In the grip of Harrisonburg’s housing crunch, some families keep getting squeezed

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

When Shannon Porter, executive director of Mercy House, pictures someone who’s homeless, the mental image that springs to his mind isn’t a loner with gray hair and well-worn wrinkles.  

“It’s an eight-year-old kid whose mom is working two jobs and trying to make it,” he said.  “That’s the experience that we have here at Mercy House.”

The nonprofit organization, which serves as a homeless shelter for families, provides rehousing assistance and operates three thrift stores.

While Porter said that metropolitan areas tend to see more homeless single adults, in our partially rural community, “the number of families is much higher,” he said.

In Jan. 2018, 17 percent of the approximately 304 homeless persons from Harrisonburg to Winchester and the surrounding counties were children, according to data from the region’s Continuum of Care – a program funded by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Three of those children — Neveah, age nine; Zamari, age four; and Zoe, age two — were part of that statistic. With their parents, Paradise and Brandon Banks, they stayed at the Salvation Army for part of that time, working and navigating parenthood – including a bout of pneumonia – in the shelter.

They were homeless for a year and a half while on a waitlist for subsidized housing through the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority. In a city with a housing crunch like Harrisonburg, it was their best hope for stability and a roof over their head.


Brandon Banks with Zoe, 2, and Zamari, 4, on the front porch of the duplex the Banks family rents with the assistance of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Photo by Randi B. Hagi

Squeezed by rent and mortgages

On the surface, there is what looks to be some good news. The proportion of children in the homeless population has dropped slightly from 20 percent in 2014.

But that does not include the many families who are currently housed but at risk of losing the roof over their heads. Within that category, there is another trend in the community: housing instability is creeping up the social ladder.

“The only trend that I would say … is notable is the number of people who previously had been self-sufficient and sustainable that are falling into a pattern of homelessness,” Porter said. This is in contrast to “chronically homeless” people, who struggle with housing instability for large portions of their lives.

There is increasing demand for housing in Harrisonburg, and while supply continues to lag, the prices of homes to purchase are rising. Some home buyers rely on connections to make offers on homes that are not on the market, or right before they are listed.

And as fewer people can afford to buy a home in the city, more of them will turn to renting, thus driving up rental prices.

According to the real estate search engine website, “Median rental price for rentals in Harrisonburg, VA for March was $1,195, an increase of 9% compared to the same period last year.”

That causes a ripple effect across the community.

“Their inability to bring in a viable income to maintain that housing is impacting more people that you would consider the working poor or even … the lower middle class, folks that you would not expect,” Porter said.

When wages aren’t enough

The United Ways of Virginia’s 2017 ALICE Report illuminates just how large a portion of the Harrisonburg community lives in that danger zone. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – in other words those earning “more than the official Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living.”

According to the report, based on data from 2015, 26 percent of the Harrisonburg population lived below the Federal Poverty level; an additional 39 percent lived below the ALICE threshold. Both of those numbers have risen from 23 and 31 percent, respectively, in 2007.

The report estimates baseline monthly housing costs for a single adult in Harrisonburg at $658 per month; for two adults with an infant and a toddler, $863 per month.

Thanh Dang, Harrisonburg’s assistant director of planning and community development, said most government agencies define “affordable” housing as costing 30 percent or less of the household’s income.

The ALICE report says that, to afford a “modest” living in terms of housing, childcare, food, transportation, and healthcare, without accumulating any savings, requires a single adult to earn $22,056 per year (a $11.03 hourly wage), and a young family of four to earn $61,200 (a $30.60 hourly wage for one income-earner).

Including those with an income under the Federal Poverty Level, 60 percent of Harrisonburg residents earn at or below that ALICE threshold for their household size.

“Anybody that’s living paycheck to paycheck could be susceptible to homelessness these days, particularly if you don’t have a lot of family supports around you,” Porter said.

At a panel discussion in March called “Poverty Interrupted,” he said those in the ALICE population “simply cannot earn enough to be able to meet their basic needs, and when something happens that throws them off balance … that one broken car, that one sick child, that one medical issue that takes something that is barely holding together, and it falls apart.”

