By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
The types of housing units available in Harrisonburg — and the market’s competitiveness — puts lower-income residents at a particular disadvantage, which the initial findings of a comprehensive housing study confirmed.
Places like Harrisonburg, in which “vacancy is in the single digits and houses stay on the market for days or weeks, [are] not good for affordable housing,” said Todd Gordon, a senior planner with EPR, P.C., a design firm based in Charlottesville that contributed to the study. The study’s initial findings were unveiled in a public meeting Thursday.
A final report, including consultants’ recommendations to address Harrisonburg’s housing crunch, will be presented to the Harrisonburg City Council Jan. 12 and available to the public on the city’s website following that meeting. The consultants invited local residents to weigh in, particularly with recommendations, via a survey available at www.harrisonburgva.gov/housing-study.
Marjorie Willow, a principal with Pennsylvania consulting firm Mullin & Lonergan Associates, Inc., said Harrisonburg’s housing market is comparable to other big college towns in the region, including Morgantown, West Virginia, and State College, Pennsylvania, which are characterized by a “very strong market with a very, very low, a too-low vacancy rate, especially among rentals.”
“There’s simply an inadequate inventory of rental units,” she said.
The study estimates Harrisonburg’s rental vacancy rate is between 2% and 3.5%. Christine DeRunk, a housing and community development specialist with Mullin & Longergan, said a healthier vacancy rate would be closer to 5%.
Besides having such a slim margin between renters and available units, the study shows a particular dearth of units available for those with limited resources, which the consultants described as having an annual income of $13,200 for a one-person household and $24,600 for a four-person household. Among that group, 1,407 households live in a housing unit that is considered beyond what’s comfortably affordable for them.
“The vast majority of the lower income households are cost-burdened,” DeRunk said.
Additionally, “a lack of smaller units across the income spectrum makes it difficult for various populations to find suitable housing,” she said.
DeRunk said the consultants adjusted their findings to account for the student population, which makes up 53% of the city’s renters. While many would be classified in the lowest income tier based on what they earn while in college, many receive financial support from their families.
The local housing crunch has put a strain on families and nonprofit organizations, as The Citizen reported in a series last year.
High earners contributing to the squeeze?
Besides an inadequate number of cheaper and smaller housing units, the study also found many higher-income households rent or buy homes that appear cheaper than what they could afford.
“This can squeeze out lower income households,” Jessica Lurz, a housing and community development specialist with Mullin & Lonergan, explained.
DeRunk said they learned during their information gathering that some people with higher incomes moved outside Harrisonburg’s limits to buy larger or newer homes. But other higher earners who stayed in the city might be “buying down market” because of student loans, medical bills, consumer debt or other factors that stunt their buying potential.
“When you have higher income households choosing to live beneath their means for whatever reason … it decreases the inventory, the more affordable inventory, that would be available for the lower income households,” Willow said. “And those lowest income households have the least choice.”
‘Commitment to want to make change’
While the presentation focused more on data than steps forward, the consultants said their recommendations could include changing the zoning ordinance to allow accessory dwelling units, or offering incentives to developers to reserve a certain number of units in new developments for lower-income households.
Representatives of local service agencies and grassroots organizations attended Thursday’s virtual meeting. Among them were members of Faith in Action, United Way, Mercy House, Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority and Our Community Place. Several expressed their support for a housing trust fund.
Shannon Porter, the executive director of Mercy House, told The Citizen after the meeting that such a fund could funnel money from the city or private investors to nonprofit agencies running “local projects that are focused on affordable housing.”
As someone who interacts daily with people who are insecurely housed, Porter said much of the data presented on Thursday wasn’t surprising. However, he said he was particularly struck by “the lack of efficiency units in our town .. particularly if you’re talking about the population on a fixed income.”
Porter also pointed out that Harrisonburg has the second-lowest rate of home ownership of all municipalities in Virginia, which speaks to a “permanent underclass of people who are bought out of the market … we really need to focus on the folks at the end of the spectrum.”
Laura Toni-Holsinger, the executive director of the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham, told The Citizen she’s been “really excited from the get-go that the city was doing this. I think it shows some commitment to want to make change in this area.”
The gap between the demand for and availability of lower-cost housing units confirms “what a lot of us have seen for a long time,” Toni-Holsinger said.
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