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Opinion: Our unaffordable housing market doesn’t work for workers

A Virginian-Pilot Opinion Editorial by Barbara Blake and Thaler McCormick

Three-year-old Sade Lawson smiles while throwing a ball around with her mother, Daryl Lawson Lugo, left, after they moved May 11, 2021 into a room at ForKids, a 60,000-square-foot, three-story facility in Chesapeake that provides services for homeless families throughout the region. (Jonathon Gruenke/Daily Press)

This fall has become a season of unprecedented need for individuals and families requiring safe, affordable housing in Hampton Roads. The Housing Crisis Hotline, operated by ForKids, continues to receive a record number of calls. In October, the hotline answered 7,821 calls for assistance from households in Hampton Roads, more than any other month since the hotline began in 2011.

According to call center data, 32% of callers had received landlord or court notifications of pending evictions, 30% of callers were identified as seeking utility assistance and 24% of callers were seeking emergency shelter. An uneven labor market recovery has exacerbated the immense housing challenges for buyers, sellers and organizations such as ForKids. At the hotline, many callers are employed, yet experiencing a housing crisis for the very first time. The occupants of these newly unstable households, most of whom have employment income, are scared and frustrated. For them, there are no housing units and little help available.

In the rental market, a shortage in affordable housing, dramatic increases in rent and utilities, and the expiration of the Virginia Rent Relief Program have created a perfect storm, pummeling local renters. Meanwhile, the supply of new single-family homes has not kept pace with rising demand. Those fortunate enough to have funds to buy housing increasingly have found themselves competing for a shrinking pool of homes, and competition has driven up prices across the housing market.

In 2021, the median sales price for an existing home in Hampton Roads was $279,000, whereas private nonfarm worker earnings were only $48,000 on average, squeezing “middle skills” professionals such as dental hygienists and administrative assistants out of home ownership in Hampton Roads.

The 23rd annual State of the Region Report by ODU’s Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy highlighted the pressing issue of housing affordability in Hampton Roads and its impact on regional competitiveness. In comparing Hampton Roads to a dozen other metropolitan competitors, our region had the highest percent of cost-burdened households between 2015 to 2019 with 1 in 7 households paying more than 50% of their total income for housing. A 2020 study by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC) similarly found that Hampton Roads had the highest percentage of cost-burdened households in the commonwealth.

After years of underinvestment in the housing market, JLARC reported the dismal news that Hampton Roads needs 52,600 rental units. With ongoing demolition and conversion of affordable housing, the actual number will be much higher.

Hampton Roads needs a regional approach to increase housing affordability. We can’t attract large industries and employers without the ability to house their workforce. Innovations to the marketplace such as Chesapeake’s Williams Farm mega-site, which could bring hundreds of millions in revenue to the region and the commonwealth, will not bear fruit if we are unable to house workers at all income levels.

Rebuilding our housing market will require a wide range of policy tools. Cities must rethink building codes that unnecessarily add costs and delay projects; citizens must encourage, not contest, housing development; and builders and developers need to bring new building innovations to the marketplace.

We can also reduce parking requirements, encourage multi-family development, and think smaller: micro-apartments are popping up across the U.S. that are stylish and popular with millennials.

Most importantly, city councils and community leaders must pull these tools together in a regional transit-oriented housing plan that encourages a broad array of housing connected to employers by public transit and adequate roads. Let’s envision and create a community with quality housing for our young families, new college graduates, teachers and public safety employees, our mechanics, and baristas. After all, what are the economic prospects for a region that cannot house its own workers?

Barbara Blake is the chief administrative officer of The Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at Old Dominion University. Thaler McCormick is the chief executive officer of ForKids, a nonprofit working to end homelessness and poverty in Southeastern Virginia.


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