And that’s what’s happening to families in our community,” Porter told the audience Asbury United Methodist Church with other local nonprofit leaders and social anthropology scholar Laura Lein.

A wider trend of a widening gap

Most people in Harrisonburg are not earning that $30.60 an hour that would allow them to support a young family.

The four major employment sectors in Harrisonburg as of May 2018, as listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are:

  • Office and Administrative Support (13.5 percent of jobs), which pays on average $16.40 an hour.
  • Production (10.9 percent of jobs), average $17.52 an hour.
  • Food Preparation and Serving Related (10.6 percent of jobs), average $11.07 an hour.
  • Sales and Related (9.8 percent of jobs), $16.90 an hour.

The fact that Porter sees so many families coming to Mercy House doesn’t surprise him, given those facts. It’s difficult for a production worker, administrative assistant, food service worker or retail worker to cover the basic necessities to support a young family on that income alone.

Accumulating any savings to weather future hardship or save for a down payment on a house just isn’t possible.

At the Poverty Interrupted panel, Laura Lein, the social anthropologist, author, and professor at the University of Michigan, said Harrisonburg’s issues are emblematic of national trends.

Several panel attendees had commented about the perceived role of James Madison University’s growth in the lack of affordable housing.

“I think, within your community here in Harrisonburg, yes, there has to be a discussion with the university, there has to be a collaboration among these groups, but there also has to be an understanding that we’re in an economic moment where all of these things are problems in most cities,” Lein said.

She said although U.S. gross domestic product keeps rising, wages aren’t keeping the same pace.

“Our country has become a wealthier country over centuries,” Lein said. “But we saw a dramatic change in how we’re allocating that wealth. It began in about 1980.”

Lein cited changes in federal policies, including tax and welfare policies, as responsible for the change in wealth distribution.

“Until about 1980, in general, everybody’s income went up as the national wealth went up by percentages. So wealthy people got more money, but everybody’s wealth was increasing,” Lein said. “And around 1980 that started diverging. The income of the wealthiest quartile started exceeding the growth and wealth of the country. And the wages of most other people stagnated … it’s a history bigger than any one community.”

Mayor Deanna Reed understands this. At a mayors’ convention in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, she heard similar problems from mayors of other cities.

“Affordable housing, homelessness, and mental health were the three top issues at that convention,” Reed said. “It didn’t matter if you were the mayor of L.A. or the mayor of Harrisonburg; those three issues were challenging for all of us.”

The thinning safety net

Beyond families’ sheer earning potential, other basic market forces are at play: not enough supply and increasing demand of housing. And because the cost of constructing new housing is so high, developers are incentivized to build houses that fetch a high price from the buyer or renter.

“It’s not to say that those other types of housing are not valid or needed,” Porter said, “but you can’t make a diet on high-end housing that is attracting professors and people who are in a higher economic strata. We also need people to work in the dining hall and clean the rooms and do that facilities work.”

Once people have become effectively priced out of their housing — or undergo a financial emergency which causes them to lose housing — they face major choices: find a temporary place to live with someone they know, leave Harrisonburg or seek out a shelter.

Mercy House offers that for families. The Salvation Army will welcome anyone who can pass a breathalyzer and drug test and has no outstanding warrants against them. And First Step takes in survivors of domestic abuse.

During the coldest months of the year, the organization Open Doors operates a thermal shelter that is hosted in a different church building each week. But during the warmer months, many homeless people are out on the streets, or in the woods – and even during the winter, warm beds are becoming scarce. The Continuum of Care’s Point in Time count shows that the number of homeless persons in our region increased from 249 in 2014 to 304 in 2018.

Open Doors reported that for the 2016-17 season, the organization served an average of 37 people per night. For 2017-18, it was 41 people per night.

Its capacity is often limited to about 40 people per night depending on the church hosting them. This past season, many homeless people expressed worries that there were not enough spots available, leaving some to sleep outside in below-freezing temperatures.

There are also a few programs in town which provide financial assistance for qualified applicants to get help with rent for a limited time.

