Ridgecrest Apartments in Bristol, Virginia
Ridgecrest Apartments in Bristol, Virginia

Social Apartheid and Housing at Exit 7

by Lewis Loflin

Bristol, Virginia residents in 2005 got their usual four-year inflated property assessments in addition to a 40% jump in electricity rates. Assessments are up an average of 15.5 percent across Bristol, Virginia. Across Washington County where I live the average is 27 percent. To quote one resident, "I don't want my taxes to go any higher. When you're on a fixed income there's not much you can do."

Bristol and surrounding areas are in the middle of a housing boom and the area is becoming a retirement mecca. For the move-in homeowner retiring from high cost regions looking for recreation and low cost, the Bristol area is the place to go.

That is what is driving property values through the ceiling and has triggered worries many local people won't be able to afford anything. Those that move in with outside income do well. For those that must earn a living here, that's another matter.

Many new residents start as tourists at Bristol Motor Speedway and other attractions, or were born here and left the terrible economic conditions. Local governments are pouring a lot of money into tourism related industries, which at best low-paying service jobs. This brings in tax revenue through meal and lodging taxes in addition to showcasing the community.

Bristol has also launched a "fight the blight" campaign to force property owners to spruce up the place. This has its merits in removing junk cars or tearing down abandoned houses used by drug dealers. But there is another side of this issue.

Housing Crisis and Class Warfare

Upper-class residents have been loudly voicing their opposition to an affordable housing project at Bristol's Exit 7 off Interstate 81. Exit 7 was the site of the mass expulsion of 50 poor families from a trailer park to make way for a failed shopping center. This one for once is aimed at working people.

In February 2006 the Bristol Virginia Planning Commission approved the residential development in a business zone, claiming, "It makes planning sense." Landmark, who has built low-income projects in other parts of town for poor seniors and the disabled, had wide support. When they built affordable housing for working people in the better part of town, all hell broke loose.

It will consists of 72 townhouse-style apartments to be available for working people earning 60 percent of the median income for the region. ($27,900 max.) The developer will use $5 million in federal tax credits for the $7.8 million project.

"Rather than have the working-class people sequestered on one side of town and the rich on the other side of town, the idea is to integrate people," said Rex Todd of Winston-Salem, N.C.-based The Landmark Group.

It seems he doesn't know Bristol. The rents will be from $340-$600 per month. Fully one-third of Bristol residents would qualify, and to rent a house in the area can cost $850-$1000.

"I'm asking you to defer action until we can get additional information," cried one wealthy resident. There's a big argument over semantics; the developer calls this "affordable" housing while opponents yell "low income" housing. The planing commission delayed any final decision when they confronted an angry crowd.

On September 13, the City Council decided to send the proposal back to the Planning Commission for "reconsideration." The press has blasted local officials using terms such as "needs backbone," "pandering," and "bigoted." But this is Bristol culture. You work here for nothing, but you can't live in their neighborhood.

The developer - Landmark Corp. of Winston-Salem, N.C. will do criminal background checks on potential tenants, but residents demanded the commission tie the checks to the property so future owners would be forced to continue that policy. "If Landmark would agree to that, I think it would ease the concerns of a lot of people," said one critic.

Rex Todd of Landmark said, "I don't think that we can bind any future buyer to do anything. The stringent legal background checks and credit checks we do is just how we do business. I don't think it's legal to bind a future owner." Asked if Landmark is likely to sell the property after a few years, Todd said "absolutely" not.

"That's part of what we do. We have a management company and we spend a lot of money to manage properties well. That's how we make a living." City Attorney Bressler has already advised city officials they could face the federal government if they try to reverse the prior approval based on class warfare. Now the ugly secret was out in the open.

To quote BHC (Sep. 14, 2006),

Cities that have tried to scuttle similar projects have been hit with federal discrimination lawsuits...That could be a slippery slope - how the Planning Commission handles this ' and could be a delicate situation for the Department of Justice. Virginia Housing Development Authority officials have been monitoring the controversy, adding that he didn't know whether Justice Department officials were aware of the dispute.

Cities cannot discriminate based on income, and disallowing a project after it has received city approval almost certainly would attract federal attention...I don't know the total number of suits the DOJ has filed for some form of discrimination in these kinds of cases - 15 or 20 - but only two have been positive for the locality...There was a similar situation in Fredericksburg a few years ago where residents claimed a low-income apartment project would ruin the neighborhood property values. It was built and there was nothing to it. The property values there have doubled since then."
Ridgecrest Apartments in Bristol, Virginia
Ridgecrest Apartments in Bristol, Virginia

In the end the project went ahead and looks very nice by 2008. There have been no problems.

Residents respond

Joyce L. of Bristol:

In response to the residents in the area of the proposed housing development at Exit 7, do they think that if and when they get to heaven there is an area for "rich" people and an area for "poor" folks? Just because a person doesn't make a wad of money, wear name brand clothes or drive expensive cars doesn't mean he or she is a criminal.

I used to own a home on Heritage Drive and worked in a respectable position before becoming ill. I now am classified "low-income" according to the figures in the article in the Aug. 29 issue of the Bristol Herald Courier.

My health and money situation have changed, but my Christian beliefs have not. I wonder what is in the hearts of those residents who feel they are too good to live beside so-called "low-income" families. The residents need to remember that the new neighbors may be the very ones they need help from one day.

