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Ending the commute

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Jason Bellows teaches in Lancaster County in the Northern Neck, but he doesn’t live there. Instead, he commutes 75 miles from Richmond where, he says, housing costs are lower.

“It’s hard to find something affordable” in Lancaster County, says Bellows, 32, an earth science teacher at Lancaster High School whose parents live in the Northern Neck.. “Everything is very high end or very low end. There’s nothing in the middle.”

The high cost of housing is one of the main reasons nearly half of Lancaster’s public school teachers live outside the county. Most don’t commute as far as Bellows, who used to carpool with two other Lancaster teachers living in Richmond. Nonetheless, many teachers soon tire of the drive and find teaching jobs closer to home, says Superintendent Susan Sciabbarrasi.

Tara Booth, a math specialist at Lancaster Middle School, has seen the county lose several talented teachers. “There was a great special education teacher and history teacher whose students scored 96 percent on the SOLs.  But we couldn’t keep them.”

The housing quandary is a sign of the change occurring in this scenic rural area. A growing population of affluent retirees is transforming the economy of the Northern Neck, creating more demand for a wide variety of service jobs while bidding up home prices.

Lancaster teachers, in fact, aren’t alone in struggling to find a home near their workplace. Many other middle-class workers in the Northern Neck, including nurses and law enforcement officers, also commute. Since 2000 the region’s median home price has nearly doubled, but the median household income has risen only 24 percent, according to a recent housing study. Compounding the problem is the absence of apartments and townhouses.

With its slower pace of life and sweeping waterfront vistas, the region is an increasingly attractive place to live, but its allure is making it difficult for many to find an affordable place to live.
Efforts are under way, however, to create “work-force” housing that is within the reach of employees providing essential services. “If it works in Lancaster County, it could serve as a model for whole Northern Neck.” says Bill Warren, a retired consulting engineer who is spearheading one initiative.

Linked and separated by water
Geography has shaped the Northern Neck’s history and economy. Sandwiched between two wide rivers, the Rappahannock and the Potomac, the peninsula reaches out into the Chesapeake Bay, creating 1,100 miles of shoreline.

Before the construction of major bridges across the rivers, water connected the Northern Neck to the outside world but isolated it from much of the rest of the state. Northern Neck residents once were more likely to travel to Baltimore by steamship than journey overland to Richmond.

Maritime industries flourished on the peninsula. Reedville, at the tip of Northumberland County, became one of the richest towns in the nation in the late 19th century because of its menhaden fishing industry. The small, inedible fish were processed for their oil, which was used for fuel, lamp oil, soaps and fishmeal. (A modern-day successor, Houston-based Omega Protein Corp., now refines menhaden oil in Reedville for healthful omega-3 fatty acids.)

In the last century, tourists began arriving, attracted by the region’s picturesque villages, unspoiled rural ambience, historic sites like the 274-year-old Christ Church and resort destinations such as the stately Tides Inn in Irvington.

Influx of new residents
By the 1990s, many visitors were buying property for vacation homes or retirement, according to a recent housing study by the Alexandria consulting firm czb llc and Virginia Tech.  (The $102,400 study, commissioned by a civic group examining poverty in the area, was largely financed by a grant from Jesse Ball DuPont Fund.)

Since 2000, the study says, the median price of a home in the four Northern Neck counties has jumped from $97,968 to $188,943, while median household income in the region has edged up from $35,629 to $44,333. (In Lancaster and neighboring Northumberland County, housing prices are dramatically higher, especially near the waterfront. The average price for a house sold in 2005-08 in Lancaster was $462,990.)

Kim Moody, human relations manager at Rappahannock General Hospital in Kilmarnock, says the cost of housing can affect the hospital’s ability to recruit workers, including nurses. The housing study says that a hospital employee earning $48,000 can afford to buy a house worth up to $134,400, but only 26.4 percent of the homes in the region fall within that range. More work-force housing “would benefit everyone,” Moody says.

