Lexington renters, buyers can’t find affordable housing

This story contains a complementary video of another renter’s thoughts on the housing crisis.

By Carly Snyder and Adam Lamberti

Lexington is Stacey Dickerson-Suggs’ hometown, but the single mother can’t afford to live here.

Suggs, a cosmetologist and barber, is living with a friend while she looks for an affordable rental, which she said are “null and void.”

And buying a home is impossible for Suggs. Virginia house prices are going up about 10% each year. In Lexington, the median price of a home has increased 27% in the past year. A home that cost $275,000 last year is now priced at $349,150.

“Normal people can’t afford that,” Suggs said.

Suggs is caught in a national housing crisis facing both renters and buyers. The U.S. housing market is short by about 3.8 million housing units for rent or sale, according to research by Freddie Mac, a U.S. mortgage firm.

Lexington lacks affordable housing for both sale and rent

In Lexington, the shortage is more pronounced because the houses that are for sale are too pricey for many. As of this week, only six properties were listed for sale under $250,000. No properties were available under $200,000, according to Heather Hamilton, a real estate broker at H and K Properties.

In addition, Lexington has just one Section 8 public housing complex for the area’s lowest-income residents. Mountainview Terrace Apartments, a 40-unit community, is subsidized by the federal government.

Mountainview Terrace Apartments are the only affordable multi family housing complexes in Lexington.

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines housing to be affordable if the cost of the home, including utilities, costs 30% or less of the household’s income.

“What has happened now is that 30% is not affordable,” said Lexington City Councilwoman Marylin Alexander, who also manages Mountainview Terrace.

Now, even two-paycheck households have trouble finding affordable homes, whether on the open market or government-subsidized programs.

Expensive housing is just one economic pressure people are facing

Inflation has made food, gas and other necessities more expensive, leaving many people without 30% of their income to pay for housing. As a result, low-income individuals miss rent payments and fall further behind, risking eviction.

“In the affordable housing industry, we are not supposed to approve people who have been evicted, who have not settled their bills,” Alexander said.

The need for affordable housing in Lexington dates back to 1968.

“A group of interested citizens in Lexington saw that there was such a need for housing because so many generations of families were living in one household,” Alexander said. “That is how the apartment complex that I manage came into being.”

Lexington also has two elderly disabled housing developments, but neither can house families.

Ironically, employers have boosted wages to attract and retain workers, who are in greater demand. Some people who have qualified for Section 8 housing now earn too much. But their wages are still too low to afford market-rate housing in cities like Lexington.

Mountainview Terrace Apartments has 40 units.

“People are being left without housing because they’re in the catch 22,” Alexander said.

Certain communities more affected than others

She said communities of color are affected the most, alongside young adults who are building a credit score.

One problem that’s unique to college towns like Lexington is competition from out-of-town buyers, especially parents.

“When these houses come on the market, people who really need housing are not swooping them up,” Alexander said. “The people who are getting these houses tend to be the parents” of Virginia Military Institute cadets.

Hamilton said parents of W&L students are also buying homes, so they do not have to pay for hotels when they visit their children.

“It’s unfortunate to see that this is what these houses are used for when you have young adults who want to rent a home or purchase a home and there’s nothing out here for them that’s affordable,” Hamilton said.

The shortage of housing in Lexington was exacerbated by COVID-19. When companies switched to virtual workplaces, many families relocated to more rural areas and smaller towns such as Lexington to escape denser, urban areas, Hamilton said.

Alexander said she hopes more affordable housing is made available in Lexington, despite the attitudes of some residents.

“It’s very sad that you have people who will say, ‘well, we don’t want that in our neighborhood, or we don’t want affordable housing next door to me,’” Alexander said. “I’m hoping that there will be a more welcoming attitude in Lexington to ensure that more affordable housing is made available.”

Lexington’s land and infrastructure not friendly for land development

But Lexington is just 2.5 square miles, so little land becomes available for development of housing of any kind. And recent events show it’s a slow process and affordable housing can lose out to more lucrative developments.

For example, Lexington’s city council approved the sale of a 2.3-acre parcel of land on Spotswood Drive to a developer that plans to construct 62 apartments. The apartments are expected to rent for about $1,000 to $1,500 a month, Alexander said. “It’s definitely not affordable for the average family in Lexington.”

Even affordable housing isn’t affordable. One tenant writes her payment date on her calendar to ensure she budgets correctly.

When developable land is used to construct additional affordable housing, other challenges are presented. Earlier in the fall, the Rockbridge Area Habitat for Humanity purchased land adjacent to U.S. Highway 11 South in Lexington, allowing the non-profit agency to build seven new affordable houses.

Habitat’s Executive Director Lynne Johnson said the cost of materials such as lumber has made building these homes more expensive. In addition, each project requires volunteers to build the house.

“We can’t be the only game in town because we can’t fill the need fast enough,” Johnson said.

In 2018, Habitat had just a few applicants for homes. In the past year, Habitat received 34 housing applicants. “It is kind of crazy for this small area,” Johnson said.

City is providing assistance, looking for new development opportunities

Alexander said the property under development by Habitat is about two years out from being completed, but city council will provide assistance to expedite the process.

“We have some infrastructure work that we are going to assist them with to help ensure that they are successful on that piece of property,” she said.

Habitat, meanwhile, has recently expanded its repair program, which provides maintenance to homes that would otherwise be neglected, and possibly demolished.

“We’re trying to offset the need by having these houses not crumble underneath people and keeping them where they’re at,” Johnson said.

City council is also pursuing other options for development and learning what type of housing needs to be developed on land as it becomes available. The Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission is researching housing issues and is expected to report back in Spring 2023 to the city council.

Alexander said she “desperately hopes” any available property will be mixed use, including affordable housing.

The City of Lexington acquired the former Virginia State Highway Department building behind the Lexington Prescription Center and will soon seek developers’ proposals for the land.

“It would behoove us to continue to work toward finding affordable housing opportunities wherever we can, not only in the city of Lexington, but at Rockbridge County and Buena Vista as well,” Alexander said.