Housing hasn’t always been an economic development question, remarked Lisa Sturtevant during a Loudoun Chamber of Commerce panel discussion Wednesday, but the room crowded with business and government leaders showed that it is now.
“I’m so pleased that more and more, housing is becoming part of the conversation in groups talking about economic development,” Sturtevant said. “In the past, housing was seen as something separate from economic development.”
Sturtevant is the principal author of a study on housing needs in the county created by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis and Sturtevant’s consulting firm. That study, which forecast that without some changes to Loudoun’s planning policies—changes which are in progress—the county could be short nearly 18,000 units by 2040. It has also sparked robust debate and the panel discussion Wednesday, The State of Housing in Loudoun, part of the Chamber’s PolicyMaker series.
Sturtevant was joined on the panel by Windy Hill Foundation Executive Director Kim Hart, B.F. Saul Company Vice President and Economic Development Advisory Commission Vice Chairman Todd Pearson, and Loudoun County Department of Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer.
The study—and Loudoun’s perennially booming population, high income, high prices, and low unemployment—raise questions about what the housing market will mean for the economy at large.
Pearson had a concrete example from one of his company’s tenants, the owner of Ford’s Fish Shack, which opened a new location in Lansdowne last week.
“He had to delay his opening of his restaurant, and he had to open 30 workers short, because he just can’t find workers in Loudoun,” Pearson said. “A lot of that has to do with housing. Over 40 percent of his workforce is commuting in from outside the county.” He said based on that experience, the restaurant right now is not planning to expand in Loudoun County any further.
Windy Hill Foundation Executive Director Kim Hart, the county’s largest—and, as he pointed out, only—developer of affordable workforce housing, put numbers to it. In the average four-person household in Loudoun, both adults have to be working full time at double the minimum wage to afford a three-bedroom apartment.
“The reality is that when we’re out selling across the country, across the world, the things that we as Loudouners are most proud of—our high income, and our low unemployment, and our high education—those aren’t necessarily positives,” Rizer said. His department spends much of its time actively recruiting new businesses to invest in Loudoun, and those businesses worry about where they’re going to find employees and how they’re going to afford them.
“We’re very close to landing a multi-thousand-job deal, and the biggest hurdle we have is, where are these people going to live?” Rizer said. “You need a continuum of housing options in order to really have a diverse economy.”
The costs of not meeting that demand can come in unexpected, “insidious” ways, Sturtevant said. She gave the example of another area with enormous incomes and housing costs: The San Francisco Bay area.
“This is where you see the engineers sleeping in their vans to go to that job,” Sturtevant said. “You’re not seeing the jobs leave yet, you’re seeing people make these tradeoffs that you couldn’t imagine people making.” The question becomes one of quality of life even for the people who can work and live in Loudoun.
Pearson said the solution will come when Loudoun fixes the upside-down incentives in its housing market, which he said right now favor the biggest, most expensive townhouses possible. He compared tackling that problem to building Loudoun’s data center market, an effort that ranged from laying down fiber optic and power infrastructure to recruiting and incentivizing data center companies.
“We need to take that same approach toward housing,” Pearson said. “So if you want affordable housing, if we want housing that fits the missing middle that we talk about, then you need to look at our proffers and the incentives that are in place.”
Sturtevant said it will be important to get every partner at the table early on when devising that strategy, even ones that might not seem obviously but are affected.
“That’s a mistake that Arlington made, frankly,” Sturtevant said. “They didn’t get their schools involved in their housing study early on, so at the back end of the plan, there was pushback.”
And Beth Erickson, Visit Loudoun’s president and CEO, speaking from the audience, encourage the other business leaders in attendance to get involved in Envision Loudoun, the county’s ongoing comprehensive plan review.
“We need to change the conversation on housing,” Rizer said. “And we need to start thinking about a global policy of how we want to approach housing, and not really look at it one application at a time. We have to kind of think about what do we want to be, and how do we want to get there.”