaign that month, Sturtevant said.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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