Making Smart Growth Happen

“The value of living in a 1.3-million-person ‘small town’ is we know each other and know how to work together. Lots of us have been together for more than 10 years so we have trusting working relationships,” says Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of REALTORS® and executive director of the Partnership for Housing Affordability.

It takes strong relationships to tackle a daunting issue like affordable housing. An April 2018 New York Times article reported the city’s eviction rate at one in nine, which is the second highest in the nation. Lafayette calls the eviction rate a symptom of the need for affordable housing and says the members of the Richmond Association of REALTORS® are using their longstanding working relationships to help champion programs geared at increasing the city’s stock of affordable housing.

“Why sit around and be reactive when you can be proactive and lead?” Lafayette explains.

Jim Napier agrees that collaboration and common goals have helped bring various stakeholders together with impressive results. Napier chairs the Partnership for Housing Affordability and is president of Napier REALTORS® ERA.

“It’s important that there is a collaborative effort involving government, the public and private sector. The area has lots of nonprofits that were struggling to gain traction — to have a voice, to raise funds. The Partnership for Housing Affordability has become the umbrella organization for all of them,” explains Napier. “We were the spark, but not the driving force. The driving force is the housing providers.

Those collaborations helped develop a four-prong approach to affordable housing — infill, a land bank, developer incentives and long-term strategic planning. The initiatives will help renters, first-time home buyers and long-time residents like seniors. The plans are nimble enough to fast-track affordable housing and still allow for future visioning.

REALTORS® are helping city leaders craft a local Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance. Lafayette explains that accessory dwelling units offer a modest smart growth solution that creates housing infill, allows for multigenerational housing and are a viable solution for a graying population. Older residents may choose to build a unit so that they can age in place, earn rental income and avoid social isolation. The units are acceptable to neighbors because owners are required to live on site.

Another solution is the Richmond Land Bank, which is helping turn tax delinquent, abandoned and vacant properties into ongoing affordable housing. It allows for moderate- and low-income homebuyers to purchase homes at below-market rates and helps revitalize neighborhoods. In Richmond, the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust (MWCLT) receives tax delinquent properties from the city of Richmond. MWCLT retains ownership of the land parcel while streamlining the process to turn the properties over to nonprofit organizations which then transform them into affordable housing. When sold to first-time homebuyers, the cost of the land isn’t included in the purchase price, making the home affordable. Years later when the home is sold, the owner keeps half of the equity created by the home’s increased market value and the other half is returned to MWCLT. The process repeats for the next owner and again the home is sold at less than market value. That keeps the housing affordable in perpetuity.

Lafayette says the Land Bank is off to an impressive start. Plans are to have 115 homes in the MWCLT by 2024 and, based on national trends, 871 families will be helped by 2039. This model helps create a legacy of homeownership.

“This is a big win because it creates affordable housing in perpetuity,” says Napier. “It takes a while for concept strategy to filter down to houses on the street.”

Richmond’s Land Bank is the direct result of long-standing working relationships. Lafayette explains that the Richmond Association of REALTORS® founded the Partnership for Housing Affordability which incubated and helped create the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust which has been designated as Richmond’s Land Bank. The Land Bank has expanded to nearby Chesterfield County where, thanks to a block grant, nine homes have been targeted to help turn around a designated neighborhood.

“The REALTORS® connected all the dots,” Lafayette says. “This is an unbelievable example of collaboration.”

Richmond REALTORS® are also working with city officials on performance agreements, which is where a developer would agree to a building stipulation as part of the permitting process. The plan in Richmond would use real estate tax rebates to incentivize developers and create affordable housing without relying on Low Income Tax Credits. Lafayette says since there is no mandated inclusionary zoning in Virginia, this is another tool that “allows developers to dream their project.”

Collaboration and long-standing relationships will continue to direct future affordable housing plans. Richmond REALTORS®, at the request of multiple local jurisdictions and with the help of NAR and state REALTOR® grants, are in the process of helping develop a regional housing plan. Napier explains that because Richmond’s REALTORS® have gained the respect of regional stakeholders and officials and are seen as a trusted partner and resource, they’ve been tapped to shepherd this longrange strategic process. He says progress can sometimes seem slow, but the results are worth the effort.

“Sometimes it can feel like pushing a rope uphill,” Napier says, “But we care about our community. It’s where we make our living and we want to give back to where we live and work and play.”

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About On Common Ground

A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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