Base could ease housing problems

The mere prospect of Fort Monroe closing -- and for the sake of argument, let's assume that it will -- has drool collecting in puddles at the feet of local leaders and developers.

All those historic acres. Officers' mansions. The yacht-choked marina, the handsome gazebo and parks, the world-class fitness center, water views, office space, commercial possibilities -- it's like a big treasure chest just washed up on the beach, next to all that buried ordnance.

I'm happy they're so happy, really. But what I'm not hearing is a voice in authority piping up to suggest that maybe, just maybe, redeveloping Fort Monroe could include something for those who can't afford mansions, yachts and water views beyond the kiddie pool currently inflated in the backyard.The distress signal has been going out for so long about the lack of affordable housing in Hampton Roads that, apparently, it's now just background noise to local leaders.

Or maybe it's the stigma and stereotype attached to people who need so-called affordable housing, usually painted as down-and-outs whose bad luck or life choices set them on the road to public assistance, no end in sight.

Sure, some fit that role. Others are like a family profiled in this paper on Sunday, who left Pennsylvania to move closer to relatives here. Unable to find decent-paying jobs right away, burdened with debt and a criminal record, they ended up living in a motel for a year and a half, paying nearly 65 percent of their monthly income on rent. Finally, the father got a job at the shipyard that pays enough to move his family into a trailer home.

Still others are hardworking, tax-paying citizens who never put a toe out of line and still don't make enough to afford houses currently priced in the stratosphere, and climbing.

Who are these people? Maybe it's the cashier at your supermarket, your kid's teacher, the shoe store clerk at the mall, the retiree next door, the military family just relocated to the area, your dental hygienist, your friendly neighborhood newspaper reporter. Heck, chances are it's you.

Last month, we reported that the average home price in Hampton Roads was $232,651 in March, an increase of more than $40,000 over the previous year. Meanwhile, home sales hiked up 20 percent over last year.

One Realtor claimed that an affordable home -- in the $100,000 to $175,000 range -- would last but a few hours on the market, and draw multiple offers.

The problem is, she says, there's no product out there. Meanwhile, we have plenty of houses in the $300,000 range. And a glance at upscale subdivisions shooting up across the landscape shows there's plenty more where they came from.

In James City County just this month, officials approved a development of $400,000 homes after the builder's attorney argued that they would "uplift the area and create economic diversity."

Economic diversity? What are we promoting here, affirmative action for the moneyed class?

To top it off, with housing prices through the roof, even apartments are less affordable than ever. Newport News and Hampton are among the 10 cities and counties in Virginia with the largest amount of worst-case renter households. This means a high portion of families with low-income and crowded households, or whose rent gobbles up more than half their monthly income.

As leaders conjure up their dream plans for Fort Monroe, dazed by dollar signs, their vision so far excludes the masses who constitute the majority of their constituents.

I get it. I do. Big homes and big development mean big bucks. But with your hands firmly on the tiller, remember that we're all in this boat together. Even us simple folk can appreciate a safe, trendy streetscape and a room with a view.

Fort Monroe already has a moat, guys. Don't raise the drawbridge, too.

Tamara Dietrich can be reached at or at 247-7892.

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