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Home Study

by Mike Sarahan

It is hard to love a government report. Sometimes these reports seem like the functional equivalent of a storage cabinet, a place where miscellaneous words and numbers can be put in case anybody ever comes looking for them. But then nobody does.

Still, each year a few government reports rise above the rest. At their best, government-report writers probe the facts with all the tenacity of the investigative journalist. They piece the story together with the savvy of the beat reporter. They distill the big picture into the critical details, in the end offering a sharp call for action. Why isn't that effort deemed prize-worthy, to steal a seriously overused catch phrase from the movie critics?

To get the ball rolling, then, I will award my own version of the Pulitzer this year. The award for the best government agency report (at least of those I have read) goes to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and the Virginia Housing Development Authority, for their collaborative effort titled "Analysis of Housing Needs in the Commonwealth."

This monumental five-part study, issued in November 2001, ranks as one that should be read by many and probably will not be. But in the ultimate tribute that can be bestowed on a government report, let it be said, "These trees did not die in vain."

Rather than take my word, though, look at the housing-needs assessment report yourself. You can look it up on the Web at this convoluted address: www.vhda.com/comm/vhdastudy.asp. If you want to print the whole thing from the Web site, be prepared with a back-up ink cartridge!

Or, on the off-chance that you may decide not to pick up the whole report for your summer reading enjoyment, here are some of the major highlights:

First, since 1990, housing affordability has improved for the average Virginian due to general economic growth factors and prevailing favorable demographic changes.

That is the good news. The bad news, especially if you are not the "average" Virginian, is that significant unmet housing needs have been identified throughout the state. The report notes point-blank that there is already a growing gap between income and typical housing costs for low-income Virginians, contributing to the disturbing phenomenon of the working homeless.

There is also a shortage of affordable rental housing, and much of what is available is older housing stock in very poor repair. Increasingly, in large metropolitan areas like Richmond, affordable housing is concentrated in economically isolated pockets in the inner city, far removed from the new job opportunities available in surrounding suburban areas. This only reinforces a cycle of poverty and neighborhood decline.

Virginia's elderly and disabled have unmet needs for affordable and accessible housing linked to the supportive services necessary to assure them the chance to live independently in the community. Based on current demographic forecasts, the housing needs of the elderly and disabled will become more of an issue over the next decade. So will the pressure for Virginia to provide adequate community housing options for the disabled as an alternative to institutionalization, consistent with the obligations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Despite the growing need for affordable housing, there has been a surprising lack of public awareness and concern. Affordable housing is not a priority at the local level, particularly in the counties. In fact, some local governments are imposing barriers to affordable housing development in the form of minimum lot sizes, increased utility hookup fees, and impact fees and proffers.

On a regional level, there is a real disconnect between regional transportation and economic-development planning activities on the one hand and planning for housing needs on the other. Particular jurisdictions or regions may seek the benefits that come from economic development and jobs but still consider affordable housing an unwanted burden.

All these issues of statewide concern are discussed in the report. As if that were not enough, the Richmond area comes in for specific mention in the report for concerns about housing discrimination, predatory lending practices, housing deterioration and neighborhood decline.

The conclusion that comes out of the report is that a more comprehensive and coordinated approach at the local, state, and federal levels is clearly needed to address Virginia's affordable and accessible housing needs, now and for the future. Will that ever happen?

Maybe. This may be one issue whose time has come. The same people who put together the housing-needs assessment report are starting a review of alternatives and recommendations for action. The Virginia Housing Study Commission is also reviewing major housing issues. Meanwhile, the Disability Commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, will look into the housing needs of the disabled as its priority issue in planning for the 2003 General Assembly. And Mayor Rudy McCollum recently went to Washington to take part in a ceremony marking the introduction of federal predatory-lending control legislation. Introduction of such legislation at the state level will probably follow.

Perhaps with all the interest and planning, we just may make real progress in solving our housing needs. S

Mike Sarahan is a free-lance writer and a local community advocate.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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