THE hundred or so attendees at the recent FRED-A Social Good Summit conference at the University of Mary Washington came up with nearly 90 issues in need of innovative solutions facing the Fredericksburg community. To no one’s great surprise, the No. 1 issue cited by participants was the city’s lack of affordable housing.
First, some perspective: The definition of “affordable” is relative. Demographia, an urban planning consulting firm, recently listed four cities in the U.S. that it ranked among the top ten least affordable in the world, as measured by the median income in comparison to median home prices. Three of the world’s most unaffordable cities are in California. In fifth-place San Jose, a median-priced home costs 9.4 times more than the average median income.
In contrast, the median sales price of a home in Fredericksburg’s 22401 zip code is $341,200, which is about six times the city’s median household income of $57,258. And according to homesnacks.net, Fredericksburg’s income-to-rent ratio makes it just the 24th most expensive city in Virginia in which to rent an abode.
So while housing here is not exactly cheap, it’s not at Silicon Valley—or even other Virginia—levels either.
But as the Fredericksburg region continues to grow, the housing crunch in the city and surrounding counties along I–95 will only get worse. Especially worrisome is the fact that some public servants with stable, well-paying jobs, such as teachers or police officers, cannot afford to live in the community where they work. Rising rents and property taxes also make it difficult for seniors and others on fixed incomes to make ends meet.
The cause of Fredericksburg’s affordable housing problem is easy to determine: The demand for low- or middle-income residential units in the city is outstripping the supply. But solutions are much harder to come by. Various suggestions to “do something” about affordable housing are made even as market forces—including the high price of buildable lots—keep pushing housing costs higher.
One such idea is a housing trust that would provide short-term help to people temporarily down on their luck to help them weather a health or job-related crisis and avoid foreclosure or eviction. This would pay dividends down the road by keeping people in their homes and out of homeless shelters.
But a housing trust is a Band-Aid at best, not a long-term solution. For that, innovative ideas are required.
Faced with a similar crisis of affordable housing, last December Minneapolis’ progressive city council voted to make it the first city in the U.S. to end single-family zoning. The city’s new comprehensive plan will permit three-family homes in residential areas previously zoned for single-family dwellings, get rid of parking minimums for all new developments, and allow even higher density along its transit corridors.
Is shoehorning more units into established residential neighborhoods the answer for Fredericksburg, too? Or, instead of raising property taxes that push up the cost of buying or renting housing, would a tax moratorium perhaps be a way to make sure the city remains affordable? Maybe builder incentives for relatively inexpensive micro-sized apartments or zoning changes that accommodate tiny houses is the way to go.
Whatever Fredericksburg decides to do about its No. 1 problem, it’s clear that things are changing. Whether those changes lead to more gentrification, or a city that intentionally makes space for residents of all income levels, will largely depend on policies it adopts now.