Recommendations for increasing Lynchburg’s stock of affordable housing sparked a lively discussion Tuesday, as city council members debated their role in alleviating housing instability.
Lynchburg is facing a shortage of at least 578 affordable housing units for renters with extremely low incomes, according to a study released earlier this year by the Lynchburg Regional Housing Collaborative. The same study found 50% of households are considered low income and of those, nearly 4,500 spent more than 50% of their income on housing.
The results of the study prompted council to request city officials draw up possible long-term solutions to the issue. At a work session Tuesday, Deputy City Manager Reid Wodicka summarized the findings of the research and outlined a series of potential fixes, including creating a dedicated revenue source for housing initiatives and requiring developers to set aside a percentage of units for certain low- income earners.
“The question is: What are the challenges that we really want to fix and what are the challenges that we can fix?” Wodicka said.
Ward I Councilwoman MaryJane Dolan and Ward II Councilman Sterling Wilder both expressed an interest in the proposals. Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson, however, raised several concerns throughout the afternoon work session, saying none of the proposals would help raise income but could depress property values.
“We’ve got to look out for our landlords as well because of the fact that when the landlords don’t have that property rented and income isn’t coming in, values of that property stagnates,” he said.
Ward IV Councilman Turner Perrow, who serves as chairman of the city’s public housing authority and is a landlord, echoed Helgeson’s skepticism.
“I understand the desire to help people but people also have to help themselves, and if we take the position that we’re going to help them, ... then we’re just going to be a magnet for poor people coming in and it’ll end up being like San Franscisco,” Perrow said. “And we cannot afford that, and we don’t want it.”
“What we need to do is make sure that people have the ability to find employment and be employed and be successful,” he added.
At times, the disagreements led to fiery back-and-forths as council members sparred with each other. Mayor Treney Tweedy said much of the previous discussion ignores the city residents who work full time but can’t afford to make rent.
“People are working everyday and can’t live off $10 an hour,” Tweedy said.
“They absolutely can,” Perrow shot back.
“Well you try and go and get an apartment with $10 an hour,” Tweedy rebutted.
Tweedy expressed interest in moving forward with the city’s top two proposals: developing clear housing goals for Lynchburg and expanding the city’s housing collaborative to include developers and lending institutions.
The collaborative — currently made up of Miriam’s House, Rush Homes, Greater Lynchburg Habitat for Humanity, Lynchburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Lynchburg Community Action Group and the city of Lynchburg government — focuses on serving the housing needs of the low-income population, including the homeless.
At-large Councilman Beau Wright asked his colleagues to raise their hand if they’ve ever struggled to pay rent or if they’ve ever been evicted. When no one raised their hand, he argued that his fellow council members had no right to “make pronouncements about who has value.”
He said the city has a responsibility to make sure residents are able to live with dignity, though it should happen in partnership with private organizations.
“Does government have a hand here in trying to foster an environment that makes affordable housing possible for people? Or do we say, ‘let the free market reign, let it resolve this issue?’ Well, I got to tell you, it hasn’t really seemed to solve the issue,” he said. “The issue still remains.”
Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.