How affordable is housing in Virginia? How many middle-class families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads? Can a firefighter really afford to live in Fairfax?

A new tool from Housing Virginia answers those questions — and a lot more. It’s the first comprehensive, statewide database that looks at housing affordability.

Working with VAR, the Virginia Housing Development Authority, and Virginia Tech’s Center for Housing Research, Housing Virginia developed the Affordability Sourcebook, which takes data about incomes, housing prices, mortgage payments, and rental rates to give the first clear picture of the real cost of housing from Arlington to Abingdon.

First, some figures.

1. The national standard for whether a home is “affordable” is 30% — that is, if a home costs more than 30% of a household’s income, the family is considered “cost-burdened.”

2. If you take an area’s median income, a family that brings in 100% of that is solidly middle class, while a family that brings in 60% or less than the median is considered lower income. (Many state and federal departments use that 60% figure to decide eligibility for various social programs.)

Using data from the state’s MLSs, the Census Bureau, HUD, and Virginia Tech, the Sourcebook lets anyone (yes, anyone) look at state, regional, and local numbers to see how affordable an area is.

For example, almost a million households in the state are cost-burdened. And among lower-income families, just paying the rent or mortgage typically takes more than 42% of their income.

But the power of the Sourcebook is being able to look at that information on a local level: Incomes in Dulles may be higher than those in Martinsville, but so is the cost of housing (not to mention the commute). So the Sourcebook lets users pick a region, city, or county and see not only how affordable it is now, but how it has been trending (the data go back about five years).

Why is having this sort of information a big deal? Because it gives everyone — policy makers, media, urban planners, home builders, and of course Realtors® — the same information.

“For the first time ever in Virginia, we have a common set of data,” said Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors® and vice chair of Housing Virginia. “We’ll have the same database, so we’re all on the same page. We don’t have to spend time asking ‘where did your data come from?’”

Because Housing Virginia is a partnership of a wide variety of organizations — from Realtors® and home builders to not-for-profit groups, government, and academia — the information in the Sourcebook is a common ground everyone can agree on.

One of the first things it showed was that, contrary to some opinions, there are more people burdened by the cost of housing these days than before. Home prices may be declining, but so have incomes.

Housing Virginia hopes the Sourcebook will be used by a long list of groups — advocates for affordable housing will have hard numbers to show legislators. Corporations can use it to plan a move or new facility. Policy makers can use it to plan smarter growth. And Realtors® can use it to help clients make decisions about pricing and affordability.

Of course, as with any collection of data there are bound to be more uses and surprises than anyone expects. One of the first to emerge: Over the past few years, owning a home has become more affordable, while renting has become less affordable (probably because so many people were forced out of the homes they owned).

If nothing else, being able to quickly pull up accurate information about any part of the state will make it possible to see what the data really say about the economic situation. As Lafayette put it, “It allows people to unpack the headlines.”

Click here to visit and use the Affordability Sourcebook.