Area Leaders Want to Re-Establish Affordable Housing Opportunities

Ramona Chapman, of the Virginia Department of Community Housing and Development, reviews possible ways to increase affordable housing opportunities on the Eastern Shore. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.

By Stefanie Jackson – Accomack and Northampton leaders are working to rebuild a foundation for affordable housing opportunities on the Eastern Shore.

Ava Wise, president of the United States Sustainable Development Corporation, recently organized a housing summit on the Shore, with the encouragement of Ramona Chapman, from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

The housing summit, sponsored by Sen. Lynwood Lewis in September at the Historic Onancock School, was attended by numerous local leaders and representatives of state departments.

But that was just the beginning. Quarterly meetings are now being held to advance the project for affordable housing on the Eastern Shore.

“Cooperation” seemed to be the operative word of the most recent meeting held Dec. 6 at the Exmore town hall.

Participants agreed that affordable housing is a regional problem, which Accomack and Northampton counties can solve only as partners.

Del. Rob Bloxom said, “it’s cheaper to do it together and impossible to do it alone.”

The success of this renewed affordable housing effort will also depend on cooperation between organizations and individuals in the public and private sectors, participants agreed.

For example, Peggy Scarborough, who owns a mobile home park in Accomack, wants to replace the mobile units with stick-built homes, but there are no provisions in the county’s zoning ordinance for permitting such a project. She is currently working with county staff on the zoning issues.

Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason said local government should “incentivize” the private sector to develop affordable housing.

Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski agreed both counties should examine their zoning ordinances to determine which parts may discourage development.

Susan McGhee, Northampton’s planning director, noted the county’s comprehensive plan also discourages development. The plan recommends development in and around towns, but town edge districts allow only one housing unit per five acres, she said.

Affordable housing options will play a key role in the Eastern Shore’s future economic development. The availability of affordable housing is one of the first things business owners ask about when they consider locating here, Kolakowski said.

The top three opportunities for bringing affordable housing to the Shore, as chosen by the group, were networking between service organizations and nonprofits, with 13 votes; transforming older homes, with 11 votes; and a tie between collaboration of agencies and job creation, with eight votes each.

Brenda Holden and her husband, Accomack school board Vice Chairman Ronnie Holden, are among those citizens who buy and transform older homes.

Brenda Holden is both a landlord and an advocate for home ownership.

“You’re paying me a lot of money; you could own your own house,” she tells her clients.

Holden teaches landlords and tenants the ins and outs of the rental business and has written an in-depth renter’s manual.

Education is another piece of the affordable housing puzzle, she said.

But sometimes the problem simply comes down to funding.

Yvonne La Chapelle, of Eastern Shore of Virginia Habitat for Humanity, said it’s difficult to build new homes because there is more to the cost of a home than construction – from land clearing to installing septic systems.

The nonprofit, which offers interest-free mortgages to its clients, can build just one or two houses per year.

Shipping container homes or “tiny houses” were suggested as an affordable housing option that can also be built quickly. One 960-square-foot unit can be built in 17 days and costs about $130,000.

But local organizations like the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission can provide limited assistance. For example, A-NPDC has a cap of $80,000 on stick-built homes.

The Shore’s affordable housing advocates will need out-of-the-box thinking and outreach to more organizations to get funding for their projects.

Part 2 of this story will appear in next week’s Eastern Shore Post.

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