The Envision Loudoun effort to update the county’s long-term community development vision is entering a new phase, following several months of public input and consultant studies.
Now the 26-member stakeholder committee, appointed by the Board of Supervisors to lead the effort, will sort through those piles of information—including 210 pages of public comments—and begin developing the goals that will form the skeleton of the massive planning exercise over the next year. In the end, county supervisors will establish the framework for what Loudoun will be like in 2040.
At this stage of the discussion, no issue looms larger than meeting the county’s future housing needs. County leaders got a data dump on the topic last week.
According to the newly released “foundations report” prepared by county consultants and the planning staff, current planning policies would allow the construction of more than 51,000 additional residential units. Of that total, more than 29,000 have already been approved and are somewhere in the construction pipeline.
Meanwhile, a housing needs assessment prepared by George Mason University and a consultant also was released last week. That study’s key finding—that Loudoun needs to make room for 18,300 more homes by 2040—drew a mixed reception from county supervisors.
Both studies agree that Loudoun will need to build tens of thousands of new homes by 2040; they differ on whether large-scale policy changes are needed to provide more development opportunities. County planners expect that demand to be about 50,000 additional units, while the GMU study put the need at 64,000 over the next 20 years. By comparison, 65,700 residential units were approved for development between 2000 and 2015, according to the foundation report.
County planners also envision a shift in the demand to more urban-style housing—townhouses and multifamily units—to go along with their vertical, mixed-use Metro station plans. But the GMU demand report predicted that more than half of the new units should be single-family detached homes—a demand that could put pressure on supervisors to open up the low-density Transition Policy Area or even rural areas to create more house lots.
The GMU study predicts the county will face a housing shortage by 2030 under current policies. Supervisors weren’t ready to adopt that finding right out of the gate.
“Even before it came out, there was a big splash, and I think there were lots of eyes lighting up in the development community because we had this apparent delta,” Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said Thursday of the GMU report. “But I really want to drill down in these assumptions, because I’m pretty skeptical.”
Some of the study’s assumptions are in flux as the county works to revise its development policies both for land in the Silver Line corridor, even before tackling the broader Envision Loudoun comprehensive plan update.
“I want to emphasize that these assumptions are really key to these estimates, and, of course, if we had made different assumptions, we would have made different estimates,” said Lisa Sturtevant, president of the firm that worked with GMU to produce the study, Lisa Sturtevant and Associates LLC.
The GMU study does not take in to account changing county policies or the more than 25,000 residential units—most of them, according to Director of Planning and Zoning Ricky Barker, multifamily units—that already are approved and in the development pipeline. The study also used an employment-driven model based on current data about the number of people who commute in or out of the county, and what kind of housing they want.
Letourneau said that when he voted to bring Metro in to Loudoun, it was, in part, to change those commuting patterns.
“The whole vision was that when we have employment centers around the Metro stations. It will not only help our residents get out, but it will help bring people in,” Letourneau said. “If you’re living near the Court House station in Arlington or in Clarendon right now, you’re not taking a job in Loudoun County. Come on, get real. You’re not going to get in a car and drive out here—but you might get on a Silver Line train.”
All that said, supervisors saw a lot of value in the report.
Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said it provided good context about the magnitude of the housing demand Loudoun may have to absorb.
“We’re in the middle of a comprehensive plan amendment right now, and if we’re unconstrained, and we had to accommodate all this housing, now is the time for the board to do it,” he said.
Among the report’s key findings are that the number of renters in the county has increased substantially since the recession, and more families and older adults are now renting. The fastest growing employment sectors in the county are leisure and hospitality; health services and education, exclusive of public schools; and professional and business services, including government contractors.
It also found that 78 percent of Loudoun households earning less than 60 percent of the area median income—currently $65,200 for a family of four—are “cost burdened,” or spending more than 30 percent of their pretax, gross income on housing costs alone. In total, about 30 percent of all Loudoun households are cost burdened.
“In reality, we all know you end up getting less through the door, so for all we know we could be as high as 40 or 45 percent of our folks could actually be cost burned,” Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) said.
Along those same lines, the study shows strong future housing demand on the ends of the income scale—including nearly half of projected demand in 2040 coming from households earning 150 percent or more of area median income, currently $162,900 for a family of four.
And not keeping up with housing demand, Sturtevant said, could be an obstacle to attracting new businesses to Loudoun, among other challenges.
“Increasingly, quality of life issues, housing cost issues, employee attraction and retention—these are key things for employers, and housing has become an important part of many local jurisdictions’ economic development strategy,” Sturtevant said.
She also said a limited housing supply could force aging residents to leave their communities and put upward pressure on housing prices and rents.
“One reality that we as board members have to keep in mind as we’re moving forward is we are constrained by the will of the people who do already live here. And one thing we do know about the people who do already live here is that they’re upset about growth in the county,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge), referencing a biennial survey of county residents released earlier this month, which showed growth had surpassed traffic as Loudouners’ No. 1 concern.