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.

During the conference, the pending Shady Grove master plan was mentioned frequently. Because the Shady Grove Metro station area offers a unique transit-oriented development opportunity, county planners have proposed relatively high residential densities, coupled with employment-oriented uses, shopping, recreation and open space. A high-priority goal at Shady Grove is achieving balance between homes and jobs.

But some think that the proposed Shady Grove density is too high. They fear overcrowded roads and overcrowded schools, anxieties not surprising in light of the county's budgetary and tax policies, which can slow down provision of infrastructure and public services. They also wonder if all the projected jobs will materialize, since the plan's transportation strategy depends in part on reducing the number of long commutes.

No matter what happens at Shady Grove or elsewhere, the bottom line is that the inventory of affordable homes in Montgomery County is shrinking. Even the laudable efforts of the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, which as of 2004 had developed, financed or otherwise assisted the creation of almost 30,000 moderately priced dwelling units, cannot keep pace with need.

What's the solution?

In variously subdued, pedantic and evangelical tones, conference speakers and panelists offered an array of ideas and suggestions. Among them:

· Use county-owned land for affordable housing.

· Reconsider the size of the Agricultural Preserve.

· Increase allowable densities on underdeveloped and undeveloped land.

· Find ways to keep affordable dwellings affordable.

· Modify zoning ordinances to enable creation of more affordable housing.

· Simplify environmental and other government regulations to reduce costs.

· Motivate employers to help provide affordable housing for their employees.

· Better educate voters to change perceptions and counteract "NIMBY-ism."

· Support political leaders in efforts to enhance housing affordability.

All are worthwhile. But the most fundamental affordable housing problem remains: the money gap.

No matter how hard we try to trim specific costs, the aggregate development costs -- and fair market value -- of land and housing are likely to continue rising more quickly than incomes. And working families will continue to be priced out of the market.

The often unacknowledged 800-pound gorilla at every affordable housing conference and seminar I have attended is the inescapable need for subsidies to close the money gap. Why is the gorilla ignored? Because subsidies, which can be provided in many ways, ultimately require some form of public funding and more tax revenue.

In today's political and economic culture, talking about raising taxes is practically taboo. Even in affluent and politically progressive Montgomery County, voters are unlikely to support taxing themselves to boost subsidies and significantly increase affordable housing.

Yet only a substantial shift in public sentiment and changes in fiscal and land-use policies can improve Montgomery County's housing affordability outlook. Unless the money gap is narrowed, workers will have no choice but to live far from the county, even outside of Maryland. This is why next year's housing conference should focus on the 800-pound gorilla.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company