Mercy House has a Rapid Rehousing program, which provides a security deposit and rent assistance for three to six months; and a Housing Stabilization program, which steps in with financial intervention during certain evictions; the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority runs four subsidized housing properties, all located in the Northeast neighborhood: Franklin Heights, Commerce Village, and the two Lineweaver apartment buildings.

For Paradise and Brandon Banks, they moved from Richmond, where they had been homeless.

And to qualify for subsidized housing in Harrisonburg, they also had to gather paperwork, including tracking down Paradise Banks’s out-of-state birth certificate. And they kept waiting. Month after month.

Good news amid the challenges

The housing authority also participates in the HUD-funded Housing Choice Vouchers program to help people, like the Banks family, who are seeking Section 8-approved housing.

Brandon Banks said he’d advise anyone applying for housing assistance to “be really patient, and have your ducks in a row.”

Finally, last summer, Paradise Banks got a phone call the day before her birthday that the family would have a home after all.

“That’s the best birthday present I could get!” she exclaimed to the Housing Authority employee who called.

They moved in last August. The Bankses pay part of the rent, and the Housing Authority pays the rest.

But Brandon and Paradise say they know an extended family member who put in her application before them and still has not been placed in a house.

The Bankses are hoping to find a ranch house in the area to move into after their lease ends this August, partly because of the strict rules in the property where they live now. For instance, their children can’t leave their bicycles in the front yard or color on the sidewalk with chalk.

Regardless, the Banks family is thankful for the opportunity.

“We don’t have to worry about crime, like we would in Richmond,” said Brandon Banks of their hometown. “The neighbors are friendly.”

Too much demand, not enough resources

Of course, funds limit how much any agency can do. The housing authority’s website says the voucher program waitlist is currently closed.

Porter says that the answer isn’t just to build another shelter.

“We want to get people out of our shelter more quickly, and the way to do that is to have more housing available for them to go into,” Porter said.

According to the nationally accepted approach called Housing First, “People are better served in their own home, so if they’re getting mental health therapy, or are receiving any kind of supportive services, or even just education for the kids, that works better when they’re not at a shelter environment. It works better when they’re in their own home.”

In the face of limited housing options for their clients to move into, Porter said his organization has identified a property they are hoping to buy where they could establish a supportive housing complex. The complex would accommodate 12 families in two- and three-bedroom units.

Elected officials and city staff are also looking at ways to create more affordable housing in Harrisonburg but with models that integrate subsidized and full-price units in the same complex or neighborhood.

“I do not think that you should be able to go to one neighborhood and see the makeup of that neighborhood as being one thing,” said Reed, the mayor. “People might assume that the Northeast neighborhood is public housing, low income. I want to see housing being more diverse within our communities.”

Reed said she is talking with housing developers about setting aside certain units in each new construction that would be available to low-income renters.

“And so every community, every neighborhood, will have some type of affordable housing … so that it’s more well-balanced. And I think that’s good for us as a community. We are an inclusive, diverse community, and so our neighborhoods need to be inclusive,” said Reed. She’s also been talking to realtors and city staff about the role of rezoning in facilitating more affordable housing.

“It’s my job to bring everybody together so that we can be on the same page and actually, really push forward aggressively,” Reed said.

Thanh Dang said city staff is looking into diversifying resident’s economic levels within new housing complexes.

“The idea is, over the next 10 months or so, staff will be researching inclusionary housing policies,” Dang said. “Not housing development just for lower income people, but inclusionary zoning might provide an opportunity for a mixture of housing.”

In this inclusionary housing model, developers would be expected to reserve a few of their proposed housing units to be rented out or sold at a lower rate to qualifying low-income people.

The 2018 Comprehensive Plan’s Land Use Guide establishes much of downtown as a “Mixed Use” zone, which boasts a higher density that could accommodate these housing initiatives.

And the council included the creation of the affordable housing plan while establishing three-year goals during the council members’ retreat in February.

“For me, I’m pushing for sooner than that, because I think it’s something that we have to tackle now,” Reed said. “I don’t think we have three years.”


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