How One County Helps Low-Income Homeowners Rehab Their Houses

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James City County, Virginia tapped federal housing dollars to fund repairs and rebuilding projects that make homes safe and habitable. "Nothing is more affordable than the house you already have," notes a local official.

Julie White had lived in James City County, Virginia, for more than 20 years when officials with the county’s housing department informed her that her house would need to be demolished. White was aware that the home had structural issues—the floors, ravaged by termites, had dropped to the underlying joists—but she’d had no idea the problems were that extensive.

“I was very devastated when they told me, because I didn’t know there was that much damage,” she said. “I was trying to fix things, and as I would fix it, it was still falling.”

Julie White's home. (Courtesy of James City County)

Luckily, the county had a solution: White qualified for a housing rehabilitation program that would pay to rebuild the home, ensuring that everything—plumbing, electrical, paint—was safe and up to code.

“They got involved,” White said, “and they looked out for me.”

White's is one of 16 homes being repaired or rebuilt by James City County via what’s known as a scattered-site housing rehabilitation program. The initiative uses federal housing dollars, allocated through a state grant program, to pay for repairs that can help make a property safe and habitable. (The conditions that qualify for repair—things like buckling ceilings, faulty wiring or large-scale sewer blockages—are defined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the funding to the state.)

“Part of the criteria of ensuring that folks are living in safe and decent housing is to make sure we’re following these basic standards when we go in to start rehab,” said Paul Holt, community development planning director for James City County. “This isn’t about putting in carpet where somebody wants carpet. That’s not what we do. This is rehab, not renovation.”

The county applied for grant funding in 2019, several years after completing an assessment of the condition of houses throughout its jurisdiction. Working with a consulting firm, county officials ranked roughly 19,000 homes on a scale of 1 (brand-new condition) to 5 (bordering on dilapidated). About a thousand were in “really desperate shape,” with 80 considered “worst case,” said Vaughn Poller, the county’s neighborhood development administrator.

“That comes out to only about 3.5% of the residential structures in our county,” he said. “But if you’re the individual living in those structures, then it obviously feels like a much bigger problem.”

Officials matched the list of homes in dire condition to an existing list of homeowners on waiting lists for help from other county housing programs, then contacted overlapping residents to see if they would be interested in participating in the rehabilitation program. (To be eligible for that assistance, a household must make no more than 80% of the area median income, or $66,000 for a family of four. Most participants are below 50%, Poller said, or $41,250.)

Sixteen people agreed to have their homes inspected and assessed. Poller and Holt used the results of those reports to calculate the amount of grant funding that would be necessary to complete all the recommended repairs. Their application for that amount—$1 million in federal funds, with a $210,000 local match—was approved and given a two-year contract that began in January 2020 and concludes at the beginning of next year. The project is possible only due to the availability of money specifically for scattered-site housing, Poller said—a departure from typical funding structures that allocate dollars only for projects that are grouped together in specific neighborhoods.

“But what we were seeing after having conducted our housing condition study is that we had scattered areas of need that were not clustered in one geographic area of our county,” he said. “We’d had a lot of scenarios where people would ask us for assistance and we just did not have a tool to help them. Everyone deserves the right to live in safe and decent housing. This program helps us provide for our most vulnerable population.”

There are eight construction projects underway currently, with an additional four expected to begin soon. The grant provides up to $60,000 for rehabilitation and up to $95,000 for what Holt called “substantial reconstruction,” for each individual project, though exact costs vary depending on the extent of the work needed. Beyond improving living conditions for individual families, officials hope to bolster the county’s overall supply of quality single-family dwellings, a long-term project that’s necessary due to the area’s fast population growth over the past 40 years.

“We’ve gone from being a rural community to a suburbanized community over a relatively short period of time,” Poller said. “That growth was more expensive than some of our residents could afford, and that existing housing stock has worn out as it’s aged, with residents who aren’t able to maintain it. But nothing is more affordable than the house you already have, so that’s part of our strategy—maintaining that existing housing as best we can.” 

The program hit several snags in its first year, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Construction times slowed due to capacity limits and social distancing requirements, while supplies—especially lumber—became more expensive as thousands of homeowners, stuck at home for months on end, began their own renovation projects. The small group of contractors who tend to take on single rehab projects in James City County are local proprietors, Holt said, who then took a hit on their already-slim profits.

“They’re on very tight, slim margins, and that’s tough, because there just aren’t that many who are in this line of business,” he said. “Rehabilitation work is different and a whole lot harder than building new construction.”

Despite the challenges, the county is on track to complete all 16 projects by its January deadline—including White’s refurbished home, which is expected to be ready for occupancy within the next few days. 

The rebuilt house. (Courtesy of James City County)

“The house looks great,” she said. “I’m just so happy with what they have done and I thank them so much. They have done such a beautiful job, and I am just ready to get back into my own house.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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