A solution in search of a problem

Alan Zuschlag

After visiting Rappahannock for over 40 years, and living here for the past 23 years, you’d think I’d get used to certain perennial topics that pop up around here like morels in the springtime. The most perennial of these is “affordable housing.”

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard that phrase at meetings both official and unofficial throughout this county over the past several decades. It’s usually coupled with the phrase ‘teachers and deputies.’ Somehow these two phrases go together as if only teachers and deputies are deserving of affordable housing, or any affordable housing efforts must stress those two groups above all others.

Everyone wants to pay lip service to the idea that we should somehow have a ‘viable’ community that offers housing to those two professions at the very least, if not everyone else. But no one has ever taken the time to investigate whether or not we already have such a community. The truth is we do. We have a viable and thriving housing market at all market segments. There is no crisis of ‘affordable housing’ in our county and there never has been. A simple check of local real estate market statistics would bear that out – but for whatever reason (and I think of several – laziness or not wanting to ‘muddle the narrative’ are probably the two most prominent, but the unwillingness to think critically, has to rank fairly high as well).

The issue of “affordable housing” is a solution in search of a problem, and like a lot of other issues locally, is also muddled by three other facts that never get taken into account when being addressed in public fora.

This first and most obvious is that we are ‘blessed’ with too many retirees with ‘expertise’ in the wider world just itching to put their skills to use locally and show us that they are still relevant. Most of the time this is indeed a blessing, but it gets a bit tedious when some people don’t use their retirement to learn new skills and take up new hobbies (I can highly recommend gardening to keep you out of trouble) and instead want to give us the benefit of their years in the field to ‘Show Us How It Should Be Done.’ I myself am rapidly approaching retirement age, and I hope when I do retire, I do so graciously and step aside and let some younger people have their turn, while I adjust to being put out to pasture.

Secondly, there is a tendency among most humans to ‘universalize the particular’ and ‘particularize the universal.’ This happens to all of us in every situation. We do a bad job of understanding that what works for us, may not work for everyone else. And conversely, we may feel that we alone are suffering a particular hurt or injustice, and not realize that everyone else has felt exactly the same at one time or another. This inability to parse these two impacts correctly is all the more heightened in a very small and very unique community such as ours. There are certain things happening to Rappahannock, demographically, politically, and culturally that are pretty much the same as what is happening to other small rural communities around the country. We tend to forget sometimes that these changes are not just happening to us alone. Conversely, we also tend to forget how unique we are, and how certain ‘solutions’ that may be appropriate for other rural communities are completely inappropriate for our special community, and may indeed be the very thing that destroys our uniqueness.

Third, and finally, it’s amazing how many local issues look like nails that need to be pounded into place with the hammer of self-appointed committees looking to ‘do the right thing.’

This is a long-winded way of saying, there is no affordable housing crisis, and any of our fellow citizens who want to put their fund-raising, local history, philanthropic, or construction backgrounds to good use, might be well advised to study an issue thoroughly before forming groups to combat non-existent threats.

Here are the facts:

