Living in Loudoun is expensive.
This obvious fact, known to every person paying rent or a mortgage in the county, is finally being confronted in a coordinated way by Loudoun government, nonprofits and even the business, marked by the creation of the county government’s Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan. That plan lays out objectives for making a place to live more affordable not only for the people with the lowest incomes, but at every level—in a county where, according to the draft plan, there are 35,000 people paying more than a third of their income on housing alone. In Loudoun, according to that plan, the 2019 median household income was $142,229, and the median home value $556,600.
“If we’re going to get serious about this thing called attainable housing, it’s time to get serious about this thing called attainable housing,” County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) told the assembled business leaders at a Loudoun Chamber of Commerce PolicyMakers Series event June 22.
The people struggling to pay rent are certainly serious about it.
The Chamber meeting was followed June 30 with a virtual event by New Virginia Majority. The community organizing group has worked to put the Spanish-speaking community front and center in the Loudoun County boardroom—where once it unusual to ever hear an interpreter in the boardroom, now at most Board of Supervisors meetings a New Virginia Majority interpreter calls in to translate for a line of speakers.
At the event, moderated by Vee Maddox, Loudouners speaking in both English and Spanish told their own stories of struggling just for a place to live.
Geraldina Padilla, speaking through an interpreter, said she is renting space in a single-family home with her husband and two kids. The owners have put restrictions on the family—limiting them to cooking twice a week, not having the TV on after 8 p.m., being quick with showers, and even raising the rent if family comes to visit. But she is one of many who have to take whatever they can get to make ends meet.
Liliana Weinberg of New Virginia Majority also said oftentimes families have to move their children in with strangers to have a roof over their heads.
“They need to share house with people they have never met,” Weinberg said. “During COVID, the situation has gotten worse, because the kids are forced to stay home without privacy, and in most cases, without supervision. The parents have no choice in this matter, because they need to go to work to provide for their family.”
Sometimes circumstances are even more dire than that—Judy Hanley, the executive director of the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter, said 60% of the women who come to their emergency shelter end up returning to their abusers, simply because there is no place else they can afford to go.
It is also, said Father Daniel Vélez Rivera of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Leesburg, an invisible problem to many people. He said until recently, even he was unaware of the poverty struggles in some of his own pews. He said it was shameful to realize how little he knew about the poverty his congregants are experiencing.
“I’m a Latino serving the Latino community. Imagine those who are so distanced from the issue of poverty,” River said. “So I feel like it is our responsibility as a Christian community, to hold up the banner, to walk side by side with all of you that are present, that are wanting to be—I’ll use it, but I don’t like the word—warriors of justice.”
For Gia Brown, who 10 years ago moved into a home built by Habitat for Humanity, having a home of her own has made all the difference.
Brown has three kids, ages 18, 14 and 11. When she was selected for a Habitat house, she was living in a county Affordable Dwelling Unit, her first home after moving out of her parents’ house.
There, she said, rent was manageable, but she only had two bedrooms—which meant with two daughters and a son, her son was staying in the room with her. And, she said, when the family moved into the new house, it was something they could make their own.
“It’s a huge difference, because it’s yours, and I’ve always said thatit’s something that my kids will have as long as I can keep it within the family,” she said. “It’s a place that they will always have to come, so that’s a huge accomplishment for me.”
And even though affording to live in Loudoun is still a struggle—although she’s been working at the same doctor’s office since 2005—the house gives them some stability.
“We can still struggle even though we’ve got the Habitat house, and the mortgage is affordable,” Brown said. “You’re still struggling, but the main thing is knowing that you’re not going to be out. You’re going to have a place to live.”
At the PolicyMakers event, Randall pushed the business community in the room to get on board.
“If we are now serious—and I mean serious—about addressing the unmet housing needs in Loudoun County, I need an all-in effort,” she said. She said she faces consistent pushback when she talks about attainable or affordable housing in Loudoun.
“I know what I’m doing when I talk about this, yet the pushback is still so strong, and what I’ve learned to some degree is this: it’s not just how we talk about housing, it’s who talks about housing in Loudoun County,” Randall said.
One of those business leaders is attorney Colleen Gillis, a partner at Cooley LLP, where she specializes in land use and represents some of the largest and most recognizable development projects in Loudoun. She also serves on the committee working on that unmet housing needs plan. At the Chamber event, she reflected on the past 15 years of growth in Loudoun.
“Somehow we’re always worried that just around the corner is the cliff we’re going to fall off, and the whole place is going to go to hell,” Gillis said. “I have not yet seen that.”
She urged people at the Chamber event to talk to their neighbors about the need for attainable housing, addressing the inertia of opposition to attainable housing.
“We need to actually be in a place where we start being the change we want to see,” Gillis said afterward. “I can sit here at a Chamber breakfast every month for the next 36 months—it’s not going to change it as much as somebody seeing themselves in my support for affordable housing, my support for strengthening the fabric of community.”
“It’s time for the board to put on their policymaker hats and make some policy,” said longtime affordable housing developer Kim Hart. “[…]That’s where we are. It’s time for the board to make policy.”