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When Rappahannock resident Bruce Geisert suddenly needed a new place to live in May, he started searching rental websites such as Zillow. He wanted to stay in the county, but quickly realized there was little in his price range, so he posted his need to the RappNet Facebook group, having learned that available rentals are often spread by word of mouth.
He soon got a response from someone saying they could rent him a room they’d been planning to offer in the fall. It was low-cost and fit Geisert’s needs, and he says he felt fortunate. But his initial frustration with the lack of affordable options remained, particularly as he heard that others felt the same way.
One of them was Deborah Settle. Unable to find a rental she could afford, Settle moved out of Rappahannock in January and had been searching for a place back in the county ever since. She and Geisert started talking about how to address situations like their own, and they realized what was needed was some kind of group that would link people looking for rentals with those offering them.
So they created RappRentersNet on Facebook at the end of May. By June 30, they had 113 members with more joining each day.
“Basically, it’s a matchmaking site,” Geisert says.
The group’s aim is to help people in immediate need of housing they can afford but who might not have the time or flexibility to wait for the perfect fit. And in a market that relies heavily on word of mouth, making it hard for renters to know what’s available, linking demand with supply could make the process a lot more transparent.
“I think there is affordable housing out there; it’s matching up the buyers and sellers, which we do pretty well on the selling market,” said Alan Zuschlag, a real estate agent with Washington Fine Properties. “On the rental market, because it’s not a centralized market the way that selling is, it’s harder to match those people up.”
He called RappRentersNet “a step in the right direction.”
The group arrives at a time when the topic of affordable housing is being discussed in Rappahannock as well as other rural U.S. communities.
And while Geisert says he and Settle recognize that affordable housing is an issue that needs to be addressed on many different levels, from policy to zoning, they’re focused on creating a practical space where people can connect and find ways to make the housing that’s available work for them.
“There’s a whole bunch of issues, and I think those can be addressed, should be addressed . . . and are starting to be addressed,” said Geisert. “But at the same time, it’s a multi-layer problem. So we said, ‘Well, let’s carve a part of that layer out and start providing something now.’ We’re not owning it as the only solution, we’re saying this is a piece of the puzzle.”
Settle calls it “a stepping stone.”
One option Geisert is looking at is integrating Facebook Marketplace — where people buy, sell or trade items with others in their area — into RappRentersNet, allowing people to post properties in a more formal way.
The challenge will be working to ensure that supply can begin to meet demand.
Settle, who moderates the group, estimates that about 70 percent of members are looking for housing. So far, only a handful of people have found rentals, in large part, she says, because there just aren’t enough options. As of June 30, the page had five listings.
She’s encouraging people to post available rentals and seekers to consider a range of options. A lot of people who are single could be pairing up, says Settle, who recently found a rental apartment in Sperryville posted on RappRentersNet by a woman looking for a roommate.
Doing so will depend on finding enough people looking for the same thing at the same time — difficult in a place as small as Rappahannock.
And while one Realtor on the site has posted what Settle describes as “quite a few nice places,” she worries that the options are still out of reach financially for many of those looking.
“Everyone can say, I need a place, and everyone wants one as soon as possible. But you’re not going to keep coming back to the group if there is nothing available in your price range,” Geisert says.
Another challenge: Reaching people in the county who lack Internet access.
To tackle that issue, Geisert and Settle have talked about identifying locations where people can go to get help posting to the group. Two places they’re considering: the county library, given its free computer facilities, and the Food Pantry, which also serves the Spanish-speaking community.
National challenge, local solution?
RappeRentersNet is a closed group — meaning you must be granted permission to join — but members are free to post any housing-related content. Ground rules prohibit promotions, and posts must be local, meaning they are targeted to people already living or working in the county.
Rachel Rowland, the head chef at Griffin Tavern, joined the group so she could assist her co workers, some of whom make $10-15 an hour, find housing.
A renter herself, she appreciates that the forum has a local focus. “I think it is a really, really good idea, because working as a waitress in the town center in another town, there really is not a place like that out here, there is not a place where everyone can connect,” Rowland said.
The group is also hoping to assist seasonal employees arriving to work on farms or in the service
“There is a lot of seasonal demand,” says Geisert, who works in horse breeding and understands the needs of workers in the area who may not be fluent in English or have limited budgets.
“I encourage people to tell us what they’re looking for, tell us about them, what they need,” whether it’s rentals that will accept pets or children, says Settle, who actively engages with members and finds there are a lot of young families.
With more people joining, they’re trying to figure out how to keep posts relevant and current since activity on a particular post can push down other conversations, potentially burying an item.
Group member Myra Moznich said she was privately contacted by two people who had seen her post seeking a home for herself and her three children. She eventually found a place through an acquaintance but says she appreciates what the group is doing and hopes it helps others.
“Even if there aren’t people posting, there are people reading,” she says. And that makes a dent since people can contact members privately. She intends to stay a member of the group so she can share places she may come across. Rowland, too, says she plans to post whenever she sees something.
Geisert believes the matchmaking will evolve as the group finds ways to promote and help facilitate it. And while he’s intent on keeping the group local, he says it could become a model for other communities dealing with similar challenges.
Residents with rentals to offer or those on the hunt can apply to join RappRentersNet on Facebook.