County supervisors are getting ready to face one of Loudoun’s biggest, most well-known and longest-running issues: the demand for and cost of homes. But now, for the first time, they are preparing to tackle it not on an ad hoc basis, but with a central, organized approach laid out in the draft of the new Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan.
The new plan, ordered as supervisors finished work on the county’s 2019 General Plan, lays out anew the scope of the problem, which affects people looking for homes at almost all prices and sizes. As of 2019, according to the plan, 35,000 households in Loudoun are “cost-burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on housing. That particularly affects the poorest of Loudouners—most of the cost burdened households are low-income households, but people at every price point are feeling the pinch.
At the same time, Loudoun County homes tend to be large. Nearly half of all homes in Loudoun, 48.3%, have four or more bedrooms.
Some supervisors say the housing cost problem in Loudoun and the DC region is exacerbated by demand.
“The two things I hear the most in Loudoun County about housing are, ‘we have too many homes,’ and at the same time sometimes, the same person will say ‘but I want a home for my son to live in when he comes out of college,’” said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “And I always say, well, those are things that don’t go together. So, when we personalize what housing means to your family, for your child, for your mother-in-law who you want to live near with but not with you, they become different conversations.”
People across the country have found homes of their own harder and harder to afford. From 1980 to 2019, the median household income in the U.S. approximately tripled, to $65,712. Meanwhile the median home value increased by about five times, to around $240,500.
A $240,500 home in Loudoun is a find—here, the 2019 median household income was $142,229, and the median home value $556,600.
But supervisors may disagree on how much Loudoun County can move the needle.
“I’ve always viewed this as a much larger, macro issue that government has a limited ability to really influence,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who chairs the county board’s finance committee. He pointed out that other major metropolitan areas see the same issue—housing is more expensive the closer to the heart of the city you live.
“Loudoun is affordable housing for Washington, DC, Arlington, even Tysons, but then the question is, what is affordable housing for the economy that exists in Loudoun?” Letourneau said. “And just like it’s probably outside of a 10- to 15-mile radius outside of DC, it may be for Loudoun, too. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but that just kind of is, in every major metro area.”
The U.S. Census Bureau reports about only half of Loudoun’s workforce have jobs in the county. For those who don’t work at home, the Census reports the average commute is 35 minutes—more than an hour a day, on average, spent just getting to and from work.
According to the draft plan, from 2000 to 2015, Loudoun added more than 67,000 new jobs, a nearly 77% increase, and young working families are forecasted to be a key component of Loudoun’s growth over the next 25 years, following jobs and high-quality schools and amenities.
“Why did a lot of people move to Loudoun County in the first place?” Letourneau said. “I’m a good example. I didn’t move her because I enjoy driving an hour-plus to go to DC every day. I moved here because it’s where I can afford to live.”
And still, not all development works toward bringing down prices—for example, even a development that includes price-controlled units can still make things worse on the housing cost problem, if more of the market-rate units end up housing cost-burdened families.
“Homes don’t belong everywhere, but where they do belong, we should approve them,” Randall said. “And two, the issue is not ‘can we absorb more homes?’ The issue is, can we absorb more homes for the infrastructure that we have in place?”
Both Randall and Letourneau think they may have an answer to public opposition to new development, at least, by building out infrastructure.
“When people get upset when we say yes to homes, and then I say to them, ‘what is your issue?’, what I inevitably hear is, ‘my kids’ schools are overcrowded,’” Randall said. “So, it’s not that they don’t want new people—they don’t want new people for the existing infrastructure.”
“We still get a lot of generalized opposition to development in general and housing in general, and I’ve always wondered how much of that is driven by infrastructure and lack thereof,” Letourneau said. “And if we could solve that and really make substantial headway on that issue, would that solve some of that resistance to developments.”
The draft Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan lays out a variety of ways to tackle the county’s housing needs. Those range from coordinating among different nonprofits and developers, to various ways to use public land or otherwise set aside land for housing, to finding new sources of funding. The latter option in particular has been important in Loudoun—changes made to affordable housing regulations in Loudoun in 2016 opened up a combination of state and federal financing for affordable housing developers, by organizations like the Windy Hill Foundation and Good Works Inc.
Kim Hart, who heads Good Works and previously headed Windy Hill, said at the grand opening for Ashburn Chase, one of those projects, that in the last four years they have built more affordable units than over the previous 20 thanks to that change. That amounted to more than 300 rent-controlled units in four years—an accomplishment hailed by people across government and the development community, but that still only begins to scratch the surface of the tens of thousands of cost-burdened households in Loudoun.
Affordable, accessible housing is an issue that extends to all facets of life—from the infrastructure questions, to the importance of good housing to the health and well-being of children and families pointed out in the draft plan, to the ability for people to build their wealth. Letourneau pointed out it can even affect the environment, as people drive long commutes to get to work, or take public mass transit—”You can kind of see a strategy here, but maybe a strategy that has to go beyond just housing policy.”
Whatever the board decides, tackling the unmet housing needs in Loudoun will test both the county board’s power to tackle a nationwide trend, and its appetite for big changes and possibly big spending.
“I don’t know that there is that much we can really do, short of literally constructing our own housing that’s public housing,” Letourneau said. “Especially on the affordable side, I don’t know what else we can do. We have created zoning activities for this type of development, whether it’s commercial or residential. We have opportunities at this point. It’s really the market that’s dictating whether these are viable activities or not.”
“The stigma on affordable housing really is just really unfortunate, and we have to address it,” Randall said. “And in Loudoun County, the affordable workforce housing is firefighters, and sheriff’s deputies, and nurses, and the person who’s serving you your food.”
Loudoun County is gathering feedback on the draft Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan. To review the draft Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan, go to loudoun.gov/housingneeds.
To offer feedback, fill out an online survey at surveymonkey.com/r/T7NZWRM, email email@example.com or sign up to speak at a Board of Supervisors public hearing. Online feedback is open until April 25.Learn more about the county’s other existing housing programs at loudoun.gov/housing