The coming of the commuter culture has brought a new prosperity to the Fredericksburg area, but it also has created new kinds of need.
Many people who grew up in the area find themselves priced out of a booming housing market and unable to keep up with the cost of living. In the city and adjacent Stafford and Spotsylvania counties, the poverty level has risen right along with the population and the median income.
Changing demographics have produced some unfamiliar and disturbing scenes in an area that not long ago was mostly farmland and one-lane roads: day laborers gathered on street corners to wait for construction jobs, people sleeping under bridges along the Rappahannock River and municipal officials fighting over who should shoulder the costs of the poor.
City officials say the answer to that question has been Fredericksburg, where several regional social-service agencies are based and which has the area's only homeless shelter. From 1990 to 2000, the city's population grew only 1.3 percent, but the number of people living below the poverty line -- now $8,860 a year for a single person, $18,100 for a family of four -- rose 28 percent.
The rest of the story is told in the burgeoning counties next door. In Spotsylvania, the population rose 57 percent in the same decade, and the number of poor nearly kept pace, rising 51 percent.
In Stafford, the population increased 51 percent and the number of poor 31 percent. There, the median income rose to more than $71,000, coming within $10,000 of Washington's wealthiest Virginia suburbs, Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
Most of the new arrivals in the area have been 20- to 44-year-olds and retirees, said Eric Nelson, a planner in the Fredericksburg office of planning and community development. He said those in the first group are entering or at the height of their earning years, often at jobs in Washington or its near suburbs, and many of those in the second group are very well off.
The result has been rising costs that now look more like those in large cities: $5 to have a skirt dry-cleaned, $875 a month for a studio apartment. The average cost of a home in Stafford County last year rose to $187,000, up 7 percent from 2001, and in Spotsylvania to $163,270, a 13 percent increase, according to the Fredericksburg Area Association of Realtors.
But the area's economy relies in large part on retail businesses, which provide a majority of the jobs. For the people who fill those jobs, many of them the grown children of longtime residents, Nelson said, "being able to afford a home is often beyond their means." They rent -- also with difficulty -- or move away.
"There's this mismatch between what people earn and housing costs," said Sheila Crowley, a Fredericksburg resident and president of the Washington-based National Low Income Housing Coalition. The city's median household income was about $34,500 in 2000, but the coalition estimates that it takes an annual salary of at least $39,960 a year to buy even a modest home in Fredericksburg, where the median housing price in 2000 was $135,800.
The gap is wider in the counties, where housing prices are higher. "You have a lot of young families, and it's just mind-boggling," said Gail Penman, a Stafford real estate agent and president of the Fredericksburg Area Association of Realtors. "You can't find anything for them. Inventory is way low. And we don't know where it's going to stop."
The problem is acute for low-wage laborers, including many of those who help build the new houses and shopping malls, and for those who can't work because of physical or mental illness.
Although the cost of living is somewhat lower than it is closer to Washington, "what you can get with $1 here is a lot less than you can get in the Shenandoah [Valley], the Northern Neck or southwest Virginia," said Bill Botts, executive director of Rappahannock Legal Services, which provides civil legal services for the indigent in Frederick and 16 counties. "We try to help people subsist in an expensive environment."
The area's only homeless shelter, with 80 beds, also is in more demand. There has been debate in the last year over where to put a new one, who should pay for it and how many people will need it.
But in January, a coalition of social service agencies conducted a canvass, searching out the homeless in an area that also included Caroline and King George counties, and concluded that 625 to 870 people had no home, including those at the shelter. Nelson and other city officials said they were concerned that people had been double-counted, and they estimated the homeless population at about half that range.
At the heart of the numbers dispute is money. Botts said rising numbers of poor have increased tensions between the city and counties over resources. "The city sees itself as providing a disproportionate amount of services to the needy," he said.
A growing subset of the needy are those who are substance abusers or mentally handicapped. "People come as part of a family unit and then they age out -- of the school system, of their families," and then require public services, said Jim Gillespie, who works with both kinds of clients at the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board.
Nelson said the region's experience is typical of places coping with rapid growth. The challenge, he said, is creating the right jobs -- unskilled, skilled, professional -- close to home to keep the wheels turning.
"You need a mix of people to support an economy. That's how it works," Nelson said. "We have more rich people, but on the other hand, the number of people in poverty is growing. We're just getting both extremes."