Stories of the search for home in Rappahannock
By Sara Schonhardt — For Foothills Forum
Home means something different to everyone. Yet what we discovered through responses to a Community Housing Questionnaire we circulated last year is that those who choose to make Rappahannock home often make sacrifices to stay here.
“I’ve watched people come here and leave here because of housing,” said Jennings “Jenks” Hobson, the former pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington and a Foothills Forum board member. He’d listened to parishioners share their housing challenges, and faced them himself after retiring in 2015.
“In order to have a healthy dynamic community, we need to explore having a better variety of housing possibilities, both for younger folks and for older folks and for those who aren’t so wealthy,” Hobson said.
“I deeply believe that we are not a healthy community because we are out of balance.”
Here are the stories of three residents – two current and one former – that sketch a picture of life in Rappahannock and what it means to find a home here.
43 | Working professional, reared in Rappahannock
For Hope Dunn, having a home in Rappahannock is about staying close to her roots. She and her sisters grew up in the town of Washington and went through the public school system. Her mother and grandmother, both of whom she was close to, are buried here.
Hope also wanted to raise her daughter, 11-year-old Marley, in a place where she could play outdoors and enjoy a childhood much like her own.
But finding a rental home for $1,200 a month was tough. It was even harder to find one at that price that was livable.
To stay in the county she needed a house with an internet connection allowing her to work remotely one day a week as a graphic designer and desktop publisher for a health-care company in Reston. She preferred something small with good access to main roads.
She also didn’t want a monthly payment that would eat up all of her paycheck, which is above the county’s median household income. Hope set her budget after calculating costs for everything from groceries to commuting to movie nights out to a college fund and retirement savings.
“I had to sit down and be like, ‘Can I really afford $1,600?’” she said, referencing the going price for rentals with everything she needed. When she’d factored in all the other costs of living, the answer was no.
“It wasn’t something that I didn’t think about,” Hope said.
It wasn’t just a lack of options. The homes that were available often seemed overpriced, in need of work, or both.
On one hand, Hope wasn’t in a rush to move so she had the luxury of time to search. On the other, she had a network she could tap into that eventually paid dividends. Her quaint two-bedroom house in Amissville came to her through a friend wanting to upgrade.
She recently extended her lease for another year, but buying a home still feels out of reach.
Hope also has concerns about Rappahannock’s future – something that gives her pause about staying and investing in a home long-term.
She worries that public safety is being hampered by a lack of cell phone service, that K-12 education is suffering due to inadequate internet, and she frets about declining school enrollment.
“I like the aspect of the rural living and my child being able to be outside and I don’t have to worry about her,” Hope said. “But at the same time, I think growth is important…And a lot of people don’t want growth here, so that’s probably one of the hardest things.”
As a Black mother, she also worries about a deficit of open-mindedness characteristic of many more diverse communities.
“Diversity is important, important to know that there’s people you communicate with or you socialize with or you are sitting in class with that look like you,” she said. “I think that’s one of the problems, too, with housing and having a diverse people come and be able to live here.”
Hope considered moving outside the county, but didn’t want to uproot Marley. She knows people in similar positions who take on multiple jobs or freelance projects to make ends meet. Friends from high school who moved away for work would love to come back, she added, but either they can’t afford to, or they need reliable internet and cell service.
And for the county to be able to provide all those things is a matter that involves more than just housing.
“A lot would have to change,” she said. “It’s not just one thing, it’s many things.”
36 | Second-grade teacher, returner
Cecilia Lopiano’s return to Rappahannock came about quickly and somewhat unexpectedly. It also came at a particularly bad time to be searching for a home: In the midst of a pandemic when competition for rural and suburban properties has been cutthroat.
Even before COVID-19 hit, she decided to return to Rappahannock with her husband and two children after years of city living. Despite money in the bank to purchase a home and a history of home ownership, they encountered an unexpected obstacle: Sticker shock.
When Cecilia left Rappahannock in 2001 to go to school at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, she took with her a love of the countryside, fond memories of the old, rented farmhouse she grew up in and enduring friendships.
She wasn’t sure she’d return to Rappahannock, but the more she traveled she realized no place could quite capture its uniqueness.
Then her husband Vinny sold his motorcycle repair and fabrication shop, giving them an opening. Cecilia, who taught at a nonprofit charter school, emailed Rappahannock school administrators in early June to see about potential opportunities. She was not expecting a job offer. Within a matter of days she had been hired.
So she took to the internet, spending hours scouring real estate listings on Zillow. Her mother, who now lives in Nelson County, connected her to Realtor Aron Weisgerber. Cecilia and Vinny drove from Philadelphia on weekends for home tours.
