It's a Nice Place to Work, but You Probably Can't Live There

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 14, 2005

It was the perfect title for Montgomery County's recent Affordable Housing Conference: "Work Here! Live Where?"

As in other places, the price of housing in Montgomery County has risen far faster than household incomes. Today many who work in the county and contribute to its quality of life -- teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses, and thousands of government and private-sector service employees -- cannot afford to own a home in the county.

One conference participant pointed out that a company whose engineers earn $60,000 to $70,000 annually chose to locate elsewhere because the professional staff had difficulty finding homes they could afford.

Eventually half the county's workforce could be living outside the county. And while many workers will reside in relatively nearby Howard, Frederick or Prince George's counties, where real estate is less expensive, some will buy homes as far away as West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Lack of housing affordable by fully employed, middle-class wage earners ultimately could deter businesses from locating in Montgomery County, hurting the county's long-term economic health.

And there are other problems. As county workers disperse and move ever farther in search of affordable homes, they must commute ever greater distances for ever greater amounts of time.

This will further overburden highways within the region, where traffic congestion is the nation's third worst -- behind Los Angeles and San Francisco -- according to a new study by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Longer commutes mean not only more congestion but also more energy consumption, more pollution and less time for people at home or at work.

As conference attendees noted, rising home prices are attributable to persistent, interrelated market and economic conditions: the shrinking supply of developable land and consequently higher land costs, rising costs for construction and regulatory compliance, willingness and ability of home buyers to bid up and pay more for homes because of low mortgage interest rates, and general shortfalls in housing production and supply relative to demand.

The scarcity of land for new development is exacerbated by county zoning policies and regulations that restrict uses, density and building height.

Also constraining land availability, and therefore boosting land values, is the inclination of citizens in existing neighborhoods to oppose changes in land-use regulations that would increase neighborhood density or promote socioeconomic diversity. Although understandable, such attitudes limit infill or redevelopment strategies that would increase housing supply.

Yet objections arise even when land is available.

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