More houses alone won't lower prices

Kai Hagen

May 26, 2005

Everything is relative.

For instance, the meaning of "affordable," as in affordable housing.

It wasn't long ago that most people read "affordable housing" as another term for low-income housing.

Not any longer.

In basic terms -- as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- housing is affordable when a household pays no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing and utilities.

By that definition, many of the homes being built today are priced beyond the means of the average middle-income family, and many home buyers are stretched beyond their comfort zone, with little margin for life's unexpected challenges.

And the trend is not looking good.

When it comes to housing, however, Frederick County is not an island unto itself. We are part of the Washington, D.C. area and its housing market. Affordable housing is a national problem that's worse in our region than many. It's a problem that cries out for a well-coordinated regional solution, and isn't getting it.

One result is that nothing we do in Frederick County alone is going to have a significant effect on the price of the average new single-family home. In other words, while it's true that housing prices reflect the forces of supply and demand, even if we tripled the rate of new home construction, it would not have an appreciable impact on prices here.

Builders frequently point to a shortage of land available for development as the cause of escalating home prices. They also put the blame on the Frederick County Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which requires that schools and roads, water and sewer, can meet the needs of new residential units or commercial buildings.

Opening a lot of additional farmland to development or gutting the integrity of the APFO would serve the interests of developers, but it would not mean a sudden drop in county home prices, and it would exacerbate the worst problems we're already struggling to address in the face of rapid growth.

The truth is that a slower rate of growth gives us a much better chance to deal with the full range of challenges, whether it's schools or roads or water and sewage or parks or, well, the price of a good place to live, in a community that's still great to live in.

Either way we choose, the private economy won't solve our crisis, growth is going to continue, and the cost of housing is going to be a problem for a while.

Nevertheless, there are things we can do that make a difference, that make it more possible for senior citizens to move out of their house and stay in their community, for our children and other young families to afford a decent home here, for school teachers, firefighters and police officers to live in the communities they serve.

In 2002, for example, the Frederick Board of County Commissioners established a Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit. Modeled on an older program in Montgomery County, the provision requires residential builders to construct a certain percentage of moderately priced homes within a new development.

Development already approved was exempt from the new law, however, so the results are slow in coming. Even fully implemented, though, the program is only a partial solution.

There are other sorts of programs that when adopted by local jurisdictions can help make housing affordable for more people, from dedicated funding to property tax relief.

But, in the end, the best local solutions are a matter of smart planning and zoning.

The real issue isn't individual affordable " dwelling units" or homes as much as it is affordable communities.

It is entirely within our grasp to plan and zone attractive and desirable neighborhoods with good, solid, smaller homes. If there is a serious housing shortage that's connected to affordable housing, it's that we aren't building enough smaller homes.

Healthy, vibrant and sustainable communities must include a mix of housing types and a solid range of prices. But much of our county and municipal plans and zoning ordinances make it harder to create the dynamic diversity that once was commonplace, including "granny units" apartments, townhouses and smaller single-family houses.

No matter the housing market, smaller homes cost less than larger homes. And is there any doubt whatsoever that there are plenty of people here, or coming here, who would be happy to find a well-built little house on a nice tree-lined street a short walk from their kid's school, a pleasant park and local shops?

For some it would be a great starter home. For many of others, it would just be home sweet home.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at