To keep within their budget they considered homes in neighboring counties, even though Cecilia wanted her children to attend the school where she would be teaching and was eager to return to the place where she’d grown up.
They thought they were coming in with some leverage, but the couple quickly realized that even after pushing their price limit to a maximum of $400,000, most of what was available was a mixed bag.
“I didn’t realize it would be so different, so much higher than other markets. And being a homeowner I felt like that gave me an advantage to be a little savvy and to know what the markets are,” Cecilia said.
It made her re-evaluate where she and Vinny were financially.
“We felt like we were coming to the table with a lot to put down,” she said. In reality, they realized they would need to put down everything they had. “And I wasn’t really anticipating that.”
Unlike some other buyers, waiting for the right home to come along wasn’t an option for Cecilia since she needed to be here when classes began. So she and Vinny scaled back their checklist to its most basic: a place that was livable and within their budget.
The home the Lopianos wound up buying – a three-bedroom on eight acres outside Sperryville – had gone off the market, as many did during the pandemic. But Weisgerber found the owners were still interested in selling.
It’s small compared to their home in Philadelphia and came in at the top of their price range. But, with its wooded acreage that abuts the mountains, they decided to go all in.
“You think about city prices but then there are city wages that go along with it,” said Cecilia, whose experience as a returnee helped her realize that more could be done to provide homes for other families seeking to return and reinvest in Rappahannock.
“I think that’s really important as we look at when kids leave when they’re 17 like I did and my brother and all of my friends,” she said. “Who’s the new life of the community? It’s those who’ve stayed or those who want to come back and really foster that environment that they had.”
75 | Retired, now living in Culpeper
Finding a place to live comes with a distinct set of difficulties for aging county residents.
Jenny Schreiner lived in Rappahannock for nearly half a century until March 2019.
Then she needed to leave the rental she’d been in for the past 14 years and wasn’t able to find another place she could afford with limited time to do so. Not only was she forced to leave her affordable rental, she had to leave the county altogether. Jenny loves Rappahannock, but she discovered that when you’re out, you’re truly out.
Jenny moved to Rappahannock from Washington, D.C. in the early 1970s after discovering it through a friend who rented a place here on the weekends. She didn’t have much money, but it wasn’t expensive to live in Rappahannock then, and she’d fallen for it.
She picked up work “catch as catch can,” she said, painting roofs and barns, working with people who did renovations and cleaning. She also raised a son who graduated from the public high school.
“It was easy to live without doing too much because the rent and everything was so cheap,” she said.
Convenience was never an issue for Jenny, who likes her privacy and was used to it. Even after she was declared legally blind she still mowed her own yard and split wood. She valued being able to work outside and feed the birds. As a renter she also moved a lot, something other renters we spoke to experienced.
“A friend of mine once said, ‘it’s like musical houses,’” she said.
Jenny gets a housing voucher through the Virginia Housing Development Authority, which she qualified for after she became legally blind and was deemed eligible for disability.
Under the program, she pays a certain portion of her rent through her Social Security insurance and the government pays the rest. At the time of her move, the program would have allowed her to spend up to $825 on housing, she estimated.
But finding something for $800 in Rappahannock was difficult, she said. So was having to move out of the county she had lived in for decades.
“It’s the idea of having to leave your home,” said Jenny. “That’s the bottom line in all this: That human feeling of just missing where you were for so long.”
The summer after she lost her home, Jenny also lost her son, making the experience all the more traumatic.
She now lives on the ground floor of a senior apartment complex in Culpeper, which she described as nice but “not my cup of tea.” She misses the trees and feeding the birds. She misses the dark nights and the quiet.
She also misses those in her Rappahannock support group, who were there for her when she lost her son. That’s just as important now, in the seventh month of an ongoing pandemic.
Jenny is still trying to get back to Rappahannock and has people keeping an eye out for rentals. She’s been saving money to move back if the opportunity arises. Ideally, it would be a small house, not too far from the road. She’d like a clothes line and would need a mailbox so she can continue writing the birthday cards for everyone at Rapp at Home, where she’s a devoted member.
But she worries there isn’t a place for her in the county any longer.
“I don’t think anyone should ever have to leave their home. And I don’t think anyone else should make that decision for them,” she said.
“I would hope that we all could find something.”
Pandemic drives up demand
What impact has COVID-19 had on the local housing market?
The pandemic spurred demand for country homes while also reducing inventory as sellers took their homes off the market. And that supply-demand gap helped drive up prices.
The average home sales price in Rappahannock for the first half of 2020 increased 19 percent, to $435,191 from $367,036 during the same period in 2019, according to a second quarter market trend report produced by Adam Beroza at Cheri Woodard Realty.
