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Analyzing Hampton Roads' affordability: A conversation with journalist Jeff South

Home sales have slowed from their pandemic peak, but prices are still trending up. (WHRO File Photo)
Home sales have slowed from their pandemic peak, but prices are still trending up. (WHRO File Photo)

This story is part of a series about housing affordability in Hampton Roads produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Freelance journalist Jeff South helped WHRO compile and analyze data for our examination of housing affordability.

He dug into information from Zillow, the U.S. Census and elsewhere to figure out just how affordable Hampton Roads is, and how we compare to other regions. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WHRO: Jeff, thanks for being here. Before we get into the data you've been analyzing, I want to ask about one of the primary metrics known as 'cost burden.' Can you explain what it means to be cost burdened?

Jeff South: Well, experts say that you should not be spending more than 30% of your income on housing, whether that's a mortgage payment or that's your rental, you know, your rent, your monthly rent. And so that is the baseline that a lot of experts use and the Census Bureau uses to measure housing affordability and who is burdened by housing costs.

WHRO:  In other words, this is a measure of affordability by comparing the cost of housing to how much people earn to pay for that housing.

South:  Exactly. Because in California, housing costs a lot, but salaries are really high. In other communities, that might just be the reverse. And so one way to level the playing field when you measure housing stress on people is to calculate what percentage of their income goes toward housing.

WHRO: And so I'll ask the core question here. Is housing affordable in Hampton Roads?

South: Well, I can certainly say that housing is less affordable in Hampton Roads than it is in many other places. If you look at what percentage of the people in Hampton Roads spend more than 30% of their income on housing, it's more than a third. It's about 34%. Nationwide, it's less than 32% of the households that spend at least 30% of their income on housing. In the state of Virginia it's 29%. So certainly the people in Hampton Roads have a higher cost of housing compared to their income than most other places in the United States. For renters especially, I was surprised. I mean, renters in Virginia Beach, Norfolk are far more likely than mortgaged homeowners to be cost burdened. So 54% of the renters in Hampton Roads spend at least 30% of their income on housing, according to the latest census numbers. And that's pretty high. It's certainly the highest of all the metro areas in Virginia, the major metro areas.

WHRO: So how does our region stack up against similar metro areas outside of Virginia?

South: Hampton Roads has a higher housing cost index than really any other metro area of its size on the East Coast. So it's higher than Raleigh. It's higher than Jacksonville, Florida. It's higher than Charlotte. It's higher than Baltimore. In all of those communities, less than a third of the households are cost burdened.

Note: WHRO picked five metro areas to compare Hampton Roads data to based primarily on population. We picked some popular cities, known for having tough housing markets and with a range of local industries (like Nashville's music scene and Raleigh's tech industry). WHRO picked Jacksonville, Fla. because of its similar population size and large military installation.

WHRO: So did you find anything particularly unexpected as you dug through this data about affordability in Hampton Roads?

South: I was thinking that, frankly, that it wouldn't be any different from Richmond or D.C. And surprisingly, in the Washington metro area, the percentage of cost burdened households there was considerably lower than Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Newport News. The proportion of cost burdened households was 31%. So that again, this compares to the 34% in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Newport News. So you have a smaller percentage of people or of households who are less burdened in the Washington, D.C. area than you have in Hampton Roads. And that was very surprising to me, because you certainly hear a lot of people moaning about the high housing costs in Northern Virginia. And while that is true, relative to their income, people in Northern Virginia are not as stressed financially as people in Virginia Beach.

WHRO: Jeff, thanks for taking the time to walk us through the data.

South: Well, Ryan, thank you so much for having me.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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