The FWD #182 • 790 Words
A TikTok video told viewers how to find affordable housing. Instead, they found us.
People need affordable housing, and the internet—for all the problems it causes—has made it easier than ever to search for housing that won’t break the bank. Sometimes in their searches users stumble upon HousingForward Virginia and, believing we’re a direct service organization or government agency, contact us and ask for help.
This happens usually no more than once a week. Our website’s contact forms all automatically inform the user that we are not the organization they are looking for, and point them in the direction of services in their area.
However, between December 17 and December 24, 2022, we received twelve total website inquiries looking for housing assistance. Another five came in the next week. Most came from the contact form at the bottom of our Inclusionary Housing resource page. And all the requests contained similar language—looking to register for a class, or obtain a certificate.
But the contact form submissions were just a drop in the bucket; the Inclusionary Housing page earned a whopping 2,261 unique pageviews in the final two weeks of the year. In the preceding two weeks, netizens had left it completely alone.
So what led to this trend?
We asked the users who contacted us how they had found our website. Google Analytics showed that most of the traffic had come from plain old search engine results. But one user responded that they had seen a video on their For You page (FYP) in the TikTok social video sharing app which told them to Google search for “inclusionary zoning Virginia.” Those search terms returned our website as the first result.
The TikTok in question was posted on December 17, 2022. It presented viewers with a “cheap apartment hack,” wherein they could find high-quality, affordable rental homes in their area by searching for inclusionary zoning and the name of their state, then “taking the class” and “getting the certificate” before finally being placed in a luxury apartment for far below the market rate.
That answered the question of how, then. But the issue remained that the “hack” users were following was destined to fail—there is no statewide inclusionary zoning program in Virginia, and no classes or certificates to be had. So why did the person in the TikTok video make those claims?
It’s not a hack—it’s a feature.
One of the tags in the caption of the video was “#DCApartmentHunting.” The user was based in Washington, D.C., which does have an inclusionary zoning program, and the first step for renters is indeed a 2-hour orientation class which awards a certificate at the end. We can’t fault them for thinking this simple process would hold true outside of the District, but in Virginia, the situation is much different.
As we covered in the Back to Basics post on Inclusionary Zoning, only certain localities are given broad authority by the state to write their own inclusionary zoning ordinances—the counties of Albemarle, Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun, and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Charlottesville (as of 2020). Other counties and cities are allowed to implement Affordable Dwelling Unit programs as well, but statute prescribes certain parts of the local ordinances and prohibits them from requiring affordable units in by-right developments.
Is this a sign to shift our strategies?
As evidenced by the tremendous amount of Web traffic it generated for us, the market is hungry for high-quality, affordable units in mixed-income neighborhoods. And as the younger, internet-born Generation Z continues entering the housing market, it will become absolutely necessary to make affordable housing easier to find through the channels they already use.
In all of Virginia’s 95 counties and 38 independent cities, only five are currently operating Affordable Dwelling Unit programs: the City of Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Loudoun County, and the City of Virginia Beach. Of these, only Loudoun County has a unified intake process that you might find in a Google search; the rest require applicants to contact property owners directly.
Changes to state law in 2020 opened up more possibilities and provided detailed guidance for localities to implement Affordable Dwelling Unit programs. But most of the local governments who were originally interested in using this new authority quickly had other priorities once the pandemic began. For now, existing zoning continues to limit our ability to create the kinds of housing that people want and need.
We’re currently planning a statewide initiative called ZONED IN, which will aim to facilitate educational conversations about zoning and affordability at a regional level. If you want to talk more with us about zoning and inclusionary housing in your area, let us know.