Suggestions for housing crunch include new coordinator position and a trust fund

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Hiring a city housing coordinator, attracting higher paying employers, providing more incentives to developers and establishing a housing trust fund were among the 17 recommendations consultants suggested Tuesday to the Harrisonburg City Council.

Representatives of Pennsylvania-based firm Mullin & Lonergan Associates, Inc. presented their findings in the council meeting on Tuesday — a follow-up to a Nov. 20 presentation that outlined some of the biggest problems with Harrisonburg’s housing market. 

The primary challenges include “a housing mismatch and a lack of the most affordable housing units,” said Jessica Lurz, a housing and community development specialist with the firm. Many higher income households, whether renters or homeowners, are living in units that appear below their means, which can edge out lower-income households. 

The study includes 17 recommendations for the city to implement, as well as four priorities for the city to address in tandem with the local Continuum of Care, a regional network of service providers funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that addresses homelessness. The Western Virginia Continuum of Care, which includes Harrisonburg, stretches from Clarke County in the north to Rockingham County in the south.

While the recommendations address all the housing challenges identified in Harrisonburg, the report focuses on helping the “most vulnerable individuals and households who have income at the lowest levels,” said Marjorie Willow of Mullin & Lonergan. 

The consultants’ top recommendation was for the city to hire a housing coordinator — someone who could work across city departments and with outside agencies to coordinate other measures outlined in the study. Second on the list is to attract and grow jobs with annual wages above $40,000 and provide workforce training for residents to “upskill” into those jobs.

Willow said “more lower wage jobs have been created most recently, and the cost of living in Harrisonburg, as a result, is rising faster” than wages can keep up with. 

Other recommendations include creating incentives for developers to create more affordable housing, including: 

  • Tax abatements for multi-family projects; 
  • Selling park properties or other city-owned parcels for mixed-income residential development, and installing infrastructure like sewer and water lines on those properties;
  • And amending the zoning ordinance to facilitate housing projects for middle-income households, as one consultant noted that multi-family housing is prohibited on about 80% of all land in the city.

Lower down on the list — at No. 15 — was creating a housing trust fund, which is a nonprofit entity that would funnel public and private funding into various projects to build or otherwise allow for affordable housing. 

Mayor Deanna Reed asked why the housing coordinator ranked as the suggested first priority.

“Why did you put that first and not the housing trust fund, which everyone is kind of more interested in?” Reed said.

Willow said it had to do “with the current economic conditions” created by the pandemic, which complicates the prospects for expensive options, such as raising capital for the trust fund.  

In addition, “the city could really benefit from having someone with not only a knowledge of how the development and how the real estate market works, but also the housing market” and funding sources for various programs, Willow said. 

“I’m really happy that we’ve gotten to this point, because many of our discussions around housing in Harrisonburg have been simply anecdotal,” City Manager Eric Campbell said. “Staff is ready to roll up our sleeves, use the information that’s presented … and develop a comprehensive housing policy.”

‘Great loss’ to Harrisonburg

Reed opened the meeting with an acknowledgement of Harrisonburg’s recent “great loss” in the deaths of Wilmer Byrd, a lifelong Harrisonburg resident who died Saturday, and Stan Maclin, the community activist who died Monday. 

“Stan was an advocate for equality and justice here in the community for decades,” Reed said. 

The People’s Equality Commission of the Shenandoah Valley, an organization Maclin founded this summer to promote racial justice, held a memorial over Zoom just before the city council meeting. 

Sue Praill, director of restorative justice at The Fairfield Center, said in the memorial that she had worked with Maclin in a reentry program at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail.

“I was always struck by his commitment and his dedication to the work he does … He would see them [the incarcerated men] for their intrinsic self worth, and not in any way for what they had done,” Praill said. “I’ll miss him. He was a joy to be around. His energy, compassion, his kindness, and his love of his fellow human being.”

Stan Maclin stands in front of Martin Luther King Jr. Way in January 2019. Maclin helped lead the effort to get that road named after the Civil Rights leader. (File photo)

Concerns over proposed jail expansion

A few local residents spoke out against the planned expansion of the Middle River Regional Jail during public comment. The expansion could cost the city up to $9.8 million if the jail authority moves forward with the most expensive option: one that would add a new clinic, 400 beds with the ability to later double that custody space, and other infrastructure.

The Middle River Regional Jail in Staunton includes inmates from Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Augusta County and Waynesboro.

“I believe that the Harrisonburg community is against the expansion,” local community organizer Bruce Lundeen said. He urged the city and county’s criminal justice planner, Frank Sottaceti, to seek grants for pre-charge diversion programs to reduce the local incarceration rate. 

Fellow organizer Michael Snell-Feikema said that “expanding the jail will cost millions of dollars … and damage thousands of lives.”

After public comment, Council Member Chris Jones asked city staff to provide more information about the potential financial and ethical impacts of the jail expansion, saying he wants to hear arguments both for and against it.

Preventing the expansion would “be an uphill climb, even if all five of us said ‘No,’” Jones said, considering Harrisonburg is only one of five jurisdictions that rents space at the jail. Rockingham County, Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro are the other four localities that share the regional jail. 

Campbell said the jail’s superintendent, Jeffrey Newton, would present the council with more information about the expansion in their next meeting on January 26, and that there are currently too many options on the table for Harrisonburg staff to analyze. 

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