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Henrico broadens strategy for increasing access to affordable housing

County’s partnership with Maggie Walker Community Land Trust now includes plans for 32 homes in 2 subdivisions

The small house that Dori Smith imagined for herself always looked the same in her childhood drawings. It had one story, a chimney and flowers blooming in the yard.

It also looks a lot like the place she now calls home.

“That’s why I get a little emotional,” she said, “thinking about that little girl drawing that house and everything on one level.”

A Highland Springs woman sees her house as an answered prayer. It reminds her of the small house she used to draw as a child. She recently re-created the illustration.

She recently re-created the illustration in pencil and crayon, showing curtained windows, puffy clouds overhead and a shining sun. “Who would have imagined that at a young elementary age the picture I drew was actually a vision of my future?” she said.

For most of her adult life, homeownership was just beyond Smith’s reach. But in late 2020, after saving what she could and borrowing from friends and family, she was able to purchase a single-story home in Highland Springs from Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity.

“Anything is possible if you set your mind to it,” said Smith, who asked to use an alias to protect her privacy.

The 1,371-square-foot home is a product of Henrico County’s renewed focus on increasing access to affordable homeownership. For many, the American Dream of homeownership has long been a challenge, but it’s become particularly acute since the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Henrico, the median sales price of a single-family home was $390,000 in June, a 6.8% increase from the median sales price of $365,000 in June 2022.

“The data is crystal clear. There is a lack of housing affordable to the citizens of Henrico, whether they are just starting their careers or whether they are seniors,” said Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors. “Regardless of where one finds oneself in life, safe, affordable and sustainable housing is essential to one’s quality of life.”

In Henrico’s fiscal 2018-19 budget, the Board of Supervisors established a community revitalization fund with $2 million in seed money to support property acquisition and other housing and neighborhood revitalization efforts. It also established the Housing Advisory Committee to tap local expertise in housing issues.

As part of its strategy to expand access to affordable housing, Henrico has partnered with nonprofit housing developers to build and renovate homes in key areas, including historic Highland Springs.

Since then, Henrico has partnered with several nonprofit housing developers – Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity, project:HOMES and Maggie Walker Community Land Trust (MWCLT) – to sell 12 new or renovated homes to working individuals and families with lower or moderate incomes. Two additional homes are under construction. To get the maximum impact, the effort has focused on an area of historic Highland Springs, where 10 of the homes are within 1 mile of each other.

Reinvesting in a neighborhood one home at a time is “great, but we need to do more,” said Eric Leabough, director of the county’s Department of Community Revitalization.

“I think the challenge of affordable housing and affordability was always there, but COVID definitely ripped the Band-Aids off, so to speak,” he said. “It really froze the market. There wasn’t that normal ebb and flow, and you didn’t have people cycling out of rental units because of the [eviction] moratoriums, which then locked down inventory.”

As housing prices have continued to rise faster than salaries, the county’s efforts to promote affordability have evolved to include plans for 32 homes in two subdivisions in the Varina District. The homes will be made affordable in perpetuity through an arrangement that will allow MWCLT to retain ownership of the land, thereby reducing the buyer’s mortgage costs.

Twelve affordable homes and nine market-rate homes will be built in the River East subdivision, which is planned by MWCLT along New Market Road near McLean Street.

Twenty affordable homes will be built in Arcadia, which is approved for a maximum of 795 dwellings.

About 3 miles east along New Market, an additional 20 affordable homes are approved for Arcadia, a master planned development by East West Communities that will include a maximum of 795 dwellings in a mix of single-family detached homes, condominiums and townhomes. The affordable homes will be disbursed throughout the larger section of the community, which will be west of Willson Road.

“We’re leveraging relationships with private developers to deliver affordable homes at a faster clip than we would by just relying on the nonprofit community,” Leabough said. “They’re doing great work, but there’s no way the county and nonprofits can do it alone. We really need the partnerships with the for-profit development community. We need their efficiencies and economies of scale.”

Lafayette, a member of the Housing Advisory Committee, applauded Henrico’s strategy and said its willingness to provide funding resonates with would-be partners.

“That’s really the future – partnerships between private, public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sources to fuel the work,” she said. “I would like to see affordable or workforce housing units included in all large-scale developments in Henrico in the future, whether these communities are single-family homes, townhomes and condos, or multifamily rental.”

The county took additional steps this summer to address aspects of the challenges with affordability. With other partners, it hosted the Greater Richmond Employer Housing Forum in June to give senior business leaders an opportunity to learn about the benefits of employer-assisted homeownership programs.

Like tuition-reimbursement programs, employer-assisted homeownership programs are designed to help first-time homebuyers with downpayment and closing cost assistance through forgivable loans, matched savings accounts and other tools.

In addition, the Board of Supervisors established a program to help qualifying county and school employees, including teachers, police officers and firefighters, purchase their first homes in Henrico.

The Henrico County Home Purchase Assistance Program, funded initially at $2 million, will offer forgivable loans of up to $20,000 per employee subject to regional sales price and household income limitations of Virginia Housing. The program, which is expected to launch this fall, will be available to eligible employees of Henrico’s government, constitutional officers and Henrico County Public Schools.

When housing costs consume a disproportionate share of a family’s income, the impacts can be challenging or even catastrophic, Leabough said. For example, a family might be unable to afford medication or enrichment activities for its children, leading to poorer health, lower academic performance and youth violence.

A home on North Holly Avenue in Highland Springs was stripped to its studs before it was renovated.
Project:HOMES preserved the three-column porch as part of its renovation.

“All of this stuff is linked, and this is why quality affordable housing is important,” he said. “Because without stable housing, the quality of life falls apart.”

Smith, who owns a cleaning business and works in customer service, said she tried to buy a home about eight years ago with the father of her children but wasn’t successful. She applauded the collective efforts to put homeownership within the reach of more people, particularly hardworking single parents.

She grew up in a large house in Richmond but said she’s comfortable and content in Highland Springs. Citing a passage from the Old Testament’s Book of Habakkuk, she sees her small house as an answered prayer: “The Lord answered me, ‘write it down … write it clearly so the message will be easy to read.”

For more information about Henrico’s efforts to address housing affordability, contact the Department of Community Revitalization at (804) 501-7616.

For more information about local housing programs and assistance, contact Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity at (804) 232-7001, project:HOMES at (804) 233-2827 and Maggie Walker Community Land Trust at (804) 718-0135.

The home on North Holly Avenue is one of 10 homes that nonprofit housing developers have built or renovated in Highland Springs.
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