In Rural Virginia, Affordable Housing Gets Boost from Jessie Ball duPont Fund

     JACKSONVILLE, Florida (March 11, 2011) – In summer 2011, officials in Lancaster County, Virginia plan to open Mercer Place, a new 16-unit housing complex specifically designed to meet the needs of teachers, nurses, health-care employees, law-enforcement employees and municipal employees.

     Mercer Place will fill an important niche in the Lancaster County housing market, providing affordable housing alternatives in a county that quickly is becoming unaffordable to local workers.

     The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has been instrumental in development of Mercer Place, and in the broader effort to help area residents focus on the need for affordable housing. Through investments in local congregations, the Fund has supported community research into housing needs and many of the soft costs associated with development of Mercer Place.

     The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has long worked with residents of the Northern Neck to help them grapple with the challenges brought about by fundamental changes in their economic infrastructure.

     In 2008, the Fund’s trustees awarded a grant of $87,392 to St. Mary’s Whitechapel Episcopal Church to engage experts at Virginia Tech University and CZB, an Alexandria, Virginia-based neighborhood planning firm, to undertake a study of housing needs in the Northern Neck. That study articulated the changing economic character of the region and validated the housing challenges faced by local workers and employers.

     The region, the report noted, is in transition “from an extraction-based and agricultural economy (forestry, fishing, and farming) to one that is more service-oriented. In response to tourism, an influx of retirees, over-fishing, and growth in demand for waterfront property by seasonal (second home) home buyers from equity-rich Northern Virginia and other external markets, land in many cases has become increasingly valuable for its residential development potential. As this has led to speculation, rising land values, and increasing housing costs, the nature of these shifts and their repercussions have important housing and policy implications, namely that housing costs have risen and continue to rise faster than local wages, leaving the local workforce challenged to secure housing in the open market it can afford.”

     These shifts make it increasingly difficult for employers — both private and public — to recruit the talent needed to maintain good-quality schools and health-care services, effective public safety and high-performing businesses.

     The study found the situation in Lancaster County particularly acute. Lancaster had the highest average housing cost – $463,000 — but the lowest average household income – $42,000 — creating the largest “affordability gap” – $346,000 – for home ownership. For those unable to purchase a home, rental options were few in Lancaster County, where the rental unit vacancy rate was less than 7%.

     In response, residents established the Partners for Lancaster County Schools Foundation, a 501 (c )(3) organization with a mission to “build and operate affordable rental housing for public and private school teachers, nurses, healthcare employees, law enforcement, municipal and county employees, and other workforce persons.”

     The Partners Foundation secured a gift of 5.8 acres in the Town of Kilmarnock and proceeded with development of Mercer Place.

     In 2009, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund trustees awarded Morattico Baptist Church a grant of $102,440 to support costs associated with the engineering and design phase of the project. (Morattico Pastor Craig Smith serves on the board of the Partners Foundation.)

     Construction began December 2010 and last month the Jessie Ball duPont Fund trustees awarded Morattico Baptist $53,350 to support management, engineering and start-up costs during the construction phase.

     Mercer Place development is funded through a mix of public and private funding, including a $1.3 million loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority. The complex will include 16 two-bedroom, two-bath rental units with rents of $625 per month. Construction is expected to be complete in July.