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Housing affordability is a challenge for all of Hampton Roads.

In Williamsburg, it’s especially hard to find enough land in the city limits to build new -- more than half of the land is owned by the College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg.

So the city is getting creative, by Hampton Roads standards, to get more affordable homes.

The latest effort is happening in a land sale to a developer who wants to build 120 townhomes on 14 acres of city-owned land.

A sales contract, which hasn’t been finalized, would sell the land to Cale Development for $650,000. The land is valued at more than $2 million.

That price comes with conditions, including the requirement to make 15 of the planned 120 townhomes affordable. The contract stipulates those 15 units would be sold for approximately $225,000 — $100,000 less than current fair market value.

That can change based on federal calculations of that value, as long as the affordable units are $100,000 less.

If the developer can’t sell the units at the affordable price, they must pay the city $100,000 for each of those units.

The city would recoup $1.5 million in that situation, meaning the developer ultimately pays the assessed price for the land.

City Manager Andrew Trivette said the city may keep the new sale method in its back pocket.

“You know, I think it's all about creating units,” he said. “And whichever one of those mechanisms gets us there the fastest is what we're going to focus on.”

About a third of Williamsburg residents spend more than 30% of their income on housing, making them what housing officials consider cost-burdened.

In a 2021 analysis, William & Mary economist Sarah Stafford found the city needed more than 700 additional affordable units to fulfill the community’s needs.

“Of course, the problem is that we don't have enough already,” she said.

“And then with the increase in the population, that's going to just put a further burden on the localities to come up with some solutions to the affordable housing crisis.”

In Williamsburg, like most of Hampton Roads, wages simply haven’t kept up with the booming housing market. Stafford found for workers making minimum wage to afford the average two-bedroom home, three and a half working adults would need to live in the home.

“If you have a minimum wage job in Williamsburg, even if you're doing it and your spouse is doing it or your partner's doing it, you can't afford a two bedroom apartment for your family,” Stafford said.

“So there's a real problem, obviously, with providing housing to the workforce that we have.”

THEFLATS3 WBURG HANKERSON
Photo by Mechelle Hankerson

The Flats at Williamsburg provides small apartments at affordable prices -- one of the unique methods Williamsburg uses to tackle its affordable housing challenges.

When city leaders envisioned what Williamsburg would look like in 20 years, affordable housing was key to accomplishing the vision, Trivette said.

“Only 10% of the people who work in the city can afford to live in the city, and that's hard to have a thriving community when you don't have that kind of investment,” he said. “And so that's something that we need to change.”

Affordable housing is a challenge almost everywhere because there is often limited land and financial resources to build more, said Corianne Payton Scally, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, which studies economic and social issues.

That means a lot of cities have to look at other options, such as allowing more than one home on a lot and deals like the one Williamsburg is considering with Cale Development.

“Giving land is another way to try and support affordable housing development by removing that cost from the development budget, which allows, of course,  those developers to pass on the savings to the eventual homeowners or renters,” Payton Scally said.

Last year, Williamsburg formed a special affordable housing workgroup to look at the ways the city could realistically build the hundreds of affordable units it currently needs.

On its list were several policies researchers like Payton Scally say are some of the most successful models for creating affordable housing. Those include allowing accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, creating a community land trust and adjusting zoning codes to more easily allow more homes on one piece of land.

Williamsburg City Council member Caleb Rogers was part of the workgroup. 

He said big developments that add lots of housing would probably fit better in the counties surrounding the city because they can easily find land for them.

“As far as major developments, which would be similar to what Cale Development just proposed … that's going to be a product for the localities that just have a lot of developable land which are our outlying counties,” he said.

“Not to say Williamsburg isn't interested … but I think a little bit more what it takes to try to provide affordable housing is creativity.”

Rogers referenced early plans for city-owned land near Waller Mill Park that could be used for a small number of modular homes.

Since the city owns the land, there would be no cost to find the space. And pre-fabricated modular homes are notably less expensive than building from scratch.

“Those are parcels of land that the city until now hasn't been able to do anything on,” he said. 

“Obviously, you're not going to put a major league development right there next to our main source of drinking water. And we already have a park there [and] there's not much that could go there commercially either. But residentially, there are options.”

Trivette said there aren’t any formal plans to do that, because the city will probably have to work with a developer to make it happen. But he said the concept is sound.

“There's a lot of developable property around the reservoir that we could do so in a responsible manner, that's not going to run the risk of damaging the environmental quality of the city's drinking water by adding seven to 14 single-family houses that the city could use for workforce housing.”

In 2015, Williamsburg adopted a policy allowing defunct hotels to become rentable apartments. 

It’s a common practice around the world, according to the Urban Land Institute, a global nonprofit that studies land use and and real estate.

Hotel-to-apartment conversions isn’t something other Hampton Roads cities have embraced.

The former Quarterpath Inn was the first hotel to make the change, becoming The Flats of Williamsburg.

In 2020, an old Econo Lodge became Willow Creek apartments. 

The original policy only allowed for 150 total units to turn from hotel rooms to apartments and the city went over that with the two conversions.

The City Council recently increased that cap, which was one of the recommendations from the 2021 workgroup. 

Council voted to allow 250 more converted apartments. The workgroup report suggested an even higher cap, which could create more than 800 affordable units.

THEFLATS WBURG HANKERSON
Photo by Mechelle Hankerson 

The Flats at Williamsburg are affordable apartments that used to be hotels. Williamsburg leaders recently allowed for more hotels to do the same.

Owners of three closed hotels have already expressed interest in becoming apartments.

“Affordable housing is one of those topics that cities across the country, big and small, have wrestled with for eons,” Trivette said. 

“And so while I don't know that we have all of the answers or the perfect solution, we have a lot of tools in the tool kit that we're ready to deploy.”

This story is part of a series about housing affordability in Hampton Roads produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.