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‘Rising prices are almost inevitable given the desirable place we’ve created’

By Sara Schonhardt — For Foothills Forum

One of the main takeaways from our special report was that housing in Rappahannock is limited and expensive, especially for lower- and middle-income households. 

Finding ways to address that challenge, however, is complex, in part because housing is so tied to quality of life.

And because it’s not clear-cut, it generates vibrant debate. So we asked several county-based Realtors this question: What should be done to ensure there is more affordable housing for those who wish to live in Rappahannock? 

Here are some of their edited responses:

Alan Zuschlag, Washington Fine Properties 

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Alan Zuschlag

“Our zoning is an extreme market distortion. It prevents landowners from subdividing land into small lots and creating thousands of thousands of ‘affordable’ living spaces.”

“But, like everything else in the world, there are trade-offs for preserving this land and landscape.  One of the most obvious is that there’s only so much land in Rappahannock County, and if our zoning and parkland and conservation land are going to limit the build-out of our land base, then the laws of supply and demand are very soon evident.  We’re seeing that right now in our real estate market.”

“Rising prices are almost inevitable given the desirable place we’ve created. The more people want to be here, the more they’re going to have to pay for the privilege.   

“Rappahannock does not have any affordability issue (yet). But it’s clear that it is coming.”

Zuschlag said one option is to “let the market sort it out.”  If employers are desperate for workers, he said, they may need to offer incentives like housing allowances or provide group houses for staff. “Or people who choose to work here can drive 15-20 minutes to their affordable housing in Warren County or Culpeper.”      

“Rising prices and gentrification always cause social tensions … But I’m very leery of social engineering by those same smug upper-middle-class ‘do-gooders’ who think they have a solution to the problem because They Know Better. They don’t. 

“As much as I see potential social dislocations in our future, I think we should tread lightly and carefully, and not rush to craft solutions that may be more harmful than helpful.”

Aron Weisgerber, Thornton River LLC

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Aron Weisgerber

Weisgerber said he has a growing list of friends and peers who want to stay in Rappahannock or return but are limited by what they can afford to pay or by Internet connectivity. That makes finding a home “very much a waiting game,” he said. 

“As someone who was born and raised in Sperryville, I [think it’s important to advocate] for families that want to live in our county full time; for families being pushed out by steep real estate prices; and for young families trying to move back to their hometown. 

“My intentions are not to dissuade people who desire to own investment or vacation property here. However, in the case of a home sale where there are comparable offers on the table, sellers and realtors should consider the future value of keeping diverse working class families in this community.

“My experiences growing up in Rappahannock County have contributed to my belief that the value of a thriving, diverse community should always outweigh profit margins.”

Cheri Woodard, Cheri Woodard Realty 

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Cheri Woodard

“Not everyone gets to buy a house. I think that’s just a fact. And whether it’s here or Silver Spring [Maryland] or D.C., there’s always going to be people who don’t have the down payment or they’re not credit worthy, there’s reasons they can’t buy a house.

“There are some lower-priced homes. They may be in Chester Gap, which maybe someone says, ‘Well, I don’t want to live there.’ Well that’s where the priced homes are that you can live in. So people have to be accepting of what’s on the market.

“But the real problem to me, or the biggest problem, is just lack of rentals, because rentals have to be affordable and that gives you housing for people who are just getting started or maybe they’re here just for a year or two and they don’t want to buy.

“I always think of the schoolhouse apartments [off Mount Salem Avenue in the town of Washington] … as sort of the gold star, and if we could figure out how to replicate that in different places, in the towns, and you can have rentals in the $1,000 range, that is going to work for many, many people.”

“We don’t have a champion for that right now. And I’m not calling that low-income housing, I’m saying affordable rentals for any age group. But we’re sort of bracketing that, we’ve got older people that need places and we’ve got young people maybe with families that need places too.”

Rick Kohler, Real Estate III 

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“I think that’s a difficult question,” said Kohler, a long-time Realtor in the region who also serves on the county’s Planning Commission. “We’re trying to direct more housing to the villages. That’s the long-term goal. 

“Because when you look at our zoning, you can have [lots] as small as two acres but our zoning typically in agricultural areas calls for generally fairly large lots and that takes a lot of ability to buy away if you’re in a modest income group.

“You need smaller lots to be able to build a house on so you don’t have to spend so much money on the land.”


 

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

This Rappahannock News/Foothills Forum special report is the result of a year-long look at housing challenges in Rappahannock.

Foothills Forum is an independent, community-supported nonprofit tackling the need for in-depth research and reporting on Rappahannock County issues.

The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this series and other award-winning reporting projects. More at foothills-forum.org.

Part One: Home Sweet Home?

This first installment addressed some of the perennial questions about who gets to live in Rappahannock. Among them: Is there a housing problem in Rappahannock? Are affordable houses not available to rent or buy here? How do housing prices compare to surrounding counties? Who is most in need of affordable housing? We drew on data from the U.S. Census bureau and the United Way, which produces a regular assessment of what’s needed to cover the basic cost of living in Rappahannock. And, importantly, our reporting relied on 120 responses to a questionnaire where residents and would-be residents shared with us their housing situation and experiences. In answering these questions, we sought to explore the roots of the county’s housing challenges using facts and lived realities.

Part Two: ‘We are out of balance

Here we provided personal profiles of three residents with different backgrounds and experiences. Yet each has faced their own housing challenge. We took our questions further, looking at the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the housing market and offered some examples of national, regional and even local efforts to provide homes for a range of residents.

Rappahannock is hardly alone in grappling with how to provide more affordable housing. Communities across the country – rich/poor, rural/urban – all face challenges. It is somewhat unique in the way it approaches its zoning, with the 25-acre minimum rule that took effect in 1986 seen as one of the reasons land and homes are more expensive than in similar localities. As we’ve reported, the Comprehensive Plan that guides the county’s development has been passed to the Board of Supervisors for review and public comment. We’ll be reporting on those discussions and seeking input from county officials so stay tuned.

And send us your thoughts

What do you think after reading our special report? How do you view the county’s housing challenges? Who do you think should be responsible for ensuring there are more affordable options for county residents? What are some ways to respond? What questions do you have for county officials about housing here? Send your thoughts and questions to editor@rappnews.com.


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