  1. “Affordable housing” is an issue that is of concern to a lot of communities around the country and in big cities and in small. Everyone agrees that everything costs too much and that things should be cheaper. Everyone wants their mortgage or rent to be smaller or disappear entirely. But not everyone agrees on how this should be done.
  2. We live in a market-based economy which prices things according to supply and demand. Nowhere is that more evident than in real estate, an economic sector which is acutely attuned to local (and even neighborhood) level issues of supply and demand.
  3.  Rural communities have always (since the industrial revolution anyway), lost young and talented people to cities and dynamic areas where jobs are created, and where young people can be around other young people. The idea that we can ‘keep’ young people locally by offering them some sort of subsidized or below market housing has been tried around the world and is still being tried with no success. It does not work. I can list several small towns in the Midwest where the towns are offering house for $1.00 if people would move there. Similar efforts have been made in Italy and elsewhere in the world. They never work. You can’t socially engineer people’s desires, and you certainly can’t engineer one part of the puzzle (housing) without addressing all the other issues that come bundled with that (jobs for those people/families, and amenities that they want — entertainment, shopping, etc). This is a harsh reality, but the honest truth is you have to accept it. Rural areas around the world are depopulating. There are entire villages in France that were thriving 50 years ago but are now empty. Unless you want to force the world back into subsistence farming, you are not going to solve this problem with a little local committee. This problem is not particular to Rappahannock, it is universal.
  4.  Not universal, however, is the unique countryside and landscape that we have and cherish, and the carefully crafted zoning we’ve put in place over the years to protect it. The “problem” of affordable housing could be solved quite easily if we wanted to gut our zoning laws and our whole ethos towards protecting our countryside. We could be Manassas in a heartbeat. Big Box shopping, traffic, cheaply constructed apartment blocks, and townhomes as far as the eye can see right up the sides of Aaron Mountain. It ain’t pretty, and it comes with all the social problems that density brings. But it’s affordable!
  5. Our local economy is built on agriculture and tourism. We do a pretty darned good job of providing employment in both those sectors locally. I can’t get anybody to work on my farm for less than $15 an hour, and most times I have to pay more. Some of our most internationally renowned tourist draws are constantly in need of staff that they can train to provide high end service to customers, and they get paid wages far in excess of the minimum that they’d find a fast-food franchise in Culpeper or Front Royal. Yet there seems to be a dearth of workers interested in these jobs for any length of time. Why? It’s not because they can’t afford to live here, it’s because they’re young folk who want to leave and see the world and make their mark somewhere (not unlike some people on a certain committee who were born here but went elsewhere to make their way in the world).
  6. We have affordable rental housing stock in this county that goes begging for tenants. Ask anyone you know who has a tenant or rental property how long it takes to find a tenant. Ask them how much they can charge in rent in the local market. I’m surprised that this newspaper or any committee hasn’t started with this basic first step in addressing the issue. I know I have. I field inquiries in this regard almost daily. I do it for a living, so I’d like to think I’m better informed that most people on this issue. Here’s the stark reality. It is impossible to list a four bedroom house in this county for more than $2,000 a month. Impossible. No one can rent a house for more as the market won’t sustain it. It’s hard to even try and rent out a house in this market under that dollar amount. A $2,000 a month rent for a four bedroom house works out to an individual rent of approximately $500 a month if four people were to rent a group house. How is that unaffordable? At $15 a hour that would take a young person starting out less than a week to make her rent and utilities for a month. There are currently four houses on the rental market in Rappahannock County. All are listed for less than $1,775. All have been on the market for two months or more. One’s been on the market for nearly a year. Those are ‘official’ listings in the Multiple Listing System. Most rentals do not show up in the MLS because landlords then have to pay a commission to the realtor who finds them a tenant. Many landlords prefer to use a notice on the bulletin board at the local post office or the Farm Co-op, even more prefer to use an online bulletin board such as Craigslist. There you’ll find that many more houses, and apartments for rent, just waiting to find someone willing to pay a cheap rent to live on a beautiful farm or in one of our quaint villages. And no takers? Not because of unaffordability. Because of lack of demand!
  7. If you forget about rentals and look at the housing stock for sale, you’ll see the same issue. Here affordably is a relative term as well. Buying a house requires a down payment and a good credit history, but assuming one qualifies, there are any number of houses available in this county that can be had for a minimal down payment and a monthly mortgage of less than $1,000. At the time of this writing there are 9 houses on the market for under $250,000. There is one on the market for $109,000. Six of those have had recent price drops because they can’t find buyers. Some have been on the market for nearly a year. There are a total of 87 residential properties on the market at the time of this writing. That means 10 percent of the current housing on the market is “affordable.” And yet there are few, if any, takers!

There is no affordable housing problem in this area. There never has been and there probably won’t be for a long, long time. Where there is a housing problem it is in finding appropriate housing for seniors who want to ‘downsize’ and not leave the community where they grew up, or where their friends, family, and support network is in place. Here we do have an issue. Not in affordability, but in the type of housing available. There are very few dwelling units in our county which are designed for seniors (no stairs, wider hallways and accessible bathrooms, etc.) so that they can age in place and have nearby assistance or even assisted living.

Over the years of working in the local real estate market, I have seen older Rappahannockers reluctantly give up their properties. They are often financially secure through the sale of their homes or farms so that they could continue to live in the community if some place could be found for them, but more often than not, they and/or their families resort to facilities in Warrenton, Culpeper, or Front Royal where they can receive the care they need, but then they are just a bit too far away from scenery and friends that they treasure most. Perhaps we could work on some sort of senior ‘group housing’ in Sperryville, Flint Hill, Washington, or Woodville? It seems a shame to lose the very people who helped create our treasured landscape at a point in their lives when that landscape and community is what would sustain them the most.

The writer, a local real estate agent who resides in Amissville, worked at the World Bank as an economist specializing in agriculture and rural development projects.

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