Harrisonburg's Struggle for Affordable Housing

Jul 30, 2019

Roger Thompson was homeless for four years, and now lives in Commerce Village, the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority's newest apartment complex.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

According to one report, nearly four in 10 Harrisonburg residents above the federal poverty line still have trouble making ends meet.  That leads to difficult choices -- pay the rent, or buy groceries? Fix the car, or pay for prescriptions? As the number of people facing these questions increases, so does the demand for more affordable housing.  In the second part in an occasional WMRA series on living costs, Randi B. Hagi reports.

For your monthly rent to be considered affordable, it has to cost no more than 30 percent of your household’s income. But many households in Harrisonburg don’t earn enough to keep up with the costs of housing.  As the city’s population grows, placing more demand on limited housing inventory, prices go up – leaving some susceptible to losing their housing.

Shannon Porter is the executive director of the nonprofit Mercy House.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

SHANNON PORTER: We’re now seeing a lot of people who, their entire life, have been viable and able to sustain their living environment, and don’t have experience necessarily being unstably housed.

Shannon Porter is the executive director of the nonprofit Mercy House.

PORTER:  Anybody that’s out there living paycheck to paycheck could be susceptible to homelessness these days, particularly if you don’t have a lot of family supports around you.

The number of local residents living from paycheck to paycheck is surprisingly high. The United Ways in Virginia published a state-wide ALICE report in 2017 analyzing this population. ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. In other words, the working poor, or those who earn an income level above the federal poverty line, but still struggle to afford basic necessities. According to the report, 26 percent of Harrisonburg’s population lives below the federal poverty line; another 39 percent lived below the ALICE threshold. That means that nearly two-thirds of Harrisonburg residents have trouble making ends meet.

Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed has been addressing the lack of housing from multiple angles -- meeting with community organizations, zoning administrators, and developers to come up with solutions.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

MAYOR DEANNA REED:  And I think we all know that housing is one of our challenges here in Harrisonburg.

Mayor Deanna Reed has been addressing the lack of housing from multiple angles -- meeting with community organizations, zoning administrators, and developers to come up with solutions.

REED: It really hit home to me that there’s a lot of our neighbors, there’s a lot of our families that are struggling … This is a great place to live and I want them to be able to afford to live here.

For those who do lose their housing, there are a few shelters and organizations they can go to for assistance – among them, Mercy House, the Salvation Army shelter, Open Doors thermal shelter from November to April, and First Step for survivors of domestic violence. The Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority administers local Section 8 housing vouchers, and runs four properties that offer subsidized rents to those who qualify.

How many people in our area actually experience homelessness?  For one measure, The Continuum of Care, a program funded by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, conducts a “Point in Time” count each January – in which volunteers go to shelters and known camping areas to count the number of homeless persons in their region. The Western Virginia Continuum of Care, which stretches from Harrisonburg to Winchester and includes the surrounding counties, reported 342 homeless persons this year – up from 304 last year. Rockingham County specifically saw a decrease from 149 to 132 homeless persons.

Roger Thompson was homeless for four years, and now lives in the Housing Authority’s newest apartment complex – Commerce Village, which opened in 2015 to house the chronically homeless, medically vulnerable persons, and homeless veterans.

THOMPSON: I’ve been there a little over three years now … I’m glad to get off the streets, and I’m glad to have a place that I can go home to and everything…

Thompson was in the hospital, being treated for a heart attack, when a nurse who knew about Commerce Village helped him file an application. He was accepted as a tenant two months later. He remembers the manager showing him around when he moved in.

THOMPSON:  And she asked me do you want upstairs or downstairs? I said I’ll take either one! [laughs]

All four of the Housing Authority’s properties are located in the Northeast Neighborhood of Harrisonburg – a concentration that Mayor Reed would like to change.

REED: … People might assume that the Northeast neighborhood is public housing, low income. I want to see a more diverse – housing being more diverse within our communities. And so every community, every neighborhood, will have some type of affordable housing in that neighborhood so that it’s more well-balanced.

Reed says the city council aims to have a comprehensive affordable housing plan in place in three years.

REED: I’m pushing for sooner than that, because I think it’s something that we have to tackle now, and it’s going to take us some time to figure this thing out. So I don’t think we have three years.

Thompson says that he hopes for more affordable housing in Harrisonburg.

THOMPSON: I just wish there was a lot of places like that for our homeless people so they can be off the streets and everything. ‘Cause I’ve been on the streets and I know what it’s like.