Housing Coalition: Think Big, Start Small

Ava Wise speaks via video conference during the June meeting of the Eastern Shore Regional Housing Coalition.

By Stefanie Jackson – The Eastern Shore Regional Housing Coalition, whose goal is to provide more affordable housing opportunities on the Shore, held a quarterly meeting in June, and a recurring theme appeared to be, “think big, start small, and build up.”

Ava Wise, of the New Road Community Development Group, said, “It’s not likely that we’re going to recruit a large-scale developer to the Shore to develop the affordable housing that we need.”

It’s more likely that affordable housing will be produced by the Shore’s existing “development and construction community,” including nonprofits, quasi-governmental organizations (like the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission), and real estate investment associations, she said.

But there can be no affordable housing without land to build it on.

John McCoulter said it’s hard to find affordable land to build a home on the Eastern Shore, especially when landowners can lease their land for solar farms at “astronomical rates” while maintaining ownership of their property.

Farm land is cheaper, Wise noted, but Accomack and Northampton allow only low-density housing on land in agricultural zones.

“Anyone who’s had any kind of run-in with Northampton and Accomack County at this point knows that all of their zoning laws and all of their land-use restrictions … they’re set in place to prohibit large development,” McCoulter confirmed.

Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski pointed out that some barriers to housing development, like the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, are beyond the control of county officials.

Rezoning large tracts of land for housing developments is a challenge. “Not to say it can’t be done,” but most developers don’t want to “jump through hoops” and wait two years to build, McCoulter said.

The best way to move forward is likely “on a small scale, working up,” he said.

Groups must “lobby with the county to start with an exception to the rule, maybe an allowance of so many acres per county for affordable housing that could be subdivided outside of their current restrictions,” he continued.

For example, Northampton’s zoning code allows only one home per 20 acres in an agricultural district, with the aim of preserving farm land and wooded areas.

Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason said, “The county has done affordable housing initiatives before, and we can do those again, it’s just a matter of having the will to address these issues.”

“I’m sure I speak for the board of supervisors on this. They would love to hear different ideas from any sector – private, nonprofit, or whatever, to encourage more affordable housing in Accomack,” he said.

Kolakowski believed in the concept of starting small “rather than looking at solving the whole problem in one shot.”

He also agreed with a suggestion made by Stacey Johnson, of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Habitat for Humanity, to work with communities to rehabilitate existing housing.

Her idea was to rehab and then expand communities “from the inside, out.”

Myra Riley-Taylor, who spoke on behalf of the Bayside community near Onancock, is another proponent of renovating existing homes.

She would like to see shipping container homes gain acceptance as a replacement for many of the dilapidated homes on the Eastern Shore.

Garrett Norris, of the Trinity Park organization, also supports building container homes.

He has spoken to Accomack Deputy County Administrator Rich Morrison and others about his organization’s interest in bringing more affordable housing to Shore.

Trinity Park takes a “holistic approach” to housing and economic development and can provide education and training to create a stronger workforce, he said.

“This is doable. … We do have the funds, we do have the resources, everything that’s needed to get things moving forward.”

The next meeting of the Eastern Shore Regional Housing Coalition is Sept. 25.

For more information, email Ava Wise at [email protected]

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