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Regional commission votes against accepting $2 million state affordable housing grant
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Regional commission votes against accepting $2 million state affordable housing grant

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The regional planning group for the Fredericksburg area is expected to get more information this week about a $2 million affordable housing development grant from the state after rejecting the offer last month.

The refusal, which took place at the George Washington Regional Commission’s Sept. 27 meeting, makes GWRC the only one of Virginia’s 21 planning district commissions that has not yet executed an agreement for the grant.

The GWRC is the planning body that oversees regional projects for Virginia Planning District 16, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George. The commission board is made up of two representatives appointed from the each jurisdiction’s governing body.

Only the two representatives from Fredericksburg City—Council members Matt Kelly and Jason Graham—voted last month to accept the grant, which is provided by Virginia Housing and is tied to the development of single- or multifamily affordable housing units.

A follow-up vote on a motion by Caroline County Supervisor Jeff Sili to reject the funds also failed, by a 5–5 vote.

Virginia Housing announced the grant in May, awarding between $1 and $3 million, depending on population size, to each of the state’s 21 planning districts. Each $1 million is tied to the creation of 10 affordable housing units, so the $2 million grant to GWRC would result in 20 new units.

The term of the grant is three years with the option for a one-year extension.

At the Sept. 27 meeting, Jill Norcross, community outreach regional manager for Virginia Housing, provided examples of what other state planning commissions are doing with the grants.

The Hampton Roads Planning Commission is developing a revolving construction fund. The Cumberland Plateau Commission is planning a mixed-used project that will include affordable rental units for seniors and the Middle Peninsula Commission will convert donated or vacant properties into affordable housing units.

Norcross said nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity can also submit proposals to individual PDCs for the grant money.

She said Virginia Housing is setting up work groups to answer questions about the grant and has established a share drive where PDCs can share examples of partnership and consultant agreements.

Sili said the rising cost of land will make it difficult to build 20 affordable housing units, even with the help of $2 million.

“At least me speaking for my district, I don’t know that I can take any money and guarantee anything,” he said. “The affordable housing they’ve built in Caroline over the years isn’t affordable any more. Caroline has become, lot-wise, too expensive. I don’t know if more money is going to answer any questions.”

Spotsylvania Supervisor Chris Yakabouski, the county’s representative, said accepting the grant would equate to government interference in the housing market.

“I don’t want us as government entities to start screwing with that,” he said. “It doesn’t fix anything. You just mess up the market.”

Supervisor Tim McLaughlin, the other Spotsylvania representative, said he thinks most of the grant would go towards overhead, such as the cost of hiring a consultant to create a plan with GWRC or a lawyer to evaluate proposals from developers.

“I think the $2 million will go to overhead and staff. I don’t support it. I think it’s a waste,” he said. “It’s not a good use of taxpayer money.”

Kelly and Graham expressed disbelief that the other commission members were prepared to pass on the grant.

“Our housing is getting so expensive that people can’t afford to live and work here,” Kelly said. “These funds can be used to supplement affordable housing.”

He said the funds could be used as an incentive to developers to build affordable housing units and that the process might inspire other developers.

Graham urged the other members to consider other housing types besides single-family homes.

“We’re not looking at all the potential options there are,” he said. “If the demand is that great, we can test it with this. Say a developer is willing to come in and build quadplexes or triplexes or whatever in a sustainable development pattern.

“If we can do it in a cost-effective way, I do think this is incredibly worthwhile. This may just be the future for a lot of people getting up off the ground.”

“We can’t stop [growth,]” Graham continued. “This is the future. We should embrace the change and look at the missing housing options. Can we give people 3,000-square-foot homes with this program? No, but we can give them 800- or 1,000-square-foot starter apartments.”

After the vote to reject the funds failed, the commission directed staff to come back at the next meeting on Oct. 25 with more information about the grant, such as whether nonprofits can receive the funds and whether the funds can go towards multiple projects.

Meghann Cotter, executive director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries, said she views the $2 million as “seed money.”

“As a person that runs on grants and donated money, often when you have seed money, it inspires more resources,” she said. “Two million is not enough, so somebody is going to have to come to the table with more resources and the $2 million becomes a seed for a whole garden of opportunity to create things [in the area of affordable housing] that this community is constantly talking about, but technically doing nothing about right now.”

Cotter said Micah works with people who have been propelled into homelessness by the high cost of housing in the Fredericksburg area.

“The fastest-growing groups of homeless persons in our community are 65 and older and 18–24, with previous experience with childhood trauma and having grown up in foster care,” she said.

“We’ve got to be able to create opportunities for all kinds of needs. Micah’s lens is just one lens, but to walk away from a $2 million investment in any kind of housing solution to advance the conversation would be foolish, in my opinion.”

Adele Uphaus–Conner:

540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com

@flsadele

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