When it comes to housing in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, Maggie Garrido-Cortes has seen the issue from multiple angles. As a former 211 operator tasked with helping callers find public health and community resources, she took calls for assistance, connecting people in need to service providers.
Now, Garrido-Cortes is one of those very providers. She currently works as a housing program coordinator for Telamon, a Martinsburg-based community action organization that helps provide financial assistance and counseling and takes client referrals from state and city officials, and local nonprofits.
Her voice perks up when she talks about the organization’s successes — like educating first-time homebuyers and helping veterans transition from homelessness to permanent housing. But right now, more people need help than Garrido-Cortes’ team can handle.
“We have people sleeping in their vehicles, the motels around town are full of families,” she said. “You go in the morning and you’ll see the school bus pulling up to pick up children living there. It’s almost at crisis level.”
The problem, she says, is simple to identify, but complex to solve. The Eastern Panhandle is booming, with a wave of new businesses and a population that’s becoming larger and wealthier. In Berkeley County, where Martinsburg is the county seat, the population has grown by 19% over the last decade and the median income has risen 26% over the same time period. But affordable housing hasn’t kept up; by one estimate, the area needs some 1,330 new rental units to close the affordable housing gap.
And as long-term residents across the broader region struggle to keep up with the area’s rising costs, the shortage is raising concern that the people most in need will be left behind.
“As a bedroom community for the D.C. metro area, we’ve got a lot of folks [moving in] who are OK with paying $1,200-$1,400 for a one bedroom apartment,” Garrido-Cortes said. “But for your local folks, they aren’t able to do that, even with the jobs that are available here.”
As demand for housing grows, poorer residents are left behind
Across West Virginia, there’s a shortage of quality housing. But there’s also a specific lack of affordable rental housing: for every 100 households that fall below the federal poverty level in West Virginia, there are just 50 rental homes available that meet their needs, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The problem is particularly pronounced in the Eastern Panhandle, which includes Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties. On paper, many people are well off financially: federally-calculated median incomes for a family of four can range from $74,000 in Morgan to over $110,000 in Jefferson. But for the families that earn well below those incomes, affordable housing can be hard to find.
As the area has become a haven for people fleeing the higher cost of living in DC, demand has increased and housing stock in general has become scarce. According to one report from the city of Martinsburg, even as the local population grew, the number of housing units in the city shrunk in the mid-2010s, going from 8,400 in 2010 to 8,119 in 2015.
Demand for public housing, which is meant to help people with the lowest incomes, is also at a breaking point. In Martinsburg, there were 176 people on the public housing waiting list and 143 other households on the waiting list for federal Section 8 vouchers in 2022.
Rent, meanwhile, continues to rise. The Department of Housing and Urban Development says that a 2023 fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment plus utilities in Berkeley County is $1,122, a 24% increase from 2018. But for a family of four that is considered extremely low income, paying more than $800 a month would be difficult.
It’s straining both people in need of affordable housing and the providers trying to help them.
“I understand from an economic development side that we want to be able to attract people to live here,” said Jamila Jones, a Martinsburg nonprofit founder and economic development chair of the Jefferson County NAACP. “But from a community development side, we also need to be creating places where people are able to afford it.”
A growing housing crisis grabs attention
Local officials have acknowledged the need for affordable housing. In the city of Martinsburg’s 2018 comprehensive plan, the city council noted that “while Martinsburg’s relatively low home and rent costs when compared to its larger region may be attractive to new residents, many existing residents of the City struggle to afford housing.”
But that same report concluded that due to the relative low cost of housing in the Eastern Panhandle compared to other DC suburb communities, creating more affordable housing would be difficult. Instead the council suggested that the city work to increase local salaries instead.
In the wake of the pandemic and in the midst of a regional cost of living crisis, some local government officials want to return to the issue.
“I think we need to find out if there is a way to expand on existing programs, and if there are opportunities to grow subsidized housing,” said David Haarberg, a Martinsburg City Council member.
But Haarberg, who also works as a real estate appraiser, acknowledges that these efforts are still in their infancy, even as more money comes in that could help. Earlier this year, a group of Eastern Panhandle officials released a plan outlining how they would spend $1.8 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to address local housing and homelessness issues. Roughly a fifth of the money has been marked for affordable housing development, though there are few public details about what that will look like.
As advocates and city officials figure out what to do next, a different type of housing is getting attention in downtown Martinsburg. After nearly five decades of sitting empty, developers are spending $80 million turning the Interwoven Mill and Perfection Garment complex into 387 apartments and a 5,500 square foot commercial complex.
The former sock factory, a hulking mass of brick and glass, is already under construction and many are hopeful it will spur more development in the area. But a stark reminder of the local housing needs that won’t be affected by the project’s completion are visible from many of its windows: directly across the street, the Martinsburg Union Rescue Mission provides meals and beds to people experiencing homelessness in the area.
In an email, a principal for the developer in charge of the Martinsburg project noted that rents are still being finalized. The current estimated price for a two-bedroom with utilities? $1,400 to $1,650.
Have you struggled to find affordable housing in the Eastern Panhandle? Tell us about it here.
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