Taking on the Affordable Housing Crisis

Coastal Virginia based companay doing their part to help alleviate the shortage of quality, affordable rental units in the region

by Beth Hester

Across the country, in places both urban and rural, principals, teachers, even school bus drivers are being trained to spot students who may be struggling with housing insecurity. There can be sudden behavioral changes, poor hygiene, chronic fatigue, erratic attendance or difficulty socializing. Perhaps a child is avoiding questions relating to their current address, or is making comments about staying with grandparents, other relatives, friends or in motels and campgrounds. Maybe the bus driver notices that they’re dropping a child off at unusual or varying locations. Kids are pretty smart about flying under the radar, so noticing has become a part of many school system employees’ daily routine.

In some instances, these kids and their families may be experiencing housing insecurity for the first time. It only takes one unexpected medical bill to put a family of modest means in search of a more affordable or safer place to live. Homelessness is a problem nationwide, but one doesn’t necessarily have to be homeless to experience impacts of housing insecurity. Seniors and people with developmental disabilities face myriad housing challenges.

The problem is, there just isn’t enough affordable housing to go around.

Market Heights Retreat at Harbor Pointe

Market Heights
Retreat at Harbor Pointe

Here in Coastal Virginia, Lawson (formerly Lawson Companies) is trying to do their part to help alleviate the shortage of quality, affordable rental units in the region. Lawson is a Norfolk-based real estate firm specializing in the development, construction and management of multifamily housing in Virginia. Lawson has built a number of beautifully designed, affordable apartment communities in Coastal Virginia: Seaside Harbor in Virginia Beach, Market Heights in Norfolk and the Retreat at Harbor Point, a lovely complex adjacent to the historic Elizabeth River.

“Everyone deserves a safe place that they can call home,” says Steve Lawson, the company’s chairman of the board. A stable, safe environment provides a solid foundation upon which individuals and families can build a good life, take advantage of job opportunities, improve their health and wellbeing, get an education and have satisfying social lives. Imagine being a child and not being able to have friends over for a play date because of the transient nature of your housing situation. We need to start framing the housing discussion as one of fundamental fairness.”

According to a 2023 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there’s shortage of 7.3 million affordable and available housing options for renters with extremely low incomes in the United States; that’s an increase of eight percent from 6.8 million in 2019. But the affordable housing crisis pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This crisis was decades in the making,” Lawson continues. “The plain fact is, as a society we just failed to plan for it. We have constrained the supply of housing due to a reliance on single-family detached zoning. Decades ago, zoning laws were put in place to try to rein in the effects of rapid growth and development.

But those zoning policies are outdated and in many cases they restrict the ability of developers to create the kinds of affordable housing complexes that are so sorely needed.”

An unfortunate confluence of events has contributed to the current crisis: wage stagnation, inflation, and the entry of millennials into the housing market. “There is just a huge demand for affordable housing and there’s limited supply,” Lawson explains. “There are people who are looking for scapegoats on whom they can pin this housing crunch, but in reality, it’s simple economics—increasing demand in the face of limited supply. In reality, it is all our collective failure as a society. We need to reframe conversations and perceptions around zoning policy and affordable housing, and rethink our municipal obligations.”

Though an in-depth discussion of zoning policy as gatekeeping is beyond the scope of this article, Lawson is excited to share news that HousingForward Virginia, an advocacy and coalition-building organization created to address zoning issues, is moving forward with its new educational initiative “Zoned In.” The program educates citizens and local government officials about how zoning impacts housing affordability, racial equality, economic opportunity and other measures of success.

The program is being piloted this year with an emphasis on the Coastal Virginia region and Lawson says the first event may debut in the autumn.

Lawson emphasizes that the race to increase the construction of affordable housing is less of a sprint, and more of a marathon. It can take years just to coordinate the financing and finalize all aspects of a development project before the first shovel breaks ground. And, forging strong partnerships with organizations that share the company’s vision is essential in creating the kinds of affordable housing complexes focused on the overall wellbeing of the communities they serve. For the Lawson company, taking a holistic approach to housing is part of their philosophy.

“Especially with the development of Market Heights, which is a 100% affordable, low income housing tax credit community in the St. Paul corridor of Norfolk, we sought to include a comprehensive suite of services that would help create opportunities for residents,” Lawson shares. “To accomplish this, we needed great partners like Hope House Foundation, Sentara, the YMCA, Volunteers of America, the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to join with us to build a truly inclusive community.”

Market Heights features amenities not usually associated with affordable housing. There’s community space for residents, secure access, elevators, fitness center with adaptive equipment, a telehealth booth, an accessible playground, bike storage and a dog park with dog washing station. It also happens to be the first property approved under Norfolk’s new resiliency code. The Market Heights site was elevated to be out of the flood plain, and the designers added a new public sidewalk that makes it safer for kids to walk to their neighboring middle school. Plans are in the works to bring a mobile grocery to the community to help alleviate the problem of urban food deserts.

Both Lawson and Susan Henderson, associate executive director of Hope House, say that it’s crucial to do a thorough needs assessment when building a community like Market Heights. “We need to survey the community, to find out from them what their true needs are, and not impose our own ideas on them,” says Henderson. “It’s something that the philanthropic community needs to keep in mind. You need to listen first. We need to provide people with what they say they need. Not what we think they need.”

Over two decades, Lawson (the company) and Hope House Foundation (HHF) have built a powerful relationship. Working together, they’re able to address some of the most pressing housing needs of vulnerable communities, like people with various developmental disabilities. “Our partnership began over 20 years ago in Chesapeake, she explains. “Individuals supported by HHF with developmental disabilities were looking for a place to call home, and Lawson welcomed those individuals with open arms into an apartment complex off of Canal Drive. Lawson truly understood and welcomed our mission at a time when so many others did not want us in their communities.”

Henderson continues. “Then when we heard Lawson was going to build a new apartment complex in Virginia Beach that included units set aside for individuals with developmental disabilities, we gave them a call to ask about potential partnerships. They had the apartments, and HHF knew how to find individuals with developmental disabilities who wanted to live there and how to provide them with the daily support they needed to be successful in their own apartments. Thus, the partnerships as we know it began.”

Henderson says that the Lawson/Hope House partnership has been able to positively impact so many lives, and that their relationship with other partners like Sentara, the YMCA, the Foodbank and LISC has sparked an appetite to continue these types of external partnerships.

“Our partnership with Lawson has been of invaluable help to the communities we support. It’s so genuine. Steve Lawson and his team truly believe in helping others and doing the right thing,” Henderson shares.

“They listen to what is needed, and they find a way to make it happen. From the gentleman whose entire demeanor has changed since he’s been a resident of Market Heights because he now has the ability to cook meals in his own apartment, to the young ladies who are finally able to take a shower in their universally accessible bathroom without fear of falling, to the individual living in her own space for the very first time, Lawson is helping us change lives, and we are so grateful.”

What Is Single-Family Zoning?
Single-family zoning refers to zoning policy that restricts development in an area to single-family homes. These policies are sometimes accompanied by a minimum lot size, and face criticism for preventing increased density exacerbating the housing affordability crisis, and excluding low-income households, renters, and people of color from areas of opportunity.

Single-family zoning can lead to exclusivity by prohibiting more affordable housing types such as duplexes and multi-family apartment complexes, shutting out low- and middle-income households, and preventing property owners from using creative solutions to build additional housing units. Combined with minimum lot size, single-family zoning establishes de-facto income minimums for certain neighborhoods.
—Source: Planopedia

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