December 18, 2018

VHDA Grant Helps Planning Efforts to Preserve Affordable Housing Along Alexandria’s Route 1 Corridor

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Alexandria is putting the final touches on a plan it hopes will safeguard its dwindling inventory of affordable housing.

Since 2000, 88 percent of Alexandria’s market-affordable units have been lost. These units, which have unregulated rents, often house low- to moderate-income families. With two rental properties on its Route 1 corridor – 215 units in all – in danger of joining that list in the next two years, the city wants to change its redevelopment and zoning guidelines to protect those properties and others. A Community Impact Grant from VHDA has helped fund that work in its early stages.

At the heart of the process was a series of community engagement activities designed to solicit feedback and gain consensus from a broad cross section of stakeholders. The most meaningful activity,by far, was a collaborative planning and policy session called a charrette. This week-long meeting was attended by several hundred people including neighbors, the residents and owners of the two Route 1 properties, city staff members, and community service organization representatives, some of whom brought special expertise to the group.

“Without VHDA’s grant money, there’s no way we could have pulled off such a comprehensive strategy and planning effort,” said Helen McIlvaine, Alexandria’s director of housing. “In addition to the charrette, VHDA’s funds helped pay for market and housing development studies, postcard mailings, door-to-door outreach and similar activities. It also covered language interpretation and translation services that helped us engage the diverse group of residents who are likely to be impacted.”

Federal subsidy contracts have helped the two Route 1 rental properties remain financially viable over the years. But those subsidies will expire in 2019 and 2020, increasing the likelihood that the property owners will choose to redevelop them. If that happens, the families who reside there – nearly all of whom make less than the area’s median income – could be priced out of their homes.

Alexandria’s charrette focused on both short- and long-term issues related to the properties, including a plan to relocate the tenants temporarily if redevelopment occurs. Traffic patterns, school capacity and housing density were also key topics. It’s estimated that three or more new market-rate rental units will need to be built in order to conserve one of the existing affordable units.

McIlvaine believes their work can jump-start tangible improvements to the city’s housing environment. “We want our planning and strategy work to create an envelope that can guide redevelopment along the Route 1 corridor, and potentially be a template for elsewhere in the city,” she said. “That will include, hopefully, zoning changes that help maintain our existing inventory of affordable housing, at close to their current level of affordability.”

Recommendations from the charrette were integral provisions in Alexandria’s long-term planning document, titled the Rt. 1 South Housing Affordability Strategy. It was unanimously approved by the planning commission on September 4, and by the city council on September 15, 2018.

The safe bet is that redevelopment economics, as well as other financial pressures, will continue to put affordable housing inventories in jeopardy. But in Alexandria, the belief is strong that proactive planning will drive policy and zoning changes that can balance those realities.

Building More Housing Options in Southwest Virginia

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As game plans go, “Build it, and they will come” was a home run for Kevin Costner in his 1989 movie which was set in the cornfields of Iowa. But here in the hills of Southwest Virginia, officials are learning to play by a different rulebook: “They’re coming, and it’s time to build.”

Since 2015, employment levels in Botetourt County have spiked 17 percent, a welcome trend that could continue. While this has put the county in an enviable position, it’s also caused complications. One of them stands out perhaps above the others: Botetourt’s diverse and growing population needs more housing.

Knowing that, in late 2016 the county commissioned a study to evaluate housing demand by type and price range. The results of that study were eventually presented at a day-long housing summit sponsored by VHDA and local partners such as the Roanoke Regional Home Builders Association.

A VHDA Community Impact Grant helped fund that study as well as other activities the county is undertaking to improve its housing environment.

“VHDA’s grant money has been an important catalyst,” said Gary Larrowe, Botetourt’s County Administrator. “It provided the means for us to tap the expertise of external consultants, and it will also help fund a toolkit designed to help us drive smart housing growth. Our conversations regarding housing have yielded amazing results.”

Botetourt’s goal for new housing is ambitious: to build 1,000 new units, equally split between apartments and townhomes. So far, progress has exceeded expectations – 500 homes in four new developments have been approved, which will create enough space for at least a thousand residents, if not more.

A large luxury apartment complex called The Reserve at Daleville is one of those developments. With 188 units spread over 17 acres, The Reserve required a change in zoning from agricultural and shopping centers to high-density residential (R-4), with a special exception permit for up to 15 multifamily units per acre. That change was approved by the county in November 2017. Botetourt supervisors passed a resolution in September that will allow VHDA to finance this development through its Mixed-use/Mixed-income loan program. Households with a broad range of incomes will be eligible to rent homes there.

