A Realization in Fairfax About Traffic and Housing

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, July 5, 2008

Affordable-housing problems are a perennial theme of conferences sponsored by state and local governments, professional organizations, and trade associations. Fairfax County, one of America's most affluent jurisdictions, recently came up with a smart variation on that theme for its latest housing summit: "The Intersection of Traffic and Workforce Housing."

Fairfax County officials realize that the production and availability of affordable workforce housing are inextricably linked to land use and transportation policies. If those policies are not intelligently reconsidered and revised, the county's housing-affordability problem will worsen.

Officials also have learned that if affordable workforce housing becomes increasingly scarce, Fairfax County's continuing economic health -- and job growth in particular -- could be seriously jeopardized.

This is the finding of a study of future demand for Fairfax County workforce housing, prepared by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis. The report predicts that nearly 200,000 new jobs could be added in the county by 2025. But "without sufficient affordable housing," the report says, "it is unlikely that this anticipated growth will occur."

The report further points out that, given current trends, workers in certain sectors -- accommodation and food services, administrative support, waste management, health and social services, education -- will have the most difficulty finding affordable housing in the county.

This is why the term "workforce housing" is not just a faddish vocabulary change. It expresses today's reality: Housing affordability is not a challenge faced only by the poor, the minimally employed or the unemployable. Middle-class, middle-income workers increasingly struggle to find homes they can afford within, or close to, employment-rich jurisdictions such as Fairfax County.

For many families, the solution has been to motor out to affordability, to look for less costly housing opportunities ever farther away from job centers. But this means increased expense to own and operate automobiles, more time spent commuting to and from work by car, and multiple automobile trips to widely dispersed sources of basic goods and services. It means more road building and traffic congestion in sprawling outer suburbs, more carbon emissions, and more pollution.

With escalating oil and gas prices, opting for cheaper, more distant housing is no longer a solution and indeed may be the costliest strategy for such families. And it is surely the costliest strategy for state and local governments responsible for meeting infrastructure and public-service needs associated with this inefficient land-use and transportation strategy.

Fairfax County's housing and traffic summit featured three panel discussions: "The Hidden Costs to Business," "Understanding the Congestion Connection" and "Housing Solutions to Ease the Commute." While the first two panels focused primarily on defining and analyzing the problem, the third dealt with the thorniest question -- how to solve the problem.

The crux of the housing problem is economic: There is a widening gap between middle-class household incomes and the price of market-rate housing. For many households, the economic stress this gap causes is worsened by the need to spend a growing and disproportionate share of family income on transportation.

Several approaches can help augment production of affordable workforce housing:

· Enact land-use regulations, such as inclusionary zoning and density bonuses, that motivate developers to provide below-market-rate dwellings as part of larger, market-rate, mixed-use projects. This approach, which in effect reduces land cost allocable to such units, should be aimed mostly at projects accessible to both transit and employment.

· Subsidize workforce-housing production by providing publicly owned land at a discount or even at no cost to nonprofit developers, or to public-private partnerships committed to building workforce housing. Tax abatement could be an additional form of subsidy. These subsidized developments likewise should be near transit and employment.

· Encourage business organizations and institutions to sponsor and invest in development of transit-accessible workforce housing for employees.

· Promote and fund research and development efforts leading to innovative housing designs, building materials and construction technologies, all of which must be both sustainable and cost-effective.

· Reduce housing development costs by easing or eliminating unnecessarily onerous regulatory requirements and procedures.

Yet given the increasing scope of the problem, all of these approaches may prove marginal without greater investment in public transit.

Workforce housing production and public transportation must become much higher-priority issues for not only states, counties and municipalities, but also the nation. Until that happens, the intersection of traffic and workforce housing will remain hopelessly gridlocked.

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

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