- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

CULPEPER, Va. - Kathy and Michael Arceneaux moved from Manassas to Culpeper County, trading a smaller home that had more than doubled in price for a 4,000-square-foot rambler with enough land to breed their Chesapeake Bay retrievers.

“It’s just awesome,” said Mrs. Arceneaux, who can stay at home doing administrative work while her husband makes the hour-long commute to the Manassas asphalt plant he manages.

“I look out my kitchen window and see all of the beautiful trees. I can’t wait to see them bloom.”

But the Arceneauxes’ recent find is another’s loss.

An influx of Northern Virginians has contributed to what some say is an affordable-housing crisis in some parts of the Greater Piedmont area, which includes Culpeper, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Orange and Madison counties.

Last year, the median price of a single-family home in the area shot up 22 percent to $233,388 — the highest gain among state regions reporting to the Virginia Association of Realtors. The average price climbed 15 percent to $285,790, party because of housing crunches and higher-priced homes being introduced to the market.

For those who work in these small-town and pastoral hot spots, the evolution has been quick and painful.

“We’ve gotten 750 calls in the last 12 months from people who say they couldn’t find housing at all,” said Sam Aitken, executive director of the Culpeper Community Development Corp. “It’s not only homes to buy but also rental units. Everything has jumped way up.”

What also has changed is the makeup of Mr. Aitken’s clients. Couples with combined incomes up to $80,000 a year have asked for the nonprofit’s low-interest housing loans though their salaries are too high to qualify, he said. Teachers and police officers, he said, are applying for loans or moving to Harrisonburg, about 70 miles to the west.

Mr. Aitken points to one of his employees, Karen Dickson-Servance, who he says would have been able to afford a home in Culpeper about six years ago on her $427-a-week salary after taxes.

Miss Dickson-Servance, single with three children, has been moving up — exchanging her Pizza Hut waitressing job for a better-paying administrative position — but housing prices are climbing much faster.

Her rent for a three-bedroom house is $1,000 — though the federal Section 8 program allows her to pay $486 a month. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have to go on [Section 8],” she said.

She says the house is worth about $100,000. But later, she acknowledges that the price may be higher thanks to years of housing inflation. “One day I can own it,” she said. “I just pray on it.”

A clash of national and state trends has contributed to the Greater Piedmont’s housing situation. Low mortgage rates have helped fuel the U.S. residential real estate market. And the baby boomer generation is starting to retire, leading to a flurry of development.

The median price of an existing single-family home in the United States climbed 7.5 percent last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. The state affiliate does not have a comparable rate.

Northern Virginia’s growth, which has helped drive the state’s economy, has forced up real estate prices in a sizable and expanding portion of the state. For instance, in Prince William County, the median price rose 19 percent to $222,325 — high enough to force some home seekers south in search of less pricey houses.

That spillover growth continues to affect the Fredericksburg area, which has been evolving into a Northern Virginia exurb for more than a decade. The median price of a home in the region increased 18 percent to $202,433 last year, real estate agents said.

In the past 18 months, the housing inventory has shrunk so much that even homes in poor condition are in demand, said Melanie Quann, a Century 21 AdVenture real estate agent in Fredericksburg. Priced out of the market, many of her clients are migrating to nearby Caroline and King George counties.

But the Greater Piedmont’s gains are clearly outstanding, according to real estate and affordable-housing officials. Thousands of homes are now planned for the area — drawing sharp criticism from environmentalists concerned about sprawl and traffic problems.

The area was identified as one of two regions in the state where the cost burden — the share of median family income required to buy an average priced home — was above 25 percent in 2002.

The only other “unaffordable” area mentioned by the Virginia Center for Housing Research was Lexington .

When the housing-research center releases its latest numbers in the next several weeks, the Greater Piedmont is expected to rank at or near the top again in unaffordability.

In the Greater Piedmont, real estate and affordable housing officials say the price increases have contributed to a housing-affordability problem that probably will worsen as higher-priced homes continue to enter the market. Culpeper, for instance, will add more than 2,300 homes and apartments in the next six years.

Most of the new homes are priced between $275,000 to $400,000, which “immediately freezes up anyone who lives and works here,” said Lyle Thompson, managing real estate broker with Montague, Miller & Co. in Culpeper.

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