A report on strategies to bring more diverse and affordable housing to Loudoun has raised questions among county supervisors about where the growth should stop—and who will have the political will to do possibly unpopular things.
The report, by the county’s Economic Development Advisory Commission, lays out ways the Loudoun could encourage more affordable housing, working from the premise that “affordability and availability of housing is vital to Loudoun’s economic development success.”
“In fact, at its most basic level economic development exists to increase the quality of life for residents and to provide people the opportunity to prosper and sustain themselves,” the report reads. “Housing and economic development should be seen as symbiotic rather than independent of each other, as one cannot thrive without the other.”
It is a common theme in the county’s economic development circles as business owners complain that, between Loudoun’s high cost of living and low unemployment, they can’t find employees or places for them to live. The housing study cites a previous report by the county staff that a family of four earning the area median income can afford a $351,600 home—but the median sale price for a Loudoun home is $475,000.
“From the committee’s perspective, there is no one arrow that you can use to solve this problem, and I don’t think anyone would think there is,” said Commission Chairman and B.F. Saul Senior Vice President Todd Pearson. He said the county needs to attack the problem with both land use and financial policies—from fundamentally changing how Loudoun thinks about zoning to encourage new types of housing, to providing financial assistance to help people on the bottom half of the income scale afford it.
Committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) questioned whether the economy works that way, suggesting it’s normal for people who work in Loudoun to be unable to afford to live here.
“In a perfect world, everybody would be able to work where they live and so on, and I’m not sure it’s within our power—even if we implemented everything here—to really fix that,” said Letourneau, who works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC.
Assumptions used in the recently completed draft of the county’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan include the construction of 55,600 more homes and providing services for 148,000 new residents during the next 22 years.
But Pearson said that commute is part of why other cities without the advantage of being next to DC have been able to draw companies and investment—“they’re able to make up for it in quality of life that they can provide to those workers, and attract those workers.”
“Yes, certainly you could push more people to different locations further out,” Pearson said. “But if we want to have the businesses and the economic development here within Loudoun County, the most expensive piece for any business is not the rent, it’s not the location, it’s the talent, it’s the workforce—and if we can’t provide the workforce, we’re going to have a very hard time attracting the businesses that need it.”
Pearson cited information in the report from the Census Bureau, which found the DC region has the longest average commute time in the country. The report and cites academic research that found that reduces worker mobility and stunts economic growth.
The report includes offers solutions in both land use law and more direct financial tools. For example, the commission recommended using a form-based code—one that focuses on the physical form of an area and proposed development, rather than focusing on dwelling units per acre or separating development by use. The commission argued this would allow for a greater variety of densities and housing prices in an area that are nonetheless compatible.
The commission also recommended a number of financial tools, such as seeking more federal and state funding, or expanding the Down Payment/Closing Cost Assistance to help families making the area median wage. Currently, that program offers first-time homebuyers 30-year loans in the form of a second mortgage at five percent interest, low monthly payments, and with no pre-payment penalty, up to $25,000 or 10 percent of the home sale price. Eligibility is capped at 70 percent of area median income.
The county has already begun exploring some of the other options in the report, such as allowing development of affordable housing on publicly owned land, or financing that development from the county’s housing trust fund.
Some of the solutions, said Board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn), will take “political will” by the Board of Supervisors, such as eliminating a type of low-density zoning in the county’s transition area that is less dense than rural zoning, or expanding the county’s down payment assistance program.
“As you know, politically, that’s now a subsidy,” Buona said. “A government subsidy to buy someone’s house, and that gets to be a totally different ballgame.” And he said with an election coming up for the board in 2019, “the closer we get to that, the more difficult political will becomes.”
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) worried that some of the report’s suggestions, such as being more flexible with development density, could allow development of the rural west.
“At some point, there’s just going to have to be a balance, and strike a point where we say, we’ve really reached our limit In Loudoun County and there’s just no more room,” Buffington said.
And Sterling Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D) said in addition to political willpower, “we need to have the willpower to do what is right and what needs to be done, what should have happened years ago in parts of my district.”
“I could name probably five neighborhoods that could use some revitalization and some TLC, but it takes a lot of willpower from the folks out in the community and around the area who are willing to do so,” Saines said. “But they haven’t stepped up to the plate.”