(opinions) Blacksburg Town Council (copy)

Downtown Blacksburg

VA House Bill 1863 introduced by Delegate Hurst (D-VA 12th District) to limit student housing in the Town of Blacksburg is exclusionary zoning. Students are not a protected group under the Fair Housing Act; therefore, we are easy targets for these types of regulations that would allow the town to create designated areas for student housing. We also must recognize that the town council, which would have the ability to exclude students from new housing developments in Blacksburg, has no student representation or voices. The detail provided in this bill and by the town council is limited if not nonexistent. In none of the information they provide does the town describe what areas it deems suitable for student housing and it doesn’t provide any specifics on how this bill will “create housing opportunities for (long-term) residents.” 

On Jan. 12, 2020, during a public comment session, I asked members of the Blacksburg Town Council for their detailed plan and expressed my concern that this bill could further exacerbate the issue of rising housing costs for students. Unfortunately, Delegate Hurst was not in attendance at this meeting to answer questions. 

“It is important to build community here and that is what we are trying to accomplish here,” said Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith. 

As a witness to these conversations between council members, there appeared to be a disconnect from the realities that many students at our university face. We have students on the Virginia Tech campus everyday who confront food insecurity and financial related anxiety.

In her defense of the bill, Mayor Hager-Smith referenced the over 4,000 beds that are currently under construction in Blacksburg. The fact that construction is occurring in town is apparent, but an apartment at the recently completed Park37 costs $1,000/month per room. Moreover, the currently under construction HUB Blacksburg, on the site of former Terrace View, plans on charging over $1,000/month per room. Housing costs at these new facilities that the Town Council conveyed as the solution to our problems with student housing are comparable to the yearly tuition and fees charged by the university ($13,691 for the academic year 2020-2021). Our elected leaders owe us the same level of thoroughness in their plan that faculty would expect from students in a course.

Many long-term residents of Blacksburg probably do not want to be neighbors with sophomores who are entering their first year of living off-campus outside of the purview of their parents or the university. Speaking to my time as an undergraduate, I did not want to live near them either, but the solution is not corralling everyone onto one side of town. The community that Mayor Hager-Smith talks about building should be a community that has respect for their neighbor, regardless of their status as a student or long-term resident. While I am no longer an undergraduate, my current housing is in a neighborhood near young professionals who have become close friends. I’m sure they do not like my headlights beaming through their windows as I park my car in the late evening, and I’m never a fan of the Saturday morning where 8:00 a.m.. is the time they decide to mow their lawn. Life moves on.

The blame for the housing crisis in Blacksburg rests on the shoulders of one entity — Virginia Tech. In recent years, the aggressive expansion and serial over-admission of students has stressed the Blacksburg housing market to the point where many faculty and staff can no longer afford to live in town. Punishing students by excluding them from renting or buying in new housing developments is not the solution. No one is saying that professional staff and long-term workforce members of Blacksburg do not deserve to live in our community, but the punishment for this crisis should not be dealt to the students who call Blacksburg home.

Our time at Virginia Tech has surely taught us to think of solutions to real world problems. In that spirit, the following recommendations, or perhaps more appropriately named “conversation starters,” are presented:

(1) Competition drives down prices. The university should enter into the apartment ownership business and use their massive financial resources to construct on-campus apartments for upperclassmen in order to provide direct competition for the major complexes at an affordable rate for students.

(2) The town of Blacksburg should force developers to build affordable housing in addition to the high-end homes (>$450,000) that have become the norm in recent housing developments. In order to foster long-term resident home ownership, an initial percentage (~50 – 75%) of newly constructed homes in a neighborhood should only be sold to families and young professionals. Zoning restrictions should not be permanent student bans. After the initial purchase of a home, students or prospective landlords should be able to purchase or rent these homes freely much like the current system in older Blacksburg neighborhoods.

(3) In the event that House Bill No. 1863 becomes law, the town of Blacksburg should present a comprehensive zoning plan that shows what areas of town would be designated for long-term residents or students. The planning of these zones should include all stakeholders in our community, including families, students, business owners and the university. This plan must address the needs of bus transportation to campus, changes to traffic patterns, and neighborhood safety.

(4) Eliminate AirBnB in Blacksburg. Currently over 30 homes are listed on AirBnB which are not able to be occupied by students or long-term residents. Homes listed on AirBnB would easily sell or rent causing their owners limited financial harm and would immediately influx our community with needed housing.

(5) Delegate Hurst should form a state-level committee to examine the impacts of university enrollment and expansion on their surrounding localities. Grants and financial aid should be given to these localities to help them overcome the financial burden that unchecked expansion has on their infrastructure and services.