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Chesterfield pledges to keep out "public housing."

But where will they go?



As the residential housing assault continues on Chesterfield County, some members of the board of supervisors are standing firm to resist "public housing" from breaching the county's borders.

It's a story that hasn't appeared on the public's radar, except in the weekly Chesterfield Observer, and has generated next to no debate in the run-up to this week's special election to fill the vacated Midlothian supervisor seat.

To some, however, the county's resistance to public housing is a blatant snub to regionalism, one that forces other jurisdictions — namely the city of Richmond — to bear the brunt of the low-income-housing burden.

"Affordability is a huge, huge problem, and it's not being addressed," says Gary T. Johnson, professor emeritus of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Every jurisdiction has to have their fair share of low-income housing. Everyone wants the new shopping mall, but they don't want to have to provide the housing for the people who work in those malls."

The recent movement to address the lack of "affordable" or "workforce" housing is a step in the right direction, Johnson says, but the bigger issue of low-income or government-subsidized housing has largely gone unaddressed.

The discrepancy in public housing between the jurisdictions is enormous. In Richmond, there are nearly 10,000 people on the waiting list to receive Section 8 vouchers, which have been summarily capped by the federal government. All told, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has issued Section 8 vouchers to 2,900 people. In Chesterfield, there are only 95 people on the Section 8 waiting list, and the county annually administers vouchers to 524 people.

Increasingly, though, the housing conditions in the jurisdictions surrounding the city are worsening. In the Jeff Davis corridor, Johnson says, things have gotten so bad that trailer parks are subdividing actual trailers.

"People don't realize the extent of the deplorable housing," Johnson says. "Clearly, all the suburban jurisdictions need to recognize that they have a problem now with affordable housing. We need to address it now before it gets worse."

Last month, however, the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors met with planning officials and the county manager to review a "proposed workforce housing ordinance," which in essence offers developers incentives to construct affordable housing for people who provide essential services to the county, such as firemen and teachers.

Government-subsidized housing, however, was quickly taken off the table. "I am not in support of public housing in Chesterfield, but I do support workforce housing," Dickie King, chairman of the county board of supervisors, told the Observer. County officials have made it clear that there is no intention to provide housing for the "lower 20 percent" of the median household income bracket.

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, who has made housing one of the key focuses of his administration, says the entire region must accept responsibility for public housing, including Chesterfield.

"I think there is a shared responsibility in dealing with this problem," Wilder says.

Most academics and planners agree. Tom Jacobson, former director of planning for Chesterfield County and current director of community revitalization, says the county's inner edges, lined with suburbs built in the 1960s and '70s, are quickly becoming problem areas in terms of poverty and crime.

Unlike the city, which has an accessible street grid system that makes it easier to police low-income neighborhoods, the older suburbs were developed differently. The suburbs were built to be inaccessible to outsiders, but today have the effect of locking in crime and ensuring that it remains firmly out of public view.

Johnson has long advocated for a government solution, such as offering financial incentives to encourage suburban and exurban developers to include low-income housing. If every new development has a small piece carved out for low-income or government-subsidized housing, it will help prevent the clustering of low-income projects and neighborhoods. Everyone seems to agree that there is a need for "mixed-income" residential communities, as long as it doesn't include the poorest of the poor.

Those trapped at the bottom of the income bracket have little hope of finding affordable housing in the region right now. According to the U.S. Census, some 50.5 percent of low-to-moderate-income households in Chesterfield County are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

"There are certain people who are never going to be able to afford the housing necessary for a decent standard of living," Johnson says. "A lot of these people are working full-time jobs at minimum wages and making great contributions to our communities. We owe them something for that." S

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