The James City Housing Task Force has come to an informal consensus regarding which policies it wants to recommend to fix the county’s affordable housing issues, though there’s still some debate on the finer points.
“I think we do have consensus around the set of recommendations,” said Lisa Sturtevant, an economic consultant assisting the task force, after the meeting. “I think there’s still some outstanding thoughts about how to put our priorities out there.”
The task force intends to finalize its report in February, and then pass along those recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.
Sturtevant has said James City has 8,400 households that can’t afford their housing costs without sacrificing other expenses, such as medical care and food. That’s about a third of households in the county. More than 3,300 households are severely cost burdened, spending more than half their wages on housing.
James City conducted a housing study that found there isn’t enough housing for low- and moderate-income residents in 2016. The study also found that 29 percent of county workers earned $7.81 per hour, which is $1,354 per month. The study estimated median gross rent, which is rent plus utilities, at $1,148 per month in the county.
The draft recommendations outline 15 suggested strategies to address housing needs — ranging from financial aid programs to zoning policy changes and beyond.
A survey that 14 members of the body responded to suggests the task force considers expedited permitting (78.6 percent), the opportunity zone (71.4 percent) and mixed-income, moderate-density districts (64.3 percent) as the three most important recommendations, Sturtevant said.
Grove was declared an opportunity zone by the federal government in May. The economic development program is intended to make areas more attractive to private investors through tax credits and could be used for affordable housing projects.
Mid-use, moderate-density zoning districts would pave the way for townhomes and condominiums for moderate-income homeowners and renters.
Strategies include adaptive reuse, which is aimed at low- and moderate-income renters, and a proposal to redevelop existing motels and commercial buildings into residential units. Also among the recommendations are rehabilitation of existing housing, a housing trust fund and multi-family property tax exemptions and abatement.
Just as the recommendations target a variety of policies, they also target a variety of workers across income levels, ranging from the extremely low income — including childcare workers, substitute teachers and bus drivers making up to $24,000 a year -- to moderate-income workers making up to $73,000 a year, which includes elementary school teachers, registered nurses and surgical technicians. While task force members agreed on what the recommendations should be Tuesday, they debated implementation — specifically the cost of projects — and their role in that regard.
Some task force members wondered whether cost estimates should be figured out and included with the recommendations.
“It brings that reality check to the board, it brings that reality check to the public that you can’t get something for nothing,” task force member Susan Gaston said.
Others, particularly county staff in the room, argued that doing so would be time-consuming and would be outside the scope of the task force.
“You want it to be realistic, but I don’t want the recommendations to be informed by current resources or perceptions of resources,” said Rebecca Vinroot, the county’s director of social services.
Planning Director Paul Holt echoed that sentiment, saying that it’s reasonable to assume the recommendations will have costs attached.
“I would presume most all of these would take resources,” Holt said. “Tell us what you think is going to move the needle, and we can help tell the board what resources we need to get us there.”
He said that the goal of the staff advisory group that supports the task force would be to establish a sense of the costs of the recommendations in the next couple of months.
While supportive of the idea that there’s a need for affordable housing in the county, task force member Jack Haldeman, who’s also on the Planning Commission, voiced concerns about whether the recommendations fully accounted for preservation of the county’s rural character.
“The only point of differentiation James City County has in the marketplace is its rural and historic ambiance and that’s it. And if we pave over James City County, that’s gone,” he said.
He floated the idea of transportation fixes, such as longer Williamsburg Area Transit Authority routes, which would provide transportation for workers targeted by affordable housing efforts and work outside the county. Doing so would address traffic congestion concerns that affordable housing measures are intended to help address.
Other members of the task force demurred on that idea, saying that recommendations to fix area transportation fall outside the scope of the task force.
Whether the Board of Supervisors will adopt the recommendations is an open question. During a conversation between the Board of Supervisors and representatives of task force at the supervisors’ work session in September, supervisors encouraged the task force to concentrate on recommending attainable objectives.
Supervisors may choose to adopt some, all or none of the recommendations. And putting the recommendations into practice is another matter — it could be months or years before recommendations are truly realized as programs.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, firstname.lastname@example.org, @jajacobs_