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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."