Were these people born rich? Have they always lived in this area subdivision or did they start somewhere else and build themselves up? These residents need to look in their hearts and not forget where they came from. According to Leviticus 19:18: "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord.."

And Lee of Bristol:

After reading the articles in your newspaper and seeing the news on television in regard to the Landmark Group of Winston-Salem, N.C., and its intent to build a 72-unit complex at the intersection of Suncrest and Heritage Drive, I say go for it. It is time that the poor and lower-income in our area get a chance to at least begin having the "good life" or part of it.

The very same people who are crying "foul" the loudest are probably the same ones who hold the wages down in this area. We, meaning the low-income or the poor, would surely like to own a Corvette to prowl around in like Paul Hurley, who adamantly opposes these "poor condos." All we are saying is give us a chance.

George of Bristol, an opponent:

Funny, all this time I thought we lived in a representative democracy. Yet the members of Bristol Virginia's Planning Commission have decided to ram a subsidized housing project down the throats of several thousand city residents - to count just those in the immediate area - with no public hearing, with no vote by the City Council, and despite an overwhelming hue and cry from those who stand to lose the most.

Is Bristol Virginia about to kill its cash cow? The city is more than $100 million in debt, yet our city "planners" seem intent on slaughtering the most profitable area of the city. Exit 7 has seen recent additions in the form of Home Depot, Red Lobster and the whole Linden Square complex, and more businesses are on the way.

No, the fears are not unfounded. It's not "rents near the market rate;" it's subsidized housing paid with rent vouchers. Better tell that new Home Depot to stock up on "For Sale" signs, because numerous nearby homeowners have threatened to leave if construction begins. The biggest losers will be those who leave last - or who are powerless to leave at all.

City officials who live near the proposed subsidized housing do not support it. John Sanslow, a member of the Planning Commission and its representative on the Board of Zoning Appeals, lives nearby. He showed the courage to move to delay the determination of a zoning line.

That line, in the absence of effective recourse for all residents of Bristol Virginia, may be one of the only remaining obstacles. Jim Rector, a city councilman who lives in Hassan Heights, has been instrumental in fighting the proposal at many levels.

All residents of Bristol Virginia - not just those who live nearby - should be concerned about the potential destructive effects of this proposed low-income, subsidized housing complex on a city already overburdened by taxes and underserved by city services. And they should be equally alarmed about city officials who think they "know what's best" for the residents of this city without seeking their opinions in advance.

Note the big exodus has not occurred.

Build 1000 Apartments at Exit 7

Published BHC September 2, 2006

For some time, I've kept silent about events in Bristol, hoping the new elected officials will change some of the nonsense. Here we go again: This housing business is a prime example of the social apartheid I put on my Web site. I work at Exit 7, and I'm glad to know as lower-paid white trash, I wouldn't be allowed to live there.

Worst, I know several of the people in that crowd. This is not a conspiracy or any back room deals; it's a cultural problem nobody wants to talk about. Country music and NASCAR-hype can't cover the social rot and criminal indifference of this community towards lower-income residents.

Next, we are looking at another $2.5 million in debt at Bristol Virginia Utilities for Exit 7. I like Wes Rosenbalm and his staff; they're honest people. But the simple fact is this: The utility loaned almost $30 million to Optinet (not counting wasting millions in tobacco and economic development grants), then turned around and borrowed millions more for what they should have spent that money on, then shifted that cost onto utility customers. Yes it's legal, but it's still wrong.

And who got that expensive fiber-optic service? People who already had it available, while those of us that had no services got nothing except higher utility bills. It comes down to this: Why should the whole community be forced to pay for Exit 7 development, then be told most of us that work there are not fit to live there? If the trash people have to pay for Exit 7 and work there at depressed wage scales, we can live there, too. Build 1,000 apartments!

Lewis Loflin Bristol, Va.

Self-Sufficiency Standard in the Bristol, Virginia Community is the real cost of living in the Bristol community based on the Self-Sufficiency Standard versus HHS (government) poverty guidelines. The reality is the real poverty rate in Bristol and surrounding areas is about double the official rate.

This shows up in school lunch programs that use 185% of the official poverty rate to get a realistic picture. Many industrial jobs in this area pay between $7 and $8 an hour, so many families in particular single mothers or many with kids have real problems.

Clear Creek Mobile Home Park Travesty Bristol Virginia and Washington County by some accounts have wasted $2 million in legal wrangling over annexation around Exit 7. In one case a trailer court got in the way. 50 mostly poor families got evicted for a failed strip mall that could have cost citizens $40-$50 million. Many ended up in public housing or worse.

Social Apartheid in Wise County, VA

Rezoning 3.4 acres for a $4 million condominium complex near the University of Virginia's College at Wise had a group of residents up in arms. The units cost between $60,000 and $80,000 each, total bill about $4 million.

The proposed development could have provided $20,000 each year in tax revenue. The project had gone before the Wise County Planning Commission in 2002 for approval, but they deadlocked. Their reason for opposition? To quote Don Green, the group's spokesman:

"the multifamily housing proposal was a poor idea because the units would be available to anybody who can make the payments. Even people who receive housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could move in if the condos don't sell and end up as rental units...I don't think it's good for us...It affects a lot of people."

But Greg Gilbeit, the attorney representing the project developers, countered this claim:

"The need for housing is well-established in Wise County. This is addressed in the county's comprehensive plan...Everyone is for development except when it comes to your back yard. We all want to live next to a big field, but the reality is that somebody owns the big field."

Ref BHC 2-8-03