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State and Local Leaders Convene in Farmville for Virginia Rural Housing Roundtable

More than 70 regional officials and business leaders attended the Virginia Rural Housing Roundtable

Farmville, Va. – State, local and federal officials convened in Farmville on June 5 for a Virginia Rural Housing Roundtable luncheon designed to spark dialog around affordability, availability and other issues affecting rural housing across the Commonwealth.

More than 70 people participated in the event, which was hosted by the Virginia Rural Center and held on the campus of Longwood University.

“Like any complex policy issue, rural housing touches on all sorts of other complex policy issues,” said Longwood University President W. Taylor Reveley IV in his opening remarks.

Reveley pointed to transportation as an example, noting the challenges that were presented when Greyhound Bus Lines discontinued service in Farmville.

“The great opportunity that Virginia has is to show the country how our rural communities really can thrive, and I think the Commonwealth has a chance to do that,” Reveley said. “And the great minds that can make it all happen are gathered right here.”

Senator Frank Ruff, Chairman of the Virginia Rural Caucus, explained that housing is precisely the kind of issue that led to the formation the Caucus and a dedicated Virginia Rural Center organization 18 years ago.

“When you talk about housing, everyone thinks of urban issues,” said Ruff. “They do not look at us and they do not see us, and that’s a problem.”

Even at the federal level, “cities get designated money, whereas in rural parts of the country, we have to compete against each other to try to get any money at all,” Ruff said.

During the roundtable discussion, Matt King, CEO of Walk2Campus Holdings, praised state and federal programs that offer tax credits to developers of historic building rehabilitation projects as a victory for his firm, which has renovated houses and larger buildings in Farmville since 2004.

“Without that program, these projects were not viable,” said King, who also pointed to the cost of construction as a challenge in rural towns.

“It is as expensive if not more expensive to build in some of these smaller areas,” said King. “It takes a lot more creativity and a lot more hard work to get larger, commercial grade subcontractors – especially in this economy – to come to these places and do work in an affordable way.”

William Park, President of Pinnacle Construction & Development Corporation, who worked to revitalize a portion of Main Street in Farmville, echoed King’s remarks.

“Is it easier for me to build 250 units in Richmond, or to build 50 units in Farmville?” Park asked, comparing the economics of building in an urban area versus a small town.

Park said that his company often looks for the presence of a college, a hospital and a Super Wal-Mart in potential development sites.

“If it’s got those three things, then there’s a good chance that we can do market-rate housing. If not, more than likely it’s going to have to be affordable housing,” said Park, which typically requires pooling together low-income housing tax credits and a variety of other sources of funding.

“There’s always going to be a need in these rural areas,” said Park. “The challenge is just going to be finding the money to put it together to make it work.”

Other panelists noted that the demographic need for affordable housing is surprisingly large, extending well above the poverty level.

“The people that we build homes for, they work in the hospital, they work for the college, they work in the public schools,” said Jayne Johnson, Executive Director of Farmville Area Habitat for Humanity. “Sometimes there is a perception that they always are on public assistance, and that’s just not true.”

“The top area right now that we see that really needs an answer is starter home affordability,” said Andrew P. McCoy, Ph.D., Director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research (VCHR) at Virginia Tech, describing challenges in the housing supply chain.

McCoy shared a story around an interesting dynamic playing out in the current real estate market. Older adults who want to downsize end up having to compete against younger buyers with rising incomes – and the starter homes they are bidding on are owned by middle-aged couples who are increasingly holding them for rental income.

“So that’s the complexity of what we’re seeing,” said McCoy. “But it also serves as a good time in the market to figure out how we can inject some innovation, and push along a process of getting the housing market to drive our economy.”

Other panelists suggested that it was time take a fresh look at manufactured housing – which has advanced significantly in recent years – as a way to help ease rural housing challenges.

“The manufactured housing of today is not the manufactured housing of the 1970’s or the 1980’s or the 1990’s,” said Erica Sims, Senior Associate of Development and Programs at Housing Virginia, a statewide partnership of public and private organizations and individuals focused on affordable housing.

Sims suggested it was time to “re-imagine manufactured housing” as a part of the solution to rural housing affordability, while also driving economic development.

“Manufactured housing has the additional benefit of being related to economic development because its factory-built housing that can provide new industry for areas,” said Sims.

Following the luncheon, attendees toured the Hotel Weyanoke, an iconic Farmville hotel built in the 1920s that was recently renovated and reopened by AOSS Ventures, a firm also noted for its multi-family housing development projects in Central and Southwest Virginia.

“Our goal today wasn’t to solve the rural housing problem, but to really start the conversation,” Ruff said at the conclusion of the luncheon. “I encourage you all to continue this dialog.”

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