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December 7, 2005

Affordable Housing: An Oxymoron?

Alan Imhoff

Since before moving to Frederick 22 years ago, I have been involved in the county government through a number positions that have given me an opportunity to understand some of the fundamental economic forces that have driven - and are continuing to drive - many people out of the county in order to be able to afford housing.

It is not just those coming right out of college, or those that are just starting a working career at wages not much above the minimum wage but those who are in the final years of a career or about to enter into retirement.

Frederick County has been - and will continue to be - in the cross hairs of growth, whether we accept it or not. The county is located in a region that has been - and is - experiencing unprecedented growth. So, even if we were to "shut the doors to building new homes," the pressures from surrounding jurisdictions would put continued strain on our roads, would alter our commercial base and may even unduly influence our job market.

The county has done a good job in managing growth up to a point; but it is also beginning to experience the unintended consequences in how that growth was and still is managed.

One of the most glaring unintended consequences is the "lack of affordable housing." Everyone assumes when you talk "affordable housing" you are talking for those on the lowest rungs of the ladder of financial success; the old "projects" of yesteryear, the subsidized programs to locate those with marginal incomes into certain types of housing through the use of vouchers.

But it is not just those on the lowest rung any more. Increasingly it is those on many of the lower rungs. The county is trying its best to encourage the MPDU (Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit) program where a certain percentage of new development must be set aside for those who qualify for the program.

While laudable, it is fraught with problems stemming from the sheer economic reality of ever-escalating prices for buildable lots (which have been restricted by the county's management of residential growth), the tremendous increases in the prices for the building materials (caused by an unprecedented national building boom, a war and those nasty hurricanes) and finally by over $20,000 in permits and fees.

So, it is not uncommon to see a price tag of over $120,000 for just the land and fees to build a housing unit, let alone the cost of materials.

Then we get to taxation.

Enough said.

Combined, these factors are forcing the younger married couple, both with good incomes, to look further afield for their next home. Companies locating here often find it difficult to locate their employee's close to work because of the lack of "affordable housing."

Increasingly I hear from many of my peers (the AARP age-qualified people) of their inability to keep up with the rising costs of living here and their desire to leave. Much of that is part of a natural process, but more frequently the reasons for going to South Carolina or Florida or some other state, is that the property taxes are much, much lower on houses that are much, much cheaper.

As a county we have been complaining of uncontrolled growth since the late 1970's (and I am sure others can attest to even earlier), but is it as bad as we have made it?

Our neighboring county to the south - Loudoun County, Virginia - was comparable to our county in many ways. Rural, agricultural population centered in or near small towns and municipalities; we both followed the same growth patterns up until the 1980's. Then we took off. In 1990 our population was 150,208, Loudoun's was only 86,129, by the 2000 Census Loudoun had grown to 169,599 while we marched slower to 195,277.

However, in 2000 Loudoun issued 6,134 permits for new housing; Frederick County on the other hand issued 2,918. But even more interesting is another county even further south, just outside of Atlanta. Gwinnett County was another peer county used in a Demographic and Economic Base Analysis study in 2001 for our Office of Economic Development.

In 1970 Gwinnett County had a population of 72,349 while we had 84,927; by 1990 while ours was 150,208, Gwinnett had exploded to 352,910. By the 2000 Census they were at 588,448 while we grew to 195,277. Talk about growth pressures.

So, while we pride ourselves in managing growth, are we really growing too slow?

The demand is there, but has our focus been too narrow. As a result, how many of our children will be able to afford starting their families here, assuming we haven't left already for that nice little town in South Carolina.

We have choices, but what about all that do not have those choices, what are we saying to them?



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