Daleville Town Center, whose 99 units will be flanked by townhomes and additional single-family units now under construction, is another pending addition to the county.

Meanwhile, Botetourt’s housing task force continues its work. On its agenda are meetings with county stakeholders as well as with the planning commission and board of supervisors. Its policy toolkit, which will describe regulatory barriers to housing development and outline strategies to overcome impediments to housing production and affordability, is slated for completion by the end of 2018.

Botetourt County’s response to its housing shortage has yielded strong early results, thanks in part to VHDA grant funding and loan financing. Here in Southwest Virginia, the building has just begun.

Closing the Housing Affordability Gap in Northern Virginia

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In the shadow of the nation’s capital, Loudoun County has a growing, diverse and affluent population. For years, it’s been America’s richest county, achieving a median annual household income of $134,000 in 2016. Yet too many people who work there – including many number of law enforcement officers, fire and rescue squad members, teachers, nurses and other professionals – can’t afford to live there because of high housing costs.

Against that backdrop, Phyllis Randall, chair at-large of Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors, brought forward an item to the board to take a holistic look at the county’s housing challenges. VHDA was one of the organizations invited to participate.

Dale Wittie, VHDA’s Director of Rental Housing, covered a range of topics at the Board of Supervisors meeting. He explained how VHDA finances housing properties, both newly constructed and renovated, through loans that require owners to rent a portion of their units to households of limited means. He also described how the authority administers the federal Housing Credit program (formerly the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program), which encourages the private development of affordable rental properties.

As a summary, he emphasized that VHDA’s financing options offer developers and localities not one approach, but many. “What works well in one situation may be ineffective in another,” he said. “Our funding sources and lending terms allow developers to do what they do best – that is, to structure economically viable deals that create self-supporting commercial real estate.”

According to Randall, VHDA’s presentation was helpful on several fronts. “We knew they had a wealth of information, and they didn’t disappoint,” she said. “Of particular value were the comments on zoning. They reinforced what we already knew – that zoning needs to be a malleable entity, and not a brick wall.”

Since then, Loudoun has convened a housing summit which included private, nonprofit and public sector entities to discuss actionable steps to increase its stock of affordable housing. It has explored ways to increase the assets in its Affordable Dwelling Unit Program, which helps low- and moderate-income households rent or buy housing. It also has designated parts of eastern Loudoun as revitalization areas. This designation assists developers and localities in their efforts to create and sustain housing for low- and moderate-income residents.

In addition, the county has inventoried its public lands and is studying whether some may be suitable as development sites. The county also is looking at new guidelines for housing loans, and has begun to streamline its zoning process.

Chair Randall believes Loudoun is building a better housing environment, but that the job is far from over. And it remains one of her highest priorities. “Loudoun is a remarkable place, and we want everyone who works here to be able to live here.”

Using Data to Answer Key Housing Questions In the New River Valley

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When it came to regional housing issues, the New River Valley Regional Commission had no shortage of questions: Do we have enough housing types and price points for people of all income levels? How do university student rental properties affect the availability of affordable rental housing overall? Do existing housing units match up well with buyer preferences? How can deteriorating housing stock be better preserved or rehabilitated?

Thanks to a grant from VHDA, the commission will soon have answers to these questions and others, and gain a better understanding of how to meet the region’s current and future housing challenges.

The New River Valley in Southwest Virginia encompasses Montgomery, Floyd, Giles and Pulaski Counties as well as the city of Radford. Its planning commission will use VHDA’s Community Impact Grant funds to develop and implement a multi-pronged study. Among its components will be focus groups, an online survey and public meetings, all designed to gain feedback from real estate agents, builders, developers, residents and other stakeholders. The study will also tap publicly available data from real estate and housing sources. While designed from a regional approach, the project is also expected to yield data that will helpful to individual localities in developing strategies, policies and action plans.

VHDA has been awarding Community Impact Grants since 2015. Money for the grants comes from VHDA’s REACH Virginia program. Each year, VHDA contributes a substantial portion of net revenues to fund this program, which is used to address housing needs throughout the state.

“We’re encouraged that we’ve definitely seen an uptick in the number of applications for Community Impact Grants,” said Director of Strategic Housing Chris Thompson, in VHDA’s Community Outreach division. “Our evaluation and approval process ensures that REACH Virginia dollars are put to the best possible use – by organizations that share our goal of making affordable housing accessible to all Virginians.”

Learn more about VHDA’s grant programs at