“With low interest rates and a desire to shelter in place in a more secure environment, we saw a strong increase in buyers looking for country properties in May and June,” Beroza wrote in his report.
That same trend is being reflected nationally, with the median sale price for homes in rural areas up 11.3 percent year over year in July, according to an analysis from Redfin.
Sales have remained largely flat for now. Twenty-seven properties sold in the second quarter of 2020 compared to 24 properties in the second quarter of 2019, Beroza found. But of the 50 properties for sale as of Sept. 15, 24 were under contract, suggesting that the third quarter was shaping up to be strong.
“We’re getting many more calls, and listings are selling faster and in some cases are having multiple bidders,” said Rick Kohler, from Real Estate III. “In many instances, these are people from the D.C. area looking for some place to get away.”
Jeff Tucker, an economist at Zillow, said second-home buyers are one major driver of rural demand. And Jason Brady at Oakview National Bank in Washington said he’s seen an increase in people taking out mortgages on second homes.
“That demand to get a second home, sort of a country retreat, is definitely contributing to these rising prices,” Tucker said.
How could that impact people’s ability to find housing?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most buyers from outside Rappahannock were not competing with local buyers at the lower end of the market. But Realtor Alan Zuschlag said he’s starting to see younger professionals who can work remotely competing more directly for starter homes and more modest acreage.
“These newcomers will help fuel the local restaurant, landscaping and farming economy, but they will also cause price appreciation in smaller properties,” he said.
Potential buyers with higher incomes may also have better credit ratings or a longer rental history, making them more attractive to landlords or lenders than those with lower incomes. And that could mean wealthier city dwellers will make it harder for local middle-income residents and their families to find housing.
“When someone’s income is not really tied to the local labor market but is scaled to a superstar city like D.C., their purchasing power is going to be so much higher than locals in a place like Rappahannock, especially with limited inventory right now,” Tucker said.
Kohler said Rappahannock has traditionally been more of a luxury market for second homes for people from D.C. and northern Virginia. But demand from those would-be buyers has increased after a brief pause at the start of the pandemic while housing remains in short supply.
“This is a small county, and there’s not that many people that want to sell at any one time,” Kohler said. “In certain price ranges, you might have four or five houses available so that makes it more competitive.”
What role do mortgages play?
Mortgage rates are at record lows, which reduces monthly payments for homeowners.
But the requirements for getting a mortgage – good credit scores, enough money for a down payment – can be barriers for those with lower incomes. And rising prices may offset the benefits of lower interest rates.
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Real estate agent Aron Weisgerber said some of the younger couples he’s worked with have had difficulty securing financing for a home, with college loan debt sometimes adding to the challenge.
Only 26 percent of working-age adults had the security of a full-time job with a salary, according to a United Way study of Virginia that predates the pandemic. But hourly jobs can have irregular schedules that provide less stable income and that can work against people when applying for a mortgage.
What’s the situation facing renters?
Bruce Geisert, who manages the RappRentersNet group on Facebook, said he’s seen the number of requests for affordable housing explode since the pandemic. Yet many people with rooms to rent have been reluctant to do so for safety reasons. He’s also seen a significant increase in people needing internet access as a requirement for renting in the county, and that can make finding a place even more difficult because much of Rappahannock has spotty broadband service.
As of Sept. 14, there was only one rental property listed on Zillow — a five-bedroom house in Amissville for $2,700 a month.
The reduction in unemployment assistance for those who’ve lost jobs due to the pandemic has also raised fears of a rise in evictions. (Read our Aug. 23 story: Housing struggles in Rappahannock)
What about seniors?
Elderly residents often look to downsize, but in Rappahannock their options for alternative housing are limited. Or they may want to repair or refurbish their homes to suit their diminished mobility, but they lack the money or ability to perform those upgrades.
A challenge for those looking to move with limited incomes and savings is that they often end up competing for housing with low-income earners, such as young families. In markets with limited supplies, that competition can inflate rents and sales prices.
“The options for affordable housing for seniors are very limited and there’s very few places that come with seniors in mind as far as accessibility goes,” said Joe Kimpflen, the adult protective services caseworker at the Rappahannock County Department of Social Services.
If a senior resident has a housing issue that can’t be solved by repairs or refurbishment, he said, the only place to find housing is outside of the county – and that can be devastating to someone who’s spent their whole life in Rappahannock.
For some seniors, maintenance or the ability to downsize is more a concern than cost, said Joyce Wenger, president of Rapp At Home, a nonprofit with roughly 200 members that provides senior-centered services.
