The International Justice Mission hosted an open forum in Tyler 336 March 26 to discuss the issue of affordable housing in Williamsburg. Mayor Jeanne Zeidler, Vice Mayor and economics department Chairman Clyde Haulman and Director of Human Services Pete Walentisch were present to speak on the matter and answer questions.
According to the Virginia Organizing Project, the average selling price of a home in Williamsburg and James City County is $354,000. Williamsburg is greatly affected by the issue of affordable housing. Since last November, IJM has contacted Zeidler about this issue to convey support for the recent steps that the city has taken to create more affordable housing options for citizens.
“This is not a recent issue,” Zeidler said. “This is a long-standing problem in the city of Williamsburg.”
Zeidler said that due to the rise in property value as a result of the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, the lack of affordable housing in the area has created a real dilemma. When the infrastructure increased in Colonial Williamsburg, more workers came for employment, but many were not able to live in the city due to high costs of housing. The panel said that Colonial Williamsburg has worked to develop more affordable housing options for employees. They built dormitories on Franklin Street for commuting workers to stay in during working days.
Additionally, Colonial Williamsburg had originally constructed Highland Park as a community for employees.
The College creates many employment opportunities within the city as well — some well-paying, others not. Many employees of the College commute because they cannot afford to live within the city limits. Additionally, off-campus students are increasingly moving outside of Williamsburg in search of more affordable housing, said Zeidler.
In response to the need for moving outside of Williamsburg in search of more affordable housing, the Williamsburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority was founded in 1974. This serves as the primary vehicle for helping people find safe and sanitary housing and for preserving existing housing. Since 1974, the Housing Authority has built new, affordable neighborhoods, rebuilt older homes and performed repairs on houses so that they can continue to be habitable.
“There isn’t just one solution to this housing problem,” Zeidler said. “We do a number of things to help individuals stay in their homes. Some of these help one or two families at a time, some are much larger and help more people. It’s a multifaceted approach.”
In the last four years, the Housing Authority has constructed and renovated 77 units throughout the city.
“On a per capita basis, the Housing Authority does more than probably almost any housing authority in the country,” Haulman said. He cited the Strawberry Plains Project, which has 47 affordable houses and nine market-rate homes.
Haulman added that in the near future, the Housing Authority is looking for opportunities to do another Strawberry Plains-type housing project because it provides a substantial number of units.
Zeidler said the Housing Authority will continue to create new opportunities in addition to improve what they already have.
Zeidler recommended that students who are eager to help volunteer for Habitat for Humanity should contact the executive director of Housing Partnerships to see what kinds of projects they are currently working on.
During the Q-and-A session of the forum, one of the main concerns of students was how the city can reconcile the student community and the rest of the community vying for the same affordable housing. Zeidler emphasized finding a balance between those who own and those who rent. When there is too much renting, Zeidler said, people are not going to want to buy and live there.
A recent Sharpe service project surveyed where students lived off-campus and what they were looking for in an off-campus home, Haulman said. The results showed that due to the residential nature of the College, students want to live close to the campus. However, the neighborhoods around the College can’t handle that. Haulman said that in order to create more options for housing, the city and the College must work together.
The city has approached the College with ideas such as privately developed, student-oriented housing similar to those at Virginia Tech, but the College rejected these ideas, Zeidler said.
With regard to the creation of student-oriented housing, Haulman said that something needs to happen soon. Haulman further said that he wants to prevent in Williamsburg what has happened in most college towns — all-student housing. Zeidler added that part of the charm of Williamsburg communities is that they are balanced between student rentals and private residences.