Earlier this week, Constance Gee and her husband decided not to interview for teaching positions with Prince William County schools after they decided a townhouse in the area would be beyond their salaries.
"I couldn't possibly consider it," said Gee, who was looking for a new job because she does not have health insurance through her teaching job in Charlottesville. "We thought Prince William would be out enough that we could consider it."
But Prince William, once a far-off suburb with moderately priced homes, has been growing rapidly and becoming less affordable for teachers, police officers and other public employees needed to keep the county running. And businesses and community groups are worried enough about the situation that they are recruiting faith-based organizations to help build homes for people who work in the county but find desirable housing uncomfortably expensive.
The nonprofit Greater Prince William Community Development Center has come up with a plan to build 1,000 homes that would cost $80,000 less than market value on 60 acres of land owned by various churches throughout the county.
Yesterday, the Prince William Regional Chamber of Commerce endorsed the proposal.
"People who have long commutes are not as productive," said Laurie C. Wieder, the chamber's president.
Regina Perrin, chief executive officer of Meeting House Corp., a nonprofit group that works with churches on a variety of projects, conceived the plan after she realized that many of the churches owned land zoned residential.
She then visited a faith-based housing program in Houston, which she used as a model.
"We're trying to make it possible to live and work in the same place," she said.
Last year, Perrin approached leaders of 40 area churches, asking them to donate, lease or sell their land to the center so homes could be built within the next five years and sold to local workers who earn $38,500 to $120,000 per household.
"We found out that land makes up 40 percent or more of the total cost of a property," said Miles Friedman, a consultant to the center. "The biggest incentive is that the faith-based groups are not looking at the same return on investment as an investor would be."
Center officials are in talks with several churches to set aside their land for the project, including four acres owned by the Christ Chapel in Woodbridge, an Assembly of God church.
"It has kind of perked our ear a little bit," church pastor Bill Roberts said about the center's proposal. His congregation has long planned to build homes on the property adjacent to the church but had originally considered housing for the elderly.
Manassas-based Catholics for Housing Inc. is spearheading a similar housing project.
"Affordable housing is at crisis proportions in this area now," said Christopher A. Johnston, executive director of Catholics for Housing.
The organization is working with Reston-based builder NVR to erect 19 townhouses that cost about $150,000 below market value in Bristow intended for nurses, teachers and other local workers. In 2000, the faith-based group sold 33 townhomes in Dumfries for about $120,000 each.
"Nothing will ever meet the need," Johnston said. "The demand so far exceeds the supply. I have no illusions, but we have to start somewhere."
The median sales price for houses in the county rose to $295,000 last year from $137,000 in 2000, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. Meanwhile, average teacher salaries in the county increased to $51,120 from $43,600 during the same five-year period.
That led at least a dozen teachers to turn down jobs at Prince William County schools this year because they couldn't afford to buy a house in the county, said Darlene Faltz, recruitment supervisor for the school district.
The county's police officers confront the same circumstances, and about half of them live in Fauquier, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties primarily because of the housing prices in Prince William.
Firefighters also are feeling the squeeze.
"If we need them to come in at a moment's notice, it's a benefit for fire and rescue workers to live within the county," said Olufunke T. Owolabi, spokeswoman for the county's fire and rescue department.