It partnered with another group, Aging Together, to conduct a needs assessment in March 2019 that found housing was a top concern among seniors in Rappahannock. Ellen Phipps, executive director of Aging Together, said one form of support would just be home repair maintenance or yard work.
“A lot of times the things that drive people from their homes is not because they’re necessarily sick or need nursing care, but just because they just need some supports in the community to enable them to stay in their own homes for longer,” she said.
What might work in Rappahannock?
Rappahannock County has grappled with the issue of affordable housing for years. It still is. As detailed in Part One of our “Home Sweet Home?” special report two weeks ago, 120 responses to an extensive community questionnaire clearly show housing challenges for residents and those who would like to live here. Many said the cost of renting or buying is prohibitive, or that the few available houses in their price range were substandard.
So who is responsible for addressing this issue?
Elected and appointed public officials have key roles. But in many communities that have responded to housing challenges, success has come from public-private partnerships where government, community groups and even developers have worked together.
One important starting point is understanding the problem, said Sarah Walsh, chief impact officer at Rappahannock United Way, which produces a regular report on what it costs for residents to afford basic necessities, including housing. Previous regional studies have sought to identify the nature of the housing challenges here. But as we noted in Part One, there has been little follow up, either because the timing was bad, other issues seemed to outweigh housing in importance, or there wasn’t significant buy-in from officials.
And over the years, Walsh notes, family situations have grown more complex, with many single-parent households or widows and widowers needing to find roommates to be able to cut costs.
“We built our communities in a way that don’t fit our households anymore,” Walsh said.
Here are some efforts and organizations aimed at addressing the shortage of affordable housing:
Windy Hill Foundation
The Middleburg foundation began nearly 40 years ago by purchasing run-down or dilapidated houses. Then, using donations, it restored those homes to provide decent and affording housing to people with low incomes. It now builds new homes using a combination of federal low income housing tax credits and low interest rate loans and sets its rental rates to ensure they are around half of the area Fair Market Rents reported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The foundation, which has also expanded to offer a range of housing-related services, currently provides more than 300 housing units to low and lower-income individuals, families, older adults and adults with disabilities in Fauquier and Loudoun counties. Executive Director Bob Dale said they don’t have plans to expand outside those jurisdictions but are assisting local nonprofit Rappahannock Communities to develop affordable housing in Rappahannock. (https://windyhillfoundation.org/)
Formed last year partly to address affordable housing in Rappahannock, it received nonprofit status in February. A few of its board members are helping with plans for the new Food Pantry. The organization has recently focused on emergency-related response to the pandemic, establishing a small business grant fund that provided $97,000 in $1,000 grants. But founding board member Betsy Dietel said housing remains a priority.
People Incorporated of Virginia
A nonprofit health and human services agency, it has also focused on building, rehabilitating, and owning and managing property where it restricts the rent to a portion of the income of the people who live there. Rents are calculated depending on the property – some require income eligibility at 60 percent or less of area median income, others require tenants to pay 30 percent of their net income and People Inc. assists with the remainder, and others have housing vouchers associated with the units. The lowest monthly rents are in the $400-500 range, said President and CEO Rob Goldsmith.
Around 70 percent of its more than 1,000 units are reserved for seniors or people with disabilities. People Inc. does not currently have any projects or properties in Rappahannock (there were two unsuccessful attempts in the past), but it is disbursing some of the $50 million the state received through the $2.2 billion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for a rent and mortgage relief program. Since the program launched the first week of July, it has provided rental assistance totaling $4,175 to three households that have lost income due to COVID-19.
Washington School LLC
It doesn’t quite fall under the umbrella of affordable housing, with one-bedroom apartments ranging from $800 to $1,100 a month based on size. One benefit, however, is that residents don’t have to pay for property maintenance and upkeep and the smaller-sized units are suited to single residents. Eighty percent of them are filled with senior citizens and the property manager said she currently has a waiting list of about four or five people.
This concept involves having smaller, mixed-use houses or apartments grouped around a shared open space in a town or village. It has drawn interest from Washington Mayor Fred Catlin, along with a few others who are exploring it.
“At this point there have been discussions that have occurred on four different properties in the Washington community,” Catlin said. “Some are beyond the town limits and would be looking to be doing a boundary line adjustment and some are within the limits.”
Catlin declined to provide details, but noted that several of the projects are embracing the idea of cluster or “pocket” communities and several also recognize the need for senior housing. “In each of these cases they’re talking about a cluster of houses that allows you to get some economy of scale in terms of the building costs,” he added.
A challenge is how these new types of housing arrangements work with existing water and sewer systems.
