By Tori Johnsson
Affordable housing, already scarce in Lexington and Rockbridge County, is tougher to find due to higher construction prices, intense demand and a tight rental market.
Lumber prices have tripled and electrical wiring supplies are more expensive, according to local builders.
“Even houses that normally would’ve been affordable are now not affordable because of all the cost increases,” said Leo Decanini, Rockbridge Area Habitat for Humanity’s construction supervisor and volunteer coordinator.
Despite COVID, Habitat for Humanity hit its goal of four completed houses last year, relying on local volunteers and future homeowners to do the work. But material shortages are putting the squeeze on prospective buyers and making Habitat’s mission harder.
“We’ve had to chase down a lot of donations,” Decanini says.
Higher inflation and increased demand translate into more expensive raw materials, according to Bloomberg News. For instance, the price of wooden trusses has more than doubled since last year. A fierce winter storm in Texas stalled paint production, sending those prices higher as well.
With Habitat’s long waiting list, Dane Campbell is happy to move into his new house after almost three years.
“It’s a good experience, a good investment, and I wanted something for myself,” Campbell says.
Besides materials, simple demand is driving Rockbridge County home and rental prices through the roof.
David Stull, owner of Sterling Properties and Management, says the area’s average house prices have risen from about $250,000 to $350,000.
“A lot of people are fleeing the metropolitan areas,” says Lexington’s Mayor Frank Friedman. He attributes some demand to people with remote working jobs choosing to live in Rockbridge County’s more relaxed environment.
Stull says it’s the first time in 15 years that his business has almost no rental properties available.
“There aren’t many rentals available, and when they are, they’re way more expensive than people can afford with their income,” says Lindsey Pérez, executive director of the Rockbridge Area Relief Association.
RARA partners with agencies in Staunton, Waynesboro and Roanoke to provide temporary housing for those experiencing homelessness and provides rent and utilities assistance through its Helpline. But the organization doesn’t actively help people search for permanent housing.
“The supply is very limited in this area, it’s not just a Rockbridge County issue, it’s statewide and nationwide at this point,” Pérez says.
“As long as this pandemic continues, I think the market’s going to be real hot,” Stull says.
And Lexington’s small size makes new construction in the city difficult.
“We find ourselves in a precarious situation, the amount of taxable land within the city keeps diminishing,” Friedman says.
The city is looking to partner with a developer to build apartments. The remaining portion of the Spotswood parcel is an option for construction after RARA recently purchased the Piovano Building.
The city also expects to buy the former Virginia Department of Transportation location across the street from the Rockbridge Farmer’s Co-op.
“The challenge is land that’s in private hands and what people want to accomplish with it,” Friedman says.