While the Northern Neck’s growing retirement community has boosted home prices, it also has diversified the economy. While traditional industries have faded, retirees have prompted job growth in financial services, health care, home building and tourism.

Many of the service jobs pay low wages, but Elizabeth Crowther, the president of Rappahannock Community College, says the changing economy has created more professional jobs, too. “Now, there are more bankers, stockbrokers and lawyers,” she says.

That change has allowed some Northern Neck natives who left home to pursue careers to return. ”We have a long tradition of going away and coming back,” she notes. But in the past coming home usually meant retirement or a career change. Crowther speaks from experience. In taking the community college position five years ago, the Reedville native has been able to live in the home where she grew up.

Training for a service economy
The community college is trying to train an emerging work force to fit the Northern Neck’s new economy. Rappahannock offers programs in engineering, nursing, banking, maritime trades and culinary skills. It has doubled the size of its nursing program in the past two years, helping Rappahannock General Hospital fill slots in a profession prone to chronic shortages.

The college also is trying to train more residents to become teachers. Through arrangements with Mary Baldwin College and Old Dominion University, Rappahannock students can earn teaching certificates without having to leave the area.

In addition, Crowther is involved in starting a social networking program aimed at bringing together young professionals, including teachers. The theory behind the program is that people in their 20s and early 30s will more likely put down roots if they don’t feel isolated.

One area that is not on Crowther’s radar is anything promoting heavy manufacturing. She says Northern Neck residents would prefer to attract light industry and information technology firms. “Manufacturing is not something that we’ve been looking for,” she says. “People want to preserve the look and feel of the area.”

But Bill Warren and Jones Foley don’t want to preserve the region’s growing housing gap.  Warren is the president of the Partners for Lancaster County Schools Foundation, a nonprofit group that plans to construct two apartment buildings, each with eight units. The apartments would be offered to teachers, nurses, law enforcement officers, hospital workers and local government employees. The target rental rate for the two-bedroom, two-bath units would be $625 a month.

Using N.C. complex as a model
Warren’s model is Hertford Pointe in Hertford County, N.C. The 24-unit apartment complex, financed by the State Employees Credit Union, opened in 2007. It has helped to reduce turnover in the county, which had been losing a third of its teachers each year.

The $2.1 million complex in Lancaster will look like Hertford Pointe because it is using the same design. Raleigh architect Wayne Jones has agreed to sell his plans to the Lancaster group for only $16,000. (Their original cost was $80,000.)

To pay for the apartments, the group will obtain $1.5 million in loans from the Virginia Housing Development Authority and Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Warren expects to raise the remaining $600,000 through grants and donations by early next year. The complex is scheduled to open in July 2011.

Del. Albert Pollard, a member of the Partners board, likes the fact that, once the complex opens, it will sustain itself with rental payments without additional charitable donations. “In our area, it is absolutely critical to work to develop work-force housing,” he says. “We are not a strong community without a strong middle class.”

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Jones Felvey’s Springwood community in Kilmarnock
will include up to 40 homes.

Felvey is taking a different approach toward the same objective. The retired paper manufacturing executive plans to build up to 40 homes for registered nurses, certified teachers and government employees in Springwood, a 28.4-acre community he is developing in Kilmarnock.

The homes will be 1,000 to 2,200 square feet each and sell for $100,000 to $160,000. Felvey expects to have three to four models available by the first of the year. Eligible families would buy lots and choose their home style from the models or other plans.

The residential community would include open space with a lighted pavilion, basketball court, walking trail, community garden and picnic area. “It’s just one piece of the puzzle,” Felvey says in describing the aim of his project.

A poll of Lancaster teachers conducted by Warren’s group found that 82 percent of those responding say affordable housing is a significant factor in deciding where they teach. One of those teachers, Jason Bellows in Richmond, is “definitely” interested in how Lancaster’s work-force housing plans take shape. “If I didn’t have ties down there, I probably would be looking for a job closer to where I live,” he says.

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