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Howard: Loudoun County's new comprehensive plan must bolster workforce housing

In a recent op-ed, Middleburg Mayor Bridge Littleton made excellent points about the importance of citizen involvement in Loudoun’s ongoing rewrite of our community’s long-term growth and development plans. (“Speak up now. The future depends on it.” Loudoun Times-Mirror, March 10)

He also cast a fine vision for the future of Loudoun with “eastern suburban features that bring diversity and services … and a western rural area … that fosters open spaces, agriculture, tourism and a green economy for all residents and visitors to enjoy.”

Unfortunately, Mayor Littleton did not address the greatest challenge confronting that vision for Loudoun’s future: the cost of housing for our workforce.

It is beyond question that Loudoun is facing a housing affordability crisis, a crisis that not only threatens our prosperity, it threatens the “open spaces, agriculture, tourism and a green economy” that Mayor Littleton extols.

Since late 2016, county officials and stakeholders have been reviewing and updating the county’s long-term growth plans, now known as Loudoun 2040.

As part of that review, the county commissioned two housing market demand studies. Both showed that by 2040, demand driven by job growth and economic expansion will require 20,000 more housing units, at different prices, designs and size, than what is planned.

With demand far outpacing supply, the median sales price in Loudoun is $178,000 higher than it was in 2009, according to the online real estate platform Zillow.

Sadly, Loudoun’s lack of housing options for our most vulnerable families cripples their ability to thrive.

A household that pays more than 30 percent of its pre-tax income on housing is considered cost burdened. Any more leaves too little for food, medical care, clothing and other necessities.

In Loudoun, 30 percent of all households are cost burdened. For families earning less than $70,320 annually, 78 percent are cost-burdened, as are most renters.

By not addressing this housing affordability crisis, Loudoun is actively discouraging its own children from returning home after college, trade school or the military.

This crisis is also a gigantic waste of taxpayers’ money. Consider that it costs around $12,000 to educate a student in Loudoun County, plus the expense of school construction. From the time a student begins kindergarten until they graduate high school, taxpayers have shelled out around $150,000.

Yet, while Loudoun’s overall population has grown by nearly 25 percent since 2010, the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia’s analysis shows that more young adults ages 18-24 are leaving Loudoun then are moving here.

It is clear Loudoun needs a greater diversity of housing options and locations.

The county’s Planning Commission’s approach to Loudoun 2040, which was presented to the Board of Supervisors on March 21, attempts to do just that.

The Planning Commission’s plan proposes almost no changes for the county’s rural areas. Changes to our suburban east focus on taking advantage of the investment made in Metrorail.

The area where modest, yet necessary, changes are proposed are in the Transition Policy Area, or TPA.

Not even two decades old, this 24,000-acre area was created to provide a visual transition from Loudoun’s suburban east and rural west. Neither rural nor suburban, the TPA was always meant for commercial and residential development, with less intensity than eastern Loudoun.

The commission’s approach will ensure the TPA helps meet Loudoun’s demand for housing diversity and commercial investments, while retaining significant undeveloped acreage by requiring compact developments with substantial open space requirements.

This approach has broad public support. During the community outreach held on the Loudoun 2040 plan, nearly half of all comments favored policies that support housing affordability for seniors, young professionals, teachers and public safety workers.

Loudouners, though often skeptical of new housing developments and the increased demands for schools and roads, now realize we need county policies that increase the diversity of housing options if we want Loudoun to be affordable for our workforce, and our children, to live here.

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This piece was originally published in the Loudoun Times-Mirror. Howard is the president and CEO of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.