A new nonprofit group, Rappahannock Communities, has been formed to address the issue of affordable housing in the county amid growing discussion about whether there is a problem and, if so, what the nature of the problem is.
It was one such discussion that led to the formation of the group and has underpinned recent conversations with founding board members John Anderson, Kees Dutilh, Betsy Dietel, Charles Akre and Judith Hope.
The group came together about 18 months ago based on shared concerns over the future of a county that is aging and seeing school enrollment fall. From there they formed a working group and started talking to people to determine what might be needed.
Over the past several months, Dietel says they’ve spoken with dozens of residents, employers and county officials as well as representatives of other nonprofits, such as the Food Pantry.
For his part, Dutilh, who worked with Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit that provides free home repairs and modifications for homeowners in need of assistance, now heads up the Safe and Healthy Homes initiative, a similar program supported by the Benevolent Fund. Hope, a retired lawyer, is a former chairperson of the National Housing Partnership Foundation, a nonprofit focused on providing affordable housing nationwide.
Among the other board members, Anderson, who was born and raised in Rappahannock, has worked for decades with management consulting firm A.T. Kearney; Dietel is a senior partner at Dietel & Partners, a philanthropic advising firm; and Akre is founder and CEO of asset management firm Akre Capital Management in Middleburg.
Based on their talks and other research, members of the group say they’re confident that there is a need for housing that can accommodate a mix of community members, such as families, elderly residents and their caregivers and younger people who grew up in the county and want to return.
“While we are convinced of the need for additional housing, we are still talking about options for consideration by the Town of Washington, Sperryville, etc., along with the right mix following conversations with the Rappahannock community,” Dietel said in an email. “Based on those discussions we will then make initial recommendations as to the number and size of units and potential locations that will be vetted by the Town and the community at large.”
Across the US, communities are facing a growing housing crisis.
The 2019 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, which focuses this year on secure and affordable housing, shows that more than 1 in 10 households experience a severe housing cost burden — defined as paying more than 50 percent of their household income on housing.
The report, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, shows that the problem has grown more acute in rural places, with half of all rural counties seeing an increase in the severe housing cost burden since the housing crisis of 2006-2010.
In Rappahannock, according to the report, which draws on 2013-2017 data from the American Community Survey, 17 percent of households experience a severe housing cost burden, the highest among the five surrounding counties.
It can be difficult to quantify Rappahannock’s other housing challenges, such as availability, say real estate agents, because many homes never go on the open market and are, instead, offered to friends or found by word of mouth.
To Dietel, the problem is about more than just affordable housing. “It’s about how do you survive and how do you thrive as a rural community in today’s global economy,” she said, referring to the need to also consider things like quality jobs, connectivity and education.
Rappahannock Communities is mostly focused on the village centers, namely Washington in part because of existing infrastructure, and Sperryville. The Comprehensive Plan also promotes further development of the villages (though it does not explicitly address “affordable housing.”)
Washington Mayor Fred Catlin recently shared his interest in so-called “pocket communities,” clustered houses or apartments grouped around a shared open space, such as a park or garden.
The non-profit hasn’t settled on a financing plan. But any nonprofit housing project must set income eligibility requirements that are determined at the federal level by how the project is funded. To qualify for tax credits, for example, a property must have at least 20 percent of its units rented to households with very low incomes (50 percent or less than the median family income). The current level for a Rappahannock County family of four is $38,850.
“Rappahannock Communities can be a vehicle for exploring/developing housing options for consideration, but we are not there yet in our deliberative process,” Dietel said.
Rappahannock Communities has been incorporated in Virginia. It has applied for its designation as a 501(c)3 from the IRS, but at this time it has not received a ruling.