Early this year, when a string of deadly tornados struck Virginia, the REALTORS® set out in force, providing relief in affected areas. That’s when leaders at the Virginia Association of REALTORS® (VAR) were first struck by the isolation and vulnerability of many rural regions across the Commonwealth. “The lack of connectivity made it an extraordinary challenge getting resources to those who needed them,” recalls Claire Forcier-Rowe, now President of VAR. “We were just short of door-knocking.” So, when the non-profit organization Housing Virginia approached VAR to partner in a Rural Housing Initiative grant it had received from the USDA, the association agreed wholeheartedly.
Tornados aside, identifying and addressing the needs of rural housing is critical, as it pertains to at-risk populations, and as a basic component of community sustainability throughout the Virginia countryside. As the state attempts to bring prosperity to its rural zones, any economic development projects will rely on viable housing for a prospective workforce.
VAR was one of the organizations that founded Housing Virginia, a statewide clearinghouse of housing resources and information, and the two entities have worked closely together for more than a decade on numerous projects. For this one, triggered by the USDA grant, VAR identified five local associations that operate in rural localities and helped them to apply for Housing Opportunity Grants from the REALTOR® Party. The Greater Piedmont Association of REALTORS®, Southside Virginia Association of REALTORS®, Chesapeake Bay & Rivers Association of REALTORS®, Southwest Virginia Association of REALTORS® and the Martinsville, Henry & Patrick Counties Association of REALTORS® were each awarded grants of $1,000, and together with VAR and Housing Virginia, conducted a series of Rural Housing Forums across the state to address housing challenges particular to rural areas.
For three of these associations, it was the first time reaching out to request resources from the REALTOR® Party, and that success, in itself, was a powerful boost for their confidence in leveraging future REALTOR® resources. Over the course of the summer, that esteem only grew as their respective forums gained momentum and resulted in a body of valuable findings that was presented to the Governor’s Housing Conference in November, together with a set of preliminary recommendations.
Each of the forums was hosted by the local REALTOR® Association at a no-cost venue, and attracted between 30 to 65 citizen stakeholders, government officials and housing lenders. At each location, Virginia Housing Executive Director Bob Adams presented a program using statistical information based on VAR’s housing data for the particular region, and group discussions were conducted around a series of pre-determined questions. Participants tackled a number of difficult issues that contribute to increasing housing-vulnerability for rural residents.
In general, the forums uncovered that the overall quality of rural housing stock is in decline, and the availability of affordable housing is extremely limited. The diminishing inventory forces rural population egress, leaving behind a disproportionate aging population, which in turn causes a drain on public social services. At the same time, the severe lack of affordable rental housing in most rural areas feeds a vicious cycle: there simply isn’t the population present to create a demand for developers to build the units.
At this high-level information-gathering stage, the local associations agree, results aren’t going to happen tomorrow, but acquainting policy-makers with the valuable data collected at the forums is an important first step towards addressing the real needs of many Virginia communities. So is increasing public awareness, and just prior to the Governor’s Housing Conference, The Roanoke Times published an op-ed about the findings written by Kit Hale, a VAR past president and the chair of Housing Virginia. “We are thrilled that NAR is supportive of this undertaking to call attention to small communities, whose housing challenges are often overshadowed by those of denser areas,” Forcier-Rowe says. “At a policy-level, and at a humanitarian level, it’s been great to see people come to the table and face these challenges,” she adds. “By working to understand the present needs of our rural neighbors, we are honoring the legacy of rural Virginia, and conserving the integrity of rural communities for future generations.”
To learn more about how Virginia REALTORS® are working to focus attention on the challenges of housing affordability and availability in their state’s rural areas, contact Jenny Wortham, the Virginia Association of REALTORS®’ Director of Community Outreach, at (804) 262-3755.