Loudoun Leaders Target Lower Housing Costs as Top Priority

Loudoun leaders have been grappling for years with the question of what to do about the high cost of housing in Loudoun, looking at a diverse set of reports, suggestions and programs. This year and the next, those disparate ideas may coalesce into a strategy to make housing more attainable for workers and families.

Although the average income in Loudoun has grown every year and continues to be among the highest in the country, the cost of living has grown even more quickly, mirroring the national trend. A county report on housing prepared in 2017 wrote that according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, from 2000 to 2017, the area median income for the DC area grew by 25 percent. In Loudoun, however, the median cost of a home jumped by 116 percent, and rents jumped up 75 percent, far outpacing the growth in incomes.

That has led to concerns that many Loudoun families are cost-burdened or “house-poor”—making, by most measures, a large paycheck, but spending most of that just keeping a roof over their heads, and living only a few missed paychecks away from potentially losing everything.

According to the Dulles Area Association of Realtors, the median home sale price in Loudoun is $513,000. The median rent is $1,618 a month.

By the standard definition of what homebuyers can afford—about three times their annual income—a person making the DC-area median income of $121,300 can afford a house at only a fraction of that price, about $363,900.

The majority of all Loudouners, almost 62 percent, are cost-burdened, or spending more than a third of their income on housing. Almost half of renters in Loudoun fall into that category, as do almost 80 percent of homeowners.

That means the problem affects more than just the poorest in Loudoun—people at every rung of the income ladder are struggling to pay for their homes.

It has also fueled the longstanding debate over development in Loudoun, with some arguing more development is needed to make housing more affordable—a supply-side argument for bringing housing prices down. Others, however, have argued that the evidence of the past 20 years of growth has not shown any drop in price—and that allowing rapid development will destroy much of what is special about the county, with family-friendly suburban neighborhoods and green, unspoiled lands only a short drive from the heart of the DC-area suburban sprawl.

It has tested the creativity of Loudoun’s leaders, as they grapple with solving a problem locally and with limited resources that has troubled communities across the nation. County supervisors are exploring a number of strategies, from improving and making better use of  the county’s Housing Trust Fund, to exploring the possibility of building housing on top of public facilities like fire stations, something that has been tried in some cities.

Some supervisors have said the pending arrival of Metro’s Silver Line in Loudoun, scheduled to open sometime later this year, provides an opportunity for a range of housing options. Supervisor Sylvia Russell Glass (D-Broad Run) told Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce members last week that “the lack of affordable housing can be a major barrier for those wishing to live and work in Loudoun,” but that Metro provides “a fantastic chance to add to our affordable workforce housing.” 

Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) also said his district, with properties ripe for revitalization and reinvestment, can also be a home to new housing. He pointed to work done by Loudoun Habitat for Humanity, which in June handed over the keys to its 50th house to a single mother of two young boys in Sterling. Habitat homes are not free; the new owner has to make a mortgage payment designed to be more affordable.  

“We’re looking for someone to come in and do 10, 20  30 at a time, and go in and revitalize and freshen these homes, and work with the pricing point to get your teacher in there, to get your firefighter, to get your sheriff’s deputy or your new county employee who’s just starting out,” Saines said.

The housing question matters to more than the people looking for a place to live—it has also come to be seen as the largest hurdle for the local economy. While Loudoun has enjoyed years of prosperous economic growth, businesses will not invest in Loudoun if they can’t find someone to hire, warn economic development and business leaders.

“Workforce is probably our number one limiting factor going forward,” said Department of Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer. “If we can’t unlock the workforce, then we can’t attract the companies that we believe would be a good fit here.”

Loudoun’s reported 2.5 percent unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is among the lowest in the nation. But what can look like good news for jobseekers can also be bad news for businesses looking to move into a new area. And the workforce—which is closely tied to housing—has become part of every conversation, Rizer said.

“I think it really came to a head during the Amazon HQ2 [discussion], when it was very clear early on that workforce was going to drive that decision,” Rizer said.

A property in Loudoun was considered a top contender for Amazon’s new headquarters; instead, the company announced it would set up in Arlington and New York City. The company later pulled out of New York City, facing local opposition to the project and the billions of dollars of tax breaks and other incentives it would attract.

According to U.S. Census data as of 2017, close 103,000 people living elsewhere enter Loudoun every day to work. Another 137,000 drive out of the county to work. Under 63,000 both live and work in Loudoun.

In particular, Rizer said, Loudoun needs to attract people at the beginning of their careers, such as young tech professionals who today are moving closer to DC.

“We don’t have a ton of those, because a lot of those are entry-level positions, and we don’t have the ability to attract a lot of that,” Rizer said. But Loudoun’s future Metro stops give it an opportunity to compete for homes for those people, too. “It’s also the opportunity to having a different kind of environment where workforce can look at it and say, ‘yeah, I could see me there,’ as opposed to, ‘I could only be in Arlington.’”

According to Census data collated by the department, Loudoun homes on average have 7.4 rooms, with the majority having three or four bedrooms. In Arlington, homes have on average four rooms, and most have only one or two bedrooms.

And for Rizer, while Loudoun is still the place to be for many kinds of business, “if you want to continue to grow your economy … the variety of housing options is not only positive, it’s critical.”

To address this, supervisors have launched the Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan, an offshoot of their work on the new county comprehensive plan during the last term. That plan, it is hoped, will yield solid recommendations on dealing with housing costs in Loudoun by September.

Right now, said Department of Family Services Assistant Director Sarah Coyle Etro, the working group around that plan is gathering information. So far, she said, they have met with affordable housing developers, the building industry generally, and the Loudoun Human Services network, as well as hosting focus groups and putting out surveys to Loudouners and Loudoun County government staff members. The focus groups and meetings will continue, including meetings with various business sectors, and meetings with county advisory boards such as the Commission on Aging and the Disability Services Board.

They are also working on the most comprehensive inventory of housing and housing programs in Loudoun yet.

“We’re looking at square footage. We’re looking at value. We’re looking at conditions. We’re looking at overcrowding,” Etro said. “We’re really doing a deep dive into what our housing inventory is, and … we have eight of our current housing programs being evaluated for organization, structure, mission—are there things we should change, are there things we could improve.” That’s being done with help from consultants from the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech.

It is a local plan for a national problem, acknowledged Assistant County Administrator Valmarie Turner.

“It is a national crisis, so we’re not unique in having this issue, but what we’re looking at with the strategic plan is specific to Loudoun County, and what we can do in Loudoun County to increase affordable housing opportunities,” Turner said. “And there are some things that we believe that we can do, so while it is a national trend and we may be able to glean some best practices from other areas, the actual plan will be specific to Loudoun.

That plan is expected to be done by September, in time to influence the county’s ongoing rewrite of its zoning ordinances.

“It’s really tools, strategies, programs, things the county can do to add to the supply and also to preserve the affordable housing that we have, which is key,” Etro said. “So, the recommendation to the board that will comprise the plan will be very concrete, specific steps the county can take.”

One thought on “Loudoun Leaders Target Lower Housing Costs as Top Priority

  • 2020-02-21 at 11:21 am
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    This can be handled easily: Create a fund to help eligible people with mortgage or rent payments. The County should impose a $2.50 per square foot special assessment against any new building permit, to kick-start that fund.

    Trying to get developers to build cheaper housing, perhaps through much higher densities, will not work, and that leads to a worthy slogan: “Help the people, not the homebuilders.”

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