We Think: The Emperor May Have No Clothes

We Think: The Emperor May Have No Clothes

January 3, 2017.

It may be unpopular to say it, but we will.  We need to build more homes in Loudoun County, and a new report suggests we may need a lot more.

Last year the Board of Supervisors began a highly-publicized, multi-stakeholder review of its General Plan, the guidance document for future growth. This is the first comprehensive review since 2001.

We’ve thought all along that the board should set the current plan aside and start fresh – even it if it takes longer and leads to exactly the same results.  But that’s not the holistic path the board took, opting instead for a more incremental approach.

Some issues are not getting a lot of attention.  They include Loudoun’s growing diversity; evolving public safety needs; finding land and money for schools and other public infrastructure; attracting the millennials who can’t afford to live here (and don’t stay); meeting the needs of the aging; and our growing and differentiated housing needs.

Instead, most of the discussion is focused on tweaking one or another zoning boundaries, and Metro.

When it comes to housing in particular, for years supervisors of both parties have eschewed the label “pro-development”.  The term has a stigma attached to it, and the implication that if you’re pro-development you favor too much home building and more congestion.  That may be simplistic and wrong, but it explains the reticence of many to encourage more residential development — and the additional traffic and school-aged children that the traditional approaches bring.

Now comes a new housing report that tells county government its current residential built-out analysis is flawed. The report also makes one conjecture that Loudoun’s forecasted mix of single-family versus multi-family housing might not work either.

As described in the Tribune today, the 200-page Loudoun County Needs Assessment prepared by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis and Lisa Sturtevant & Associates, and commissioned by the board last year, suggests that Loudoun has substantially underestimated its housing needs if it wants to sustain a strong local economy.

That last part makes the eyes open wide.

Loudoun has always needed a fiscally sound and realistic plan for residential growth. New homes make it possible for people to live, shop and work here, and for the local economy to thrive — now and later.  Without enough housing even more of our work force (and customers) will have to drive here from places like Gainesville, Frederick and Winchester to service our economic growth.  Perhaps some will take Metro, but some may not come at all, and some employers may decide not to locate or expand here.

The report was sent to county staff last month, where some changes were made before it was forwarded to the Loudoun Housing Advisory Board for review.  That citizens group didn’t get it until the day before its December meeting, precluding any substantive comment.

Lisa Sturtevant expects the report to be on the desks of county supervisors in mid-January, and we hope they give it their most serious attention.

What will supervisors do with a report that challenges county residential forecasts and development policy?

What will supervisors do with with a report that makes one question Loudoun’s growing reliance on multifamily housing to meet its build-out goals — especially when there is not a high absorption rate (demand) for multifamily as compared with single family detached and townhomes?

We’re eager to know.

Happy New Year.