Habitat for Humanity
Beyond building homes using donations and volunteer labor, this global nonprofit also helps with critical home repairs and upgrades so families can stay in their homes longer. The idea is to provide more stable housing for people who may not have the ability to do the repairs themselves or the money to pay for them. “There are families that stay in homes for generations,” said Darryl Neher, executive director for Fauquier Habitat. “Being able to make repairs on homes that help stabilize a housing situation for that family can mean the world.”
To date, Habitat has helped build two homes in Rappahannock in the past 26 years, one that was completed in 2017 for a family in Huntly and another in Washington in 1994. Habitat provides assistance to households whose earnings fall within 30-60 percent of area median income. For a family of four in Rappahannock, that ranges from $25,140 to $50,280, according to the latest figures on Habitat’s website.
In November 2019 it sponsored a Neighbors Helping Neighbors project, where volunteers assisted residents with yard work and critical home repairs, such as the construction of a wheelchair ramp and insulation installation.
Community land trusts
These are typically run by a nonprofit that purchases land using public or private investment and then allows a family or individual to purchase a home that sits on the land for an affordable price. The homeowner then leases the land from the community trust and agrees to sell the home at a fair market price to keep it affordable in the long term.
One example is Grounded Solutions Network, a national housing nonprofit that supports community land trusts and promotes inclusive housing policies to ensure a portion of housing units are available for lower-income residents. It also works with municipal agencies and involves local resident leaders to help educate policymakers about what solutions might work in their communities. The network is now partnering with municipal land banks that acquire distressed property in the hope that by combining that with land trusts they can create a pipeline of affordable housing and allow those homeowners to build equity. According to a 2019 study, 60 percent of homeowners who sold their land trust homes then purchased a market rate home. https://groundedsolutions.org/shared-equity-housing-numbers
Local nonprofit Rapp at Home has offered educational sessions to members about low- or no-cost modifications they can make to their homes so they’re more accessible, such as improving lighting around staircases and securing area rugs and removing small door mats that can shift easily and become tripping hazards. Another session is being planned for November. https://www.rappathome.net
Rapp at Home has also developed a guide for shared housing in which older homeowners in need of some assistance are matched with home seekers. The guidance, partly drawn from a home share organization in Vermont (https://www.homesharevermont.org/), includes advice about creating rental agreements and how to post a request for house shares on Rapp at Home’s website, which they’re planning to re-launch with a new section, similar to classified ads and restricted to registered users.
Zoning and Regulatory Reform
Rappahannock County’s updated Comprehensive Plan has been forwarded to the Board of Supervisors for a public hearing. It acknowledges the importance of affordable housing and encourages development within “designated village areas.” But there is debate over newly included village maps.
One key point of debate has long been around the very issue of development – what type is needed for whom and how to achieve it without destroying the nature and ethos of rural Rappahannock.
Catlin, who helped guide updates to Washington’s comprehensive plan, said he thinks funneling development toward the villages is the right thing to do, and one thing the town council has done is pass several resolutions and ordinances to try and facilitate that.
Al Henry, who represents Hampton District on the Planning Commission, said the county should determine the extent of the affordable units needed and then come up with a plan to try and address it.
“I think there’s a need. Is there a need for 200 or 300 units? I don’t think so. Is there a need for something between 25 and 100 units? Probably so,” he said.
What we learned
Much of what we learned from Part One of our special report on housing came from responses to our Community Housing Questionnaire. We’re still seeing those points reflected in the handful of additional responses to our online survey since we published Part One. If you’d like to participate, click here. Here’s a recap of some of those main takeaways, as well as a few more we covered in Part Two.
Housing in Rappahannock is limited and expensive, especially for lower- and middle-income households.
Rentals are a problem because they’re even more limited than homes for sale. Many are found by word of mouth.
Home values are higher here than in most neighboring counties, and far above the national median.
Increased demand for country homes and a reduction in the number of homes for sale and rent due to COVID-19 has pushed up prices. Local buyers find it hard to compete with wealthier city dwellers.
Second homes and short-term rentals also remove available homes from the market.
Finding a livable home at a price suited to lower incomes is a waiting game, but not everyone has the time to wait.
More than half of all renter-occupied households in the county pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing, meaning they may have to scale back spending on other needs.
Home prices aren’t suited to local wages, with households still falling short of the basic budget needed to cover essential costs, such as food and transportation.
The ability to get a mortgage goes to people with better credit and more stable incomes, limiting options for younger, first-time home buyers.
Options for seniors looking to downsize are limited. Sometimes repairs or renovations can help them stay in their homes longer, but often require money or assistance.
Part 1 | Home Sweet Home
Read the story here.
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