LHR Partner Corner: Pointing Fingers in Loudoun’s Housing Crisis

For the last three years, the Loudoun Chamber has been advocating for more housing affordability in parallel with Loudoun’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan review process.  This has become challenging because for years, decades even, the term “workforce housing” is stigmatized as ADU programs and other government subsidized solutions for housing affordability.  This short-sighted language and under-funded programs have backed Loudoun’s residents and employees in a corner.  Progress is being made, but Loudoun still has a long way to go.

Recent studies have raised this issue to the forefront, revealing 1/3 of households in the county is cost burdened.  This is defined as households that spend more that 30% of their income on housing expenses.  Conversely, Loudoun’s home prices continue to rise as the market demands more and more single family homes selling at an above average sales price, only exacerbating this problem.

So who or what is to blame for the situation we find ourselves in today?

Some seek to blame the home builders or developers for the lack of “affordable” options. But this is the farthest thing from the truth as our home builders comply with every regulation to provide ADU units and pay into Loudoun’s ADU program with every development.  After they first comply with those regulations, their responsibility is to be profitable and meet the demands of their customers in this market.

Some seek to blame the landowner who sells their land to a developer instead of keeping it as open space.  This argument loses steam quickly when you meet the landowners that value their property as an asset- or cash to use on their next phase of life such as retirement or business investment.  Farm-land in Loudoun is shrinking, but it’s only because the land-owners are no longer farming the land and have been given a fair offer to cash out.  This reminds me of the rhetorical question asked at the end of the Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, “Well, what would YOU do if your mother asked YOU???”  In this situation, we all know what we would do as well.

Lastly, some blame Loudoun County government’s lack of a variety of options including – a robust ADU program, regulations forcing more affordable housing options, and TDR and PDR programs that essentially move development from one area of the county to another.  This claim is closest to the truth, but still off the mark.  First, blaming something that doesn’t exist is challenging on many levels.  Second, in a vacuum, these programs all work well, but when thrown in as tools in a very fast-moving complicated real estate market, these tools can become overly burdensome and inhibit the right kind of growth we are seeking to encourage.

So where does blame lie? It’s simple, actually, because of our current zoning regulations, largely un-touched for almost 20 years, that have allowed for vast construction of by-right development with very little future focused investment into our increasing diversity of housing needs.  So, while some are partying like it’s 1999, here in Loudoun we develop like it’s 1999.   When housing is developed “by-right”, the owner does not enter into communication and negotiation with the County to invest anything additional that the community might now need when their project comes online.  This proffering system is used to create much of the substantial infrastructure investment and creative projects now seen in Loudoun because of this additional investment required, including the interchanges and road improvements at Route 7/Belmont Ridge and Route 7/Loudoun County Parkway, paid for by landowners and developers.

Therefore, we must commend our Board of Supervisors for completing the new 2019 Comprehensive Plan.  Our new comprehensive plan will usher in a new era of growth that is in direct response to the needs of our business community and residents, including an Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Priority.  But we must not stop there.  We must keep sharing the story of the needs of the business community and our workforce to increase supply and eliminate our housing shortage.

Lastly, it is all our responsibility to hold our next Board of Supervisors accountable for reviewing this plan every five years.  We must keep our eyes focused ahead, communicating the needs of our community, and ensuring our policies remain relevant in this decade and the decades to come.

About the Author:
Grafton deButts is the Vice President of Membership & Government Affairs at the Loudoun Chamber.  He leads the team at the Loudoun Chamber in ensuring that every member of the Loudoun Chamber has an opportunity to build their brand, grow their business, and become a leader in the community.  Before joining the Chamber 12 years ago, Grafton worked in business development and community relation roles at Visit Loudoun and the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.  A life-long resident of Loudoun County, Grafton now lives in Leesburg with his wife and two young sons. FUN FACT – As young children many summers Grafton and Executive Director of Loudoun Hunger Relief – Jennifer Montgomery – vacationed together in the Outer Banks because their parents are and remain close friends.  😊

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