By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – During their Monday interim session, members of the West Virginia Legislative Joint Committee on Children and Families heard presentations on both affordable housing issues and food insecurity in the Mountain State.
The first speaker, Craig Petry, executive director of Community Works West Virginia, an organization designed to create housing and community development solutions through a network of organizations, discussed affordable housing issues.
“It’s become very much a hot button topic across the country,” Petry said.
According to Petry, some of the affordable housing issues in West Virginia include the increased cost of goods, which makes it difficult to develop housing, as well as aging homes that are in need of rehabilitation, high interest rates and a general increase in home prices.
The state is also seeing an increase in the number of short term rental units, which has “squeezed out” affordable housing,” Petry said, adding this is primarily occurring in the high tourism areas surrounding the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, the New River Gorge region in Fayette County, and in the Davis and Thomas areas.
This is also something that Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said she witnesses in her district.
“In my area of the eastern panhandle, the rising cost has literally driven people out of their homes,” Rucker stated, adding that, “Unfortunately, those rising costs are those from outside the state, so a lot of those homes are turning into vacation homes or rentals and the folks in the actual area, who live and need to live there to work, can’t afford it.”
She continued that a lot of the homes are privately owned, but the homeowners, often retired, cannot afford the cost of rising taxes.
“I, of course, have advocated to increase our homestead exemption, which has not been taken up, but is there any program to help folks to keep their homes?” Rucker asked.
Petry responded that he doesn’t believe there is a program like that, but that is a concern that should be addressed.
He explained that some of the opportunities for affordable housing state leaders should consider includes subsidizing single family and small multi-family developments, increasing lending capital, rehabilitating Main Street buildings, for both business and upper-floor rental units, and considering alternative housing options, such as modular homes and pre-built box houses.
Following Petry’s presentation, Del. Ric Griffith, D-Wayne, stated that a lot of the empty Main Street storefronts are the result of corporations like Walmart and Amazon, however, another handicap Main Street areas experience is lack of adequate parking.
“It’s the hurdle they can’t get passed,” Griffith said, asking if there were programs to help address parking issues throughout many of West Virginia’s communities.
Petry said right now there is a lot of funding to tear down buildings that will never be used again.
“There’s been funding for several years to tear things down,” Petry said. “There’s annual funding from CDBG (Community Development Block Grants) and others to do demolition programs. That is definitely a topic that we would look at.”
Of Community Works West Virginia, Petry said, “Consider us partners. I don’t have all the answers today. I wasn’t coming at you today with some kind of magic bullet. I don’t have it, but I think housing has to be a conversation that we have going into these sessions going forward. We have to discuss housing, or we are going to get further behind and we are looking to bring more people in.”
The second speaker of the meeting, Jeremiah Samples, senior advisor to the state’s legislature, discussed food insecurity.
Samples stated that food insecurity can cause health and medical complications, especially for the state’s seniors, and can damage a child’s ability to learn and grow.
“There’s a lot of different programs out there, in government, tackling these issues,” Samples said. “One may argue that perhaps that is one of the problems – that it is so complex and confusing of a policy area that that is why we are not really making gains, having success like we would want to. We have individual successes, and there’s individually great programs, but, holistically, we are not universally solving the food insecurity, food desert issue.”
Citing recent data, Samples said that 14 percent of the state’s population suffers from food insecurity.
Additionally, when it comes to food scarcity, 153,131 households in the state experienced food scarcity from June 28-July 10, Samples said, adding this is 12.6 percent of the state’s population.
West Virginia ranks the third highest nationally for the percentage of school aged children who receive food assistance, at 28.9 percent, Samples continued. The five counties that experience the highest food insecurity rates include Mingo, Calhoun, McDowell, Wyoming and Clay.
Samples also noted that the state’s seniors also experience issues with access to food.
“Our issue with hunger and food insecurity for seniors is particularly a problem,” Samples noted. “It’s one that I would emphasize.”
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits have helped many of the state’s residents afford food, he continued, adding that 306,913 residents received SNAP benefits in 2021.
Unfortunately, Samples said, many residents are eligible for SNAP benefits, but are not enrolled in the program. The same can be said for WIC (women, infants and children) benefits.
Committee Chair, Senator Mark Hunt, R-Kanawha, then asked what legislators can do to help with food deserts and other food accessibility concerns.
“Some of it may be simply getting the word out that it’s available,” Hunt stated of assistance programs.
Samples responded that the easiest thing to do would be to increase case management to help eligible families become aware of programs as well as public outreach.
“I think, right off the top, both for seniors, as it relates to SNAP, and children, as it relates to WIC, those are two areas where we can focus and, I think, make up a lot of ground for food insecurity,” Samples said.