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Affordable housing in short supply in Fauquier

Wednesday, Jul. 1 | By James Ivancic
Rigo Sandoval, his wife Yessy Lamas, and their children, Kaery and Said, recently moved into a town home at the Villages at Goose Pond in Marshall. Fauquier Times photo/Randy Litzinger
Affordable housing, housing that buyers of average means can afford, remains an issue in Fauquier County.

The county government took a look at it during the period when home prices were skyrocketing in the years before the housing market took a dive in 2008. It was becoming increasingly difficult for teachers, government workers, and those in the police and rescue services to be able to afford to live in the county where they worked.

In the last decade, the Fauquier County Affordable Housing Committee examined the issue using the generally accepted definition of what is affordable as housing, whether purchased or rented, that costs no more than 30 percent of household income to cover mortgage payment, insurance and property taxes in the case of buyers and rent and utilities for renters.

A 2008 committee report said the growth in the county's population consisted largely of households with income above the county's median, which it said contributed in a rise of housing prices.

The report recommended setting targets for maintaining a certain level of affordable housing, support the efforts of nonprofits, provide incentives to home owners who maintain their properties, aid the elderly, the disabled and those of low income with repairs and retrofitting.

The report also noted a shortage of multi-family rental housing at the time.

County administrator Paul McCulla said the county received a federal grant to rehabilitate houses and sell them to qualifying low and moderate income buyers. They sold five to eight homes this way, McCulla said.

“It was about four yeas ago and the programs ran for two or three years,” he said. There were two housing assistance programs. The funding ran out and the programs wound down.

He said the Board of Supervisors took action in other ways to increase affordable housing, including making a change to the zoning ordinances to permit more mixed use development in commercial zones.
Mintbrook, now under construction across from Liberty High School in Bealeton, is one of the first such developments, he said.

A plan to rehab former the barracks at what was once a military base at Vint Hill to provide affordable housing is on hold for the time being pending discussions with the new owner, Brookside Development.

“Nobody disputes there's an affordable housing problem in Fauquier County,” he said. “There's a lack of workforce housing. It's not at a level for deputies, school teachers, and others starting out to live in Fauquier County.”

He noted the efforts of organizations such as Windy Hill Foundation and Foothills Housing Network, the latter a five-county approach to help the homeless and assist others with obtaining affordable housing.
Miles Friedman, the county's director of economic development, said that what's needed is “a market-driven solution” rather a government-driven one.

There needs to be a catalyst for a market-driven solution,” Friedman said. That can happen by “letting it be known that it's a priority to send a message to developers.” Government has some tools at its disposal, such as being able to offer incentives.

But growth in housing should be balanced with growth in commercial, retail and industrial since residential growth increases the need for services from government and schools.

“I think our board is more aware of the issue and is trying to address it,” Friedman said of the county supervisors.

Some progress has been made in the area of affordable housing, offering signs a “market-driven” solution may be taking hold to some degree.

The Mintbrook project under construction will offer a mix of lower and higher priced home options among townhouse and detached home options. To the north, in Marshall, the Villages at Goose Pond had its first tenant move in last November.

There are 71 total units, and 30 are occupied. They are townhouse units, but are rentals, and not for sale.

“It operates like an an apartment. We shovel the snow and cut the grass, said Brian Selfe, president of Wellworth Properties, which owns it. He said his company is focused on smaller residential projects.
“This is the first project under the new mantra and we're looking for different opportunities,” he said.

Rents range from $1,600 to $2,100. Selfe said the complex appeals to those are “renters by choice or they can't afford to buy,” at least not now.

He said he priced the townhouses to compete with what a renter could get for an apartment in Gainesville.

Anne Michael Greene, realtor/principal broker with Marshall Real Estate, said homes selling in the $250,000 to $350,000 are snapped up quickly once they're listed. “Quality new homes are hard to come by. They go quickly,” she said.

The townhouses are filling some of the need. Older homes that may need some work are another option. Greene said she had a settlement on a home that sold for $250,000. The buyer had the skills to upgrade the home.

Edda Berglund, a senior loan officer with Heltzel Mortgage, said 38 percent of gross income to pay for housing is the current benchmark that lenders use to figure whether a first-time buyer qualifies for a loan. She said there are a number of financing methods, some through the government, available to qualified methods.

But getting the money together for a down payment can be a hurdle some can't manage.

“Access to a down payment – that's part of the affordability problem,” she said. Another issue is the supply of homes in the price range an average buyer can afford.

“The challenge in Fauquier County is the inventory. There are many homes in the $600,000 and above range and not a lot of multi-family and town homes,” Berglund said.

There were 161 homes in Fauquier County under contract or sold in the 60 days prior to June 18 at or below $325,000, according to the MRIS (Metropolitan Regional Information System). There were 108 properties for sale during the same time period priced at $325,000 or below.

Besides the government-sponsored and market-driven efforts to supply housing, the non-profit Windy Hill Foundation has been active in providing affordable housing in The Plains, Middleburg, and now with a development in Marshall called Washburn Place, a 30-unit apartment complex, all three bedrooms and priced around $1,000 to $1,050. Five will be handicapped-accessible, said Kim Hart, the foundation's executive director.

He said the foundation offers workforce housing, a term he noted has collected some baggage and conjures up images in some minds of federal Section 8 subsidized housing.

Windy Hill's tenants “work and pay their rent. It's not a giveaway,” Hart said.

Windy Hill did compete for federal tax credits for the Washburn Place project and the county government helped by giving the foundation a seven-year break on paying real estate taxes on the buildings to go up. The foundation will pay the tax on the land.

“This was a good public-private partnership,” he said.

Construction could start next spring.

Underscoring the need for affordable housing, Hart said Windy Hill always has a waiting list usually 10 to 15 families long for its housing.

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