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Virginia governor seeks additional US$4 million for housing trust fund

Across the state, rents and mortgages are rising faster than wages, according to a study by a property data firm

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Mr Northam's request marks a significant increase in the affordable housing fund.

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Mr Northam's (above) request marks a significant increase in the affordable housing fund.

Washington

VIRGINIA Democratic Governor Ralph Northam will ask state lawmakers on Wednesday to add US$4 million to a housing trust fund, another chance to measure whether long-standing concerns about unaffordability in the Washington suburbs are starting to spread to the rest of the commonwealth.

Mr Northam's request, one of 40 budget amendments he is submitting as the legislature reconvenes for a brief "veto" session, would be a significant increase in the affordable housing fund, which received US$5.5 million in the state budget this year and last year.

Legislators also agreed this year to authorise US$75 million over the next five years for affordable housing in Northern Virginia, as part of an economic development incentive package to draw Amazon's new headquarters to Arlington County.

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Advocates and analysts say it's far short of what's needed to solve a growing housing crisis. And they say approving the money would take a turnaround by legislators who represent suburban and rural districts to recognise there's an affordable housing crisis in their areas as well as in Northern Virginia.

"We lose anything south of Fredericksburg," said Michelle Krocker, executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance. "There's still a lot of stigma when you talk about affordable housing in some parts of Virginia, that it's for people on welfare or it's for people who don't work, or that brings down property values."

Sim Wimbush, the executive director of the Virginia Housing Alliance, called the budget amendment "a rallying cry" for affordable housing. Just as legislators were chagrined by 2018 news reports on the high eviction rates in Richmond, she said, causing them to rush passage of bills that give tenants more time to pay overdue rent and fees, affordable housing is beginning to get their attention as well.

"I think a lot of legislators agree they don't want to be embarrassed again," Ms Wimbush said. "I think the (federal) government shutdown played a role in legislators paying more attention to the everyday issues of their constituents. The (federal government) shutdown hurt a lot of the smaller public housing authorities, and that scared a lot of people."

Throughout Virginia, rents and mortgages are rising faster than wages, according to a study by property data company Attom Solutions. Compared to the rest of the nation, it's harder for average-earning families to find housing in mid-Atlantic states like Virginia, where lower housing prices are a long commute from well-paying jobs.

"Affordable housing is not an urban versus rural issue. It affects every area of the commonwealth," said Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, who sponsored the bill that established the statewide housing trust fund in 2013.

Northern Virginia legislators have long fought for more investment in affordable housing, driven by the high cost of living in the Washington metropolitan area. But their votes, and the votes of all the Democrats in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, are not enough to pass Mr Northam's request by the simple majority required.

In addition to capturing the votes of all the Democrats, it would take at least two Republicans in each chamber, and it's unclear whether there are any Republicans willing to cross party lines for that vote.

Parker Slaybaugh, spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, had no comment on the affordable housing question other than to say Mr Cox and others in the party's leadership "are continuing to review" all of Mr Northam's amendments and vetoes ahead of the session.

There was almost no debate in the legislature in February about the US$75 million that the state will provide as part of its Amazon package.

Arlington County, which has its own affordable housing incentive fund of about US$14 million, promised to provide an additional US$70 million over the next 10 years. Alexandria, whose Potomac Yard neighbourhood is part of the "National Landing" area pitched to Amazon, will devote US$80 million in the next decade, funded in part by a year-old meals tax increase.

Mr Northam had previously asked for US$19 million for the housing fund. Mr Lopez sought US$50 million. Neither effort was successful.

The six-year-old fund provides loans to communities and non-profit agencies to reduce the cost of homeownership and rental housing, with as much as 20 per cent of the fund available to efforts to reduce homelessness. The loans are paid back with interest, which creates a revolving fund.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the US$1.5 million increase that the General Assembly approved in February, said he applauded Mr Northam's latest effort, but the money still falls far short of what's needed.

"I'm concerned that if we don't keep pushing ahead in a big way, this won't get ramped up any further," he said. WP