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Filling Up With Empty-Nesters

Phyllis Nash, left, in the kitchen of her new home in the Scot's Glen age-restricted development in Columbia, with friends Lionel Fultz and Illene Hoss. Nash and her husband, Bernard, are longtime Howard County residents.
Phyllis Nash, left, in the kitchen of her new home in the Scot's Glen age-restricted development in Columbia, with friends Lionel Fultz and Illene Hoss. Nash and her husband, Bernard, are longtime Howard County residents. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

Since Columbia was built nearly four decades ago, Howard County attracted mostly families with young children looking to escape the high housing prices and headaches of modern city life.

But when county officials consider who they most want now, it's empty-nesters like Bernard and Phyllis Nash, a growing portion of the population and one that holds advantages for communities that can lure them. They're over 55, yet perhaps decades from a nursing home. They pay plenty in taxes. And they don't use one of the most expensive local services: schools.

To that end, Howard County has rewritten its development rules to benefit from the economics and demographics of an aging society. For decades, suburban communities have focused on managing the impacts of growth by demanding land, impact fees and other concessions from developers to subsidize the roads, water systems and schools that new subdivisions require. In Howard, the focus is shifting toward housing for people like the Nashes -- and on trying to loosen the rules for developers who build homes for them.

County rules now mandate that at least 250 of the 1,850 residences that can be built in the county each year be set aside for people age 55 and older. In a county where the wait for building permits can run five years, developers of age-restricted communities can jump to the head of the line, and apply for permission to build more units per acre than are otherwise allowed.

The incentives appear to be working. There are 16 age-restricted communities in Howard County, half of them built in the past two years, according to the county's Office of Aging. Twenty-two more are in the works.

When schools are overenrolled at 115 percent, as they are in some parts of the county, local regulations freeze development of all except age-restricted communities, said Phyllis Madachy, the Office on Aging administrator.

"Rather than hold on to the land and wait for the schools to be lesser enrolled, developers turned that land to the use of senior housing," Madachy said. "The building community turned like a big ship away from single-family homes to active-adult housing."

The aging of the baby-boom generation is a focus of economic discussion nationwide, as businesses and governments try to anticipate the retirement of a group of people that redefined life and work at every stage of life. Born from 1946 to 1964, the boomers are generally healthier and wealthier than their parents and grandparents. And there are a lot of them: nearly 80 million nationwide.

In Howard County, the 55- to 59-year-old age bracket grew faster than the county's total population, increasing about 156 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. That age bracket expanded even more quickly in Loudoun County (281 percent) and Prince William County (191 percent) in Virginia, also outpacing total population growth. There were similar increases of 60- to 64-year-olds in all three counties.

Increasing the tax base is "a nice side benefit" but not the motivating factor behind the county's senior housing push, said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the county's Planning and Zoning Department. Instead, the county was alarmed by the swelling ranks of seniors (the state expects the county to have as many seniors as school-age children by 2020) and responding to senior advocates who complained about the lack of homes with first-floor master bedrooms and other features required in age-restricted homes.

Developers have recognized the opportunity.

"Outside the Sun Belt states, the Washington area has one of the largest selections of active-adult communities in the country," said Jeff Jenkins, deputy director of the seniors housing council for the National Home Builders Association. "It's become a little bit of a hotbed for active adults."


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