8 Focus groups

This chapter outlines the focus groups conducted by HousingForward Virginia to better understand housing needs and challenges across the Commonwealth. These findings complement the results of the provider survey.

8.1 Methods

Virginia Housing and DHCD often seek feedback from program users in both formal and informal settings, including focus groups, in order to improve program delivery and outcomes.

In February 2021, HousingForward Virginia invited 151 individuals from more than 50 organizations to participate in focus groups to discuss housing needs in their communities and the capacity of state housing programs to meet them. HousingForward assigned 58 individuals to nine focus groups; each group represented a distinct category of organization with an average focus group size of six participants.

HousingForward asked participants to provide feedback on state-level housing programs they use, the impact of COVID-19 on community housing needs and programs, and efforts to address racial inequities. All meetings occurred virtually due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The concerns expressed by the focus group participants reflect the stress and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participants raised concerns related to federal housing programs and standards as well as state-level programs. Participants’ impressions of the effectiveness of Virginia’s programs often revealed incomplete knowledge of all available state programs and limited understanding of the Commonwealth’s programmatic jurisdiction. However, these observations contribute to the usefulness of the focus groups’ feedback, which provides a valuable overview of the priorities, concerns, and needs of housing providers in Virginia.

8.2 Priorities, concerns, and solutions

The nine categorical focus groups produced clear highlights:

8.2.1 Nonprofit housing organizations focused on the general population

Housing priorities and concerns

  • Preservation and rehabilitation of existing affordable housing stock,
  • Assistance for families at risk of eviction and foreclosure, and
  • Rental market pressures driving unaffordability.

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Coordinate outreach more extensively for the announcement of funding and resources,
  • Increase resources to scale-up programs to meet overwhelming need and to build capacity of grassroots organizations,
  • Update compartmentalized programs to offer more holistic approaches, and
  • Preserve market-rate affordable housing through incentives for landlords.

8.2.2 Nonprofit housing organizations focused on permanent supportive housing and special needs populations

Housing priorities and concerns

  • Inadequate resources to address the overwhelming need for affordable rental housing,
  • Initial roll out of the Virginia Rent Relief Program (e.g., multiple policy changes and capacity of small local nonprofits to administer at the local level),
  • Extremely low-income households, especially those on fixed incomes (e.g., persons with disabilities, seniors, etc.),
  • Increase in seniors in need of assistance now and in the future,
  • Federal Fair Market Rents (FMR) are not truly representative of the market,
  • CDC Eviction Moratorium’s impact on vacancy rates (i.e., the extreme scarcity of housing that might otherwise be available for vulnerable populations),
  • Impending wave of evictions when the CDC Eviction Moratorium ends, and
  • Uncertainty of funding after emergency pandemic allocations are used.

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Assist homeless service providers interested in developing affordable housing,
  • Increase the supply of permanent supportive housing accessible housing for persons with ambulatory disabilities, and
  • Diversify affordable housing solutions (e.g., resident-owned manufactured home communities, inclusionary zoning, flexible requirements on funding, etc.).

8.2.3 For-profit housing organizations

Housing priorities and concerns

  • Nine percent Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) deals are complicated and not cost effective for small- and mid-sized developers,
  • One funding round per year makes it difficult to mitigate risks, and
  • Hidden costs at the local level are stifling affordable development (e.g., development standards, planning process inefficiencies, etc.).

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Evaluate the possibility of multiple LIHTC funding rounds,
  • Incentivize local cap fees such as water and sewer to reduce initial construction costs,
  • Advocate local approval of a set number of new housing units per year, and
  • Encourage affordable development in communities of opportunity.

8.2.4 Real estate professionals

Housing priorities and concerns

  • Insufficient financing options for essential workers,
  • Need for home-buying education for potential home buyers,
  • Loan disqualification of existing homes, especially in rural areas,
  • Credit and debt accumulation or lack of credit as cause of racial homeownership gap, and
  • Pandemic-driven demand and constraint on supply.

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Provide for greater ability to couple first mortgages with financing for renovations, and
  • Offer more resources for homebuyer education and readiness planning.

8.2.5 Financial institutions

Housing priorities and concerns

  • High median incomes in the Northern Virginia region creating high income limits for affordable housing programs,
  • Subsequent need for assistance for moderate income households, leaving extremely and very low-income families competing for assistance,
  • Disparate guidelines and requirements across localities making it difficult to connect clients with products and assistance that meet their needs,
  • Difficult documentation of assets in the mortgage lending process for households relying on cash transactions because they do not have traditional bank accounts,
  • Some households who may qualify for a mortgage lack cash or savings to cover down payment and/or closing costs, and
  • Inadequate for-sale housing inventory limiting options for first-time and low-income home buyers.

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Adjust income limits for certain programs to help more moderate income households,
  • Develop a centralized source for learning about home purchase assistance resources at the state and local levels,
  • Emphasize education for home buying, asset management, etc., and
  • Increase resources to cover both down payment and closing cost assistance.

8.2.6 Public housing authorities

Housing priorities and concerns

  • Households making 50 to 80 percent AMI who do not have access to many resources,
  • Inadequate assisted-living facilities for low- and moderate-income senior and other special needs households,
  • Weak connections between housing and healthcare industries, and
  • Reluctance of landlords to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher program.

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Allocate more Private Activity Bonds (PAB) to public housing authorities (PHAs),
  • Assist PHAs, especially small ones, on PAB deals to accelerate affordable housing development,
  • Consider increasing the Housing Authority Pool for nine percent LIHTC credits at Virginia Housing,
  • Provide greater resources to help small- and mid-sized developers build capacity to be competitive, and
  • Support greater communication and cooperation between Housing Choice Voucher administrators.

8.2.7 Housing counselors

Housing priorities and concerns

  • Language and cultural barriers to housing assistance for immigrants,
  • Limited understanding of tenants’ rights and protections among both landlords and tenants, and
  • Homeowners at-risk of foreclosure.

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Increase marketing and outreach efforts in hard-to-reach communities to inform individuals about housing assistance available,
  • Foster greater collaboration between agencies,
  • Bolster the development and delivery of hybrid counseling and education programs (i.e., virtual and in-person), and
  • Support development of infrastructure to support programs, such as transportation and broadband access, that often obstruct service delivery.

8.2.8 Homelessness service providers

Housing priorities and concerns

  • Inadequate quantity and locations of shelters,
  • Housing instability as consequence of constrained housing supply,
  • Seniors and those with substance use disorders, serious mental illness, and other disabilities, and
  • Maintenance level of pandemic-level resources.

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Increase state-level funding for homelessness prevention and assistance programs,
  • Enhance flexibility with funding (e.g., to develop permanent supportive housing, to administer services, to pay for one-time housing costs, etc.), and
  • Provide resources for racial equity training within organizations.

8.2.9 Local governments

Housing priorities and concerns

  • State-level assistance with NIMBY-ism and local land use issues (e.g., inclusionary zoning) to address affordable housing needs and racial inequities,
  • Rental assistance to benefit tenants and landlords during and after the pandemic,
  • Pandemic’s impact on housing vacancy rates (i.e., unavailability of housing for those most in need), and
  • Impact of broadband access on affordability.

How the Commonwealth can help

  • Increase resources to address staff capacity at the local- and state-level (e.g., funds to hire additional staff, technical assistance, etc.),
  • Create centralized resource of available programs and clarification of viable local policies in context of the Dillon Rule,
  • Lead on racial equity initiatives and coordination among localities, and
  • Align requirements of Virginia Housing and DHCD programs (e.g., income limits, household type, etc.).