Housing experts weigh in on poverty in Harrisonburg

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) -- Local housing experts weighed in on the topic of poverty Wednesday night at an event called "Disrupting Poverty in Harrisonburg."

The event, held at at Asbury Methodist Church, focused on the systemic issues that are keeping neighbors locked into the cycle of poverty, including reliable public transportation, quality daycare, and affordable housing.

Shannon Porter, the director of the homeless shelter Mercy House said the lack of affordable housing in Harrisonburg plays a major role in keeping working class families at or below the poverty line. He connected the decrease of affordable housing to the increase of student housing in the city.

"It's had an impact of escalating the rents in our community, meanwhile the wages in our community have not kept up," Porter said. "We're seeing a lot more older housing stock that would have been larger homes, multi-family apartments for local families, but they're now being converted to student housing."

Renting to students tends to be more appealing for landlords as they can rent by the bedroom and multiply their income.This, in turn, has put working class families in a bind, said Porter.

A crowd of more than 50 people heard from Porter as well as Michael Wong with the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Sam Nickels with Our Community Place, and Rev. Adam Blagg with Faith in Action.

Each speaker provided a unique perspective to the issue of poverty in Harrisonburg.

According to statistics provided by Michael Wong, 50 percent of Harrisonburg residents are rent burden, and in 2018, there was a record low vacancy in rental properties. He also noted there was a shift to higher income, older, and larger households.

Sam Nickels, with Our Community Place, said the cycle of homelessness directly correlates to the lack of affordable housing. He provided short, medium, and long term goals... all of which include getting people off the street and prepared to live on their own.