What’s Driving Harrisonburg’s Affordable Housing Crisis

And How Our Community Can Work To Change It

Brent Finnegan
May 16 · 7 min read

Communities across the US are experiencing a housing crisis unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. In the Shenandoah Valley homelessness and housing instability are creeping up the social ladder. Rents continue to climb while incomes continue to stagnate. And Harrisonburg has the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest homeownership rate in Virginia.

When I joined Harrisonburg Planning Commission in October 2016, I was a renter. That put me in the majority of Harrisonburg residents, but in the minority of non-landowning Planning Commissioners and other city officials. More than 63% of Harrisonburg residents are renters, while 37% of homes are owner-occupied.

It’s no surprise that in a growing college town, university students account for a large portion of renters in the city. We’ve seen how “studentification” of off-campus housing has played out in other college towns:

“… high rental rates for student housing drives up the cost for other renters because those apartments are often rented at a cost per bed as opposed to cost per bedroom. That makes housing less affordable for those who are least able bear higher rents...”

When JMU was known as Madison College, most students lived on campus until they were seniors. That began to change in the mid-1970s. Like other state universities, JMU has not built on-campus housing to keep up with a growing student population over the last 40 years, due in part to cuts in state funding from General Assembly. Today 70 percent of students live off-campus.

The Breeze, March 22, 1982: The cost of JMU tuition and on-campus housing increase.

What was once seen as a public good — on-campus housing for students attending a public university — has become an off-campus commodity that drives up the cost of housing for everyone. Rising rents have contributed to declining college affordability, and on-campus living is no more affordable. Compared with other US college towns, JMU has one of the largest differences in cost, in terms of living on-campus vs. living off-campus (although the Trulia ranking does not account for meal plans).

Student housing gives local developers a much better return on investment than building single-family homes. As a result, student housing makes up the lion’s share of new housing construction. New off-campus developments are spilling further and further eastward. Some of the newest and nicest apartment complexes are in Rockingham County, where the city receives none of the property taxes to pay for infrastructure, even though those residents drive on city roads to get to and from campus daily. One of the newest is actually called “The Retreat.”

Satellite images of southeast Harrisonburg, 1984 — present.

When a new development is proposed in a place where the zoning would need to be changed, the city sends official notices to nearby property owners, but not to community members who rent in those neighborhoods. Homeowners in residential neighborhoods often exercise their political right to organize in an attempt to stop these developments at Planning Commission and City Council meetings. Generally speaking, homeowners don’t want to live next to high-density student housing. Those organizing efforts are usually successful. As a result, the planning and approval process of new housing developments is heavily influenced by homeowners.

In a city where renters outnumber homeowners almost two-to-one, that’s a problem. Homeownership is a cornerstone of the American Dream, and can help working-class families build wealth and financial security. Many who rent in Harrisonburg would like to be homeowners, but can barely afford rent, let alone qualify for a loan in a market where houses are under contract before you can schedule a showing.

All of this is pushing people farther out into the county. The car-centric suburban sprawl that Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have presided over for the last 40 years is unsustainable — not only environmentally, but also economically and morally unsustainable. It’s likely we have more vacant houses than we have homeless people. We need denser, affordable, walkable, bikeable neighborhoods concentrated closer to arterial roads with public transit.

That won’t be easy. Municipal ships turn very slowly, but this can be turned around if our community unites around a set of shared values and goals. Here are ten things that we can do at the local, state, and federal level to collectively address our affordable housing crisis:

LOCAL

Form an affordable housing coalition.

During the public work sessions of the 2018 Comprehensive Plan process, I worked alongside environmental activists, realtors, anti-sprawl conservationists, developers, college students, retirees, homeowners, and renters sitting at the same table to discuss changing land use in the city. I have faith in this community that we can find enough common ground to create a working group to advocate for effective affordable housing policies.

Create a community land trust.

