A Brief Summary on My Low-Income Housing Research

Summarizing the weeks I spent on my research on low-income and public housing is not an easy task. To start, I should say it was nothing like I expected. Almost nothing worked out the way I anticipated. The professors I planned on partnering with were unavailable. The book I planned on reading got seriously back ordered. The information I thought would be available through databases and research was largely non-existent. I think that I could have been much more successful had I not been focused on the location of the Williamsburg area. This area isn’t very populated, and I think that most of the statistics developed within the town are focused on the College and on the tourism industry, rather than on poverty and the town’s status on housing. I think there is still an incredible amount for me to learn. If anything though, I have discovered how troublesome the housing crisis here is. I have learned of the difficult balance the town is forced to uphold. Between the College and the Colonial Williamsburg tourism industry, Williamsburg must maintain this image of perfection and a sense of utopia in order to keep money coming in. Without this, the service jobs these industries provide would be lost. Unfortunately it is the employees of the service industry that have so much trouble finding affordable housing. So if a public housing or low-income housing project was built in plain-view, it could hurt the tourism industry, and ultimately its inhabitants. Therefore the housing crisis here is not one that can easily be solved, but I think it would be beneficial if more of the aiding organizations and the city came together to help the problem. They would be much more effective if they worked together. I feel very lucky to have been granted the opportunity to do my research, and it has been such a great learning experience.

Coming to a Close

With classes now suddenly in full swing my research has come to a close, which is disappointing, because it felt as though the more I learned and the more leads I got the more I realized how little I knew and how much there was left for me to learn. I’ve been spending some more time on the sites Ms. Vestal pointed out to me- the HUDD research site as well as the Cooper Center. I have had some success looking at these sites, but not too much. Unfortunately, Williamsburg is such a small and relatively unpopulated area so there is not much data on it, and what I’m researching is such a specific subject so there really is not much to find. I did finally finish reading Where the Other Half Lives, edited by Sarah Glynn. Most of the focus was on housing in the United Kingdom, but some of what was said could be applied to the United States as well, so it proved to be somewhat beneficial. Another focus in the book was on how neoliberal policies have affected the housing crisis. This truly began in the 1970s, with the methodical destruction of subsidized public housing in the United States in order to promote “self-sufficiency” and reduce the amount of government involvement. The book did best in providing a timeline for monumental moments in the history of low-income housing, but not necessarily within the United States. Again, there is still so much left for me to learn, but with the fall semester here, it is sadly time for my research to come to a close.

Meeting with United Way Representative Liz Vestal

Today I met with Liz Vestal of the United Way and it proved to be an effective meeting.  The United Way of Greater Williamsburg has a Community Resource Center, at which they distribute whatever aid they can to those in need. From there, she was able to obtain some of this year’s data regarding the number of clients/households served as well as the number of referrals for aid they have received. The referral types are divided into the categories of food, clothes, household items, utilities, rent/mortgage/motel/shelter, prescription, glasses, information/screening, and other. Obviously the category most relevant to me would be rent/mortgage/motel/shelter. From there the requests are divided by months. January was the month of the most requests, 135, and April appears to be an outlier of 66, because every other month has had over 100 referrals. The total number of this type of referrals between January and July of 2013 was 767, an average of about 110 a month. The Community Resource Center of the United Way has already served 1218 households or 2636 clients in total (a huge number relative to the small population here).  Liz was also telling me about an initiative she was a part of that finds landlords who allow the United Way to manage their homes. In return the landlords allow people with past legal and financial troubles who have difficulty finding homes to live there.  For the landlords this means that they do not have to be around all the time to check on their properties, and for the tenant this means a place they can rent, and assistance in paying the rent if they are unable to all of the time. They just recently linked up with their first landlord involved in the program. This man had 11 units that he offered to the United Way, 10 of them were duplexes, and 1 is a home which the United Way will be using as a house for previously incarcerated women to transition into. Ms. Vestal was also aware of an estimation attained by her colleges that in Williamsburg during any given week there are 500-600 families living in hotels. In such a small town this is an astronomical number! In addition to all of this data, she was able to point me in the direction of some people she thought could potentially help me, including a woman working in the James City County School District and another for Social Services of James City County. She even gave me the idea of perhaps approaching a tax assessor here to see if I can acquire some data relating to property taxes, which is something I never would have been able to come up with on my own. Overall, Ms. Vestal seemed to genuinely be interested in what I am doing and wanted to help me as much as she could, so it was very refreshing to be working with someone that appeared to care as much as she did. The summer is soon coming to a close, which is disappointing, because there is still so much left to uncover.

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Taking Advantage of Research Opportunities

I recently co-led a pre-orientation service trip through 7 Generations here at the College. This was supposed to be a week-long break in my research as I continued to read Where the Other Half Lives: Lower Income Housing in a Neoliberal World. Instead, I discovered a new passion for my research, and I was reminded of all the reasons why I wanted to do this in the first place. In addition, I created new contacts that can aid my research.  No, I haven’t finished reading the book (it’s a bit dry and much of it is in the context of Scottish housing authorities that I am not familiar with), but I now feel reinvigorated for this last push of research! As part of the trip we had a panel of representatives from local authorities to come talk with the incoming William & Mary students about community issues faced by the less fortunate of Williamsburg. Jalauna Burton was there (the Public Housing Manager I previously had contact with), along with a representative from Avalon, United Way, and two other organizations. It was amazing to be in the presence of all these community leaders together! Before this event, I can’t say I was very knowledgeable of the role of United Way within the community, however now I realize that their resources can prove to be very beneficial in my research.  I plan on meeting with their representative, Liz Vestal, this Tuesday to find out what their take on the housing situation in Williamsburg is, and what kind of numbers they have (such as their estimate on the number of impoverished families living in hotels).  Ms. Vestal also was kind enough to forward me some links to research organizations I was not aware of that may also be able to help me. One that she sent me was for the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. From what I’ve seen so far it looks like I will be able to obtain a lot of data regarding how what I’m seeing in Williamsburg compares to the state and different regions within the state. I’ve learned that when one is doing research like this, one can never take a break. Opportunities are constantly arising, and I am glad I have taken advantage of the ones I was recently presented with.

Lessons Learned, and The Next Step

Things have been a little slow recently as far as research goes. Already I’ve realized I have learned some valuable lessons from this process that I wouldn’t have learned so quickly otherwise. One lesson is that many professors do not respond to emails during the summer. This is probably something I should have assumed and something very basic that I failed to consider prior to the research. It is unfortunate because going into this I had thought certain professors would be available to me as resources, but this is not the case. Also, I’ve realized how fragmented city governments can be, with employees having their focus on very specific topics rather than broader ones. This makes it difficult when trying to get evaluations from them. Their focus is so small that they have no real view point on how broader issues can be improved (in my case, how to reduce the number of people in need of public housing in the Williamsburg area).  Perhaps most importantly, I have learned things never go as you planned.  Rather than doing initial research and then communicating with government officials, my research has been ongoing. As I meet new people I am asking myself new questions, for example, “What contractors were involved in constructing the low income housing sites and what was their motive in doing so?”

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