A Place to Call Home

My first job was in construction. I was thirteen and full of energy, so my stepfather thought I should use my horsepower for something other than lying around all summer. He was a project manager for an apartment builder, so off I went at the end of school to scrape plaster from floors in preparation for the hardwood installers, clean up piles of construction debris, and walk to the nearest convenience story to buy sodas for the workers, among other things.
It was the summer of 1966, and I was making 50 cents an hour and somehow happy. I don’t think I cared so much about the money as having the feeling I had entered the adult world. At thirteen, I was already dreaming of my first car and what freedom it would bring.

Then it happened. It was early August and so hot I can still feel it. I was dropped off on a new job site by my stepfather and told to help a crew that was landscaping around an upscale complex. When I was sent to help the bosses’ sons spread straw over newly-sown grass seed, I found out they were a little younger than I, so I felt superior and it wasn’t long before the wage issue came up. “Yeah, we’re making a buck an hour,” the older of the two said.
I was flabbergasted. These two had barely broken a sweat between trips to the water cooler, throwing straw at one another, and taking breaks under a big elm tree on the property. I began thinking about the $4 a day I was making, and suddenly entering the adult world was no longer important. Now it was about the money.

At 13, I didn’t see the value. I was picking up about $20 a week, which even then was pretty rotten pay; but for my stepfather it was about the lessons I would learn. He was right. I learned a certain work ethic that I still carry today. I learned the value of money; Lord knows I had to figure out how to stretch my money when making that pittance. Minimum wage in ’66 was $1.25. I had no idea, but I quit anyway.

The next summer, I didn’t work at all and the summer ended the same way. I hadn’t saved a dime.

Nowadays, it’s difficult for many of us to save any money. Mortgage, car loan, utilities, cell phone, food costs, health care, credit cards, have got everyone stretched to the limit. And that’s just those who are established. If you don’t already own a home and you still have the rest of these expenses, chances are you’re not going to buy a home any time soon, and possibly never. The day of homeownership may have seen its peak.

Almost 18 percent of Chesterfield workers are employed in retail. Retail workers in Chesterfield gross about $469 a week on average. Could a retail worker afford to buy their own home? The formula that most lenders use to qualify someone for a new mortgage is that only one-third of a person’s monthly income can be used for their mortgage and escrow. The bottom of the price range for a home in Chesterfield is about $150,000, and even with only five percent down payment, that mortgage and escrow could run $1,000 a month. Our retail worker doesn’t qualify unless he or she has a partner who makes about the same amount of money each week.

So our retail worker has to rent. Any new apartment complex will get $ 900 to $1,200 a month for a one- or two-bedroom basic living space. So not just our retail worker, but our children who are just arriving in the job market, have to find other, less expensive housing. Where is that housing? It’s small, aging multi-family; it’s mobile home parks; it’s maisonettes, and it’s Mom and Dad’s house.

We have a serious housing problem in Chesterfield that we have to grab by the horns. Affordable housing has slipped away, and if we continue in the direction we’re going, we’ll become an elite community without housing opportunities for our children. Combine housing issues with a lack of cultural venues, and our kids will leave to find communities that provide the jobs, housing, and culture that young people want and need these days.
The answer to this problem is a difficult one. And it has to do with diversity. We must begin to build a diversity of housing into our community. It doesn’t work to build large, low-income neighborhoods. We’ve seen the result. Affordable housing must be built in small clusters within communities that are more market-priced.

Larger affordable communities can deteriorate when times get tough and residents feel the misfortune of others and become disillusioned. The properties then become neglected and the neighborhood becomes blighted.

The solution is to mix these affordable homes and multifamily dwellings within neighborhoods built for higher-income individuals, thereby diversifying our neighborhoods. The county can help by providing appropriate zoning, waiving proffers on units that comply with an overall affordable housing policy, and making it easier for developers or redevelopers to do the job of providing a wide range of housing options.

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