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit entities created to maintain community control of real property outside commodified, speculative land and housing markets. We can create a CLT that owns certain land in perpetuity, but can sell affordable homes on that land to working class families trying to build equity. Richmond has a CLT. So should we.

Overhaul our local zoning ordinances and land use guide.

We’ve painted ourselves into a corner with exclusionary zoning. We are in the early stages of chipping away at this issue on Planning Commission. We recently approved R-8, which is a new zoning classification that allows for smaller lot sizes. We should upzone in certain low-density neighborhoods when we have the opportunity. I’m also advocating to reduce mandatory parking minimums wherever possible. We still have a very long way to go.

Participate in public hearings held by Planning Commission and City Council.

We should change the city’s public notice policy to include renters. When there is a public hearing on a rezoning or a special use permit, homeowners should not have more of a say in what happens to their neighborhood than community members who rent. “NIMBY-ism” (not in my backyard) can be a powerful force for maintaining the status quo, and it’s why some rezoning requests get 86'd. There is now a growing “YIMBY” movement in the US pushing for zoning reforms. Public hearing meetings can tend to run long, so if you can’t attend, email councilmembers and commissioners.

Create a registry of vacant houses.

Currently there is no comprehensive list that tells us how many vacant residential properties exist in the city (houses that are not occupied and not for sale). We know how many homeless people live here, but we should also know how many people-less homes there are. We can use the authority granted to localities in the 2016 Land Bank Entities Act of Virginia to create a process for addressing those properties.

Address the racial wealth gap created by “urban renewal” and segregationist zoning policies.

Exclusionary zoning in the US has origins in racist segregation policies. Locally, “urban renewal” Project R-4 destroyed houses and wiped out black family and community wealth in Harrisonburg. It’s a shameful chapter in our history that should be taught about, learned from, and addressed through a process driven by families of those who were (and still are) affected by it. There may be opportunities to crowdsource repairs to some houses, or forgive debts and tax liens on certain properties.

STATE

Give local communities more flexibility to address the housing crisis.

Virginia is one of the most restrictive states in the nation when it comes to how much flexibility municipalities have to address local housing issues. Local governments have no power to implement policies such as rent stabilization or forbidding discrimination against housing voucher holders. General Assembly should empower local communities by ditching Dillon’s Rule.

Push for state incentives to build more on-campus student housing.

It’s not acceptable for state universities to offload the responsibility of housing students onto local communities and shrug off local residents’ concerns about the impacts. Blacksburg Town Council recently passed a resolution to rein in “anything goes” sprawling student housing developments, and there has been a push for more on-campus housing at Virginia Tech. General Assembly should ease the development pressure on college towns by funding incentives to build more on-campus housing.

Petition the Governor to have local representation on the JMU Board of Visitors.

The university makes big decisions that have a tremendous ripple effects in our local community (such as how many new units of on-campus housing get built). The city government has no say in those decisions. No one on the Board of Visitors actually lives here. The Governor makes those appointments.

FEDERAL

Fund and build social housing for everyone who needs it.

Zoning and land use reforms may allow construction of “missing middle” housing, but affordable housing schemes that attempt to piggyback on the private market will never provide enough housing for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. HUD programs are ineffective because the scale of their programs is too small, and the red tape is too cumbersome. Low-income individuals may qualify for Section 8 vouchers, but there aren’t enough participating landlords in Harrisonburg with vacancies to accept them, so those vouchers expire. The Faircloth Amendment prohibits increasing the number of public housing units, and should be repealed.

There are two new policy proposals from Data For Progress and the People’s Policy Project that lay out plans for how we can create enough social housing for everyone who needs it. We should advocate for a locally-administered federal job guarantee program to build more housing. Constructing public housing was a major accomplishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the New Deal in the 1930s, but it left black communities behind. Any federal social housing plan must include land use reforms to address sprawl, transportation, and segregation.

Brent Finnegan

Written by

Candidate for Virginia’s House of Delegates, 26th District. Harrisonburg Planning Commissioner. Working to build resilient communities & a just economy.