Anti-sprawl fervor meets backlash

LEESBURG, Va. - 8/25/02 Fox hunts on the lush rolling hills of Northern Virginia once offered a slice of English country life less than 40 miles outside Washington, D.C.

Now, onetime horse farms are crisscrossed by blacktop lanes winding toward million-dollar homes with three-car garages. And most of the hunting is for houses. It's a sport that teachers, police officers, service workers and other middle-income people who work in the nation's second-fastest-growing county increasingly can't play.

For them, affordable housing is disappearing as quickly as open space here in Loudoun County and other thriving communities across the USA.

From California's coastal cities to the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Denver, Boston, New York City and the nation's capital, many people who staff businesses, schools, public safety agencies, hospitals and other vital institutions can't afford to live where they work.

Experts are laying part of the blame on the anti-growth fervor sweeping the USA, a trend that has led to building moratoriums and preservation of large chunks of open space.

"There's no question that growth controls increase housing prices somewhere between a little and a lot," says William Fulton of the Solimar Research Group, a land-use think tank in Ventura, Calif.

Those restrictions are coming under attack in the West, Northeast and parts of the mid-Atlantic where housing prices have skyrocketed and the construction of more affordable apartments, condos and townhouses has slowed:

  • Loudoun County supervisors face eight lawsuits challenging their efforts to stop sprawl. Last month, they were hit with a federal housing discrimination lawsuit filed by Jama Abdi Liban, who works the graveyard shift for FedEx at Dulles International Airport.

He says he commutes 45 minutes each way to an apartment in Maryland because he can't find affordable housing in Loudoun, where even modest townhouses go for more than $200,000. His drive is "a life-threatening undertaking," the lawsuit says, because he is "forced to share his commute with scores of 18-wheelers that use the Beltway (Interstate 495) late at night." The suit claims that Loudoun's zoning violates the Fair Housing Act by limiting affordable housing and effectively preventing many minorities from living there.

  • In Santa Cruz County, Calif., where the median home price is $420,000, a grand jury last month urged the district attorney or citizens to sue county supervisors for doing little to increase the amount of affordable housing. The grand jury said the supervisors delayed housing projects with feasibility studies and curbs on development that satisfied an anti-growth agenda. The district attorney's office says it's not likely to sue. The Santa Cruz area is the second-least-affordable housing market in the USA, the National Association of Home Builders says.

  • In Massachusetts, where building moratoriums are popular, only 27 of the state's 351 cities and towns meet a minimum level for affordable housing. In those communities, at least 10% of the housing qualifies for government subsidies for low- and moderate-income families. "A married couple making 45 grand a year can't even rent an apartment," says Phil Hailer, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.

Big-city mayors complain that suburban anti-growth efforts put the burden of providing affordable housing on them, although most new jobs are in the suburbs.

"There is increased resistance in suburbia to housing, especially affordable housing," says Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "They don't want to do it, and it all falls back on cities."

The push to control sprawl picked up steam in the 1990s the same time the nation added more population than in any previous decade. Residents of fast-growing suburbs railed against overcrowded schools, congested highways and new subdivisions that spoiled their vistas. They latched onto the "smart growth" movement, an effort to protect farmland, air and water quality and animal habitats.

Local and state governments responded by buying large tracts of vacant land and putting them off limits to development. They enacted zoning restrictions to reduce the number of housing units per acre and charged developers hefty impact fees to help pay for roads, water and sewer lines and schools.

At the same time, home construction fell to its lowest level since the 1960s. That helped create the worst housing shortage since the end of World War II.

Today, anti-sprawl activists often find themselves on the defensive. But they argue that "smart growth" doesn't mean stopping growth. "You plan for open space, and you plan it in a way that accommodates higher density," says David Goldberg of Smart Growth America, a coalition of environmentalists, planners, preservationists and transportation organizations. "You don't sacrifice your firemen, policemen and schoolteachers."

"Smart growth" promotes the protection of open space by concentrating development close to jobs and services and connecting it with mass transit. The problem, experts say, is that communities adopt only the smart-growth principles they like.

"Ask the typical suburbanite if they want to save open space, and the answer is always 'yes,' " says Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "Then ask them, as a trade-off for that open space, are they willing to have dense multifamily housing built nearby, and the answer is almost always 'no.' The result is lots of open space preserved and very little affordable housing."

Fed by job growth at high-tech campuses for companies such as America Online and WorldCom, Loudoun County's population grew 97% in the 1990s to 169,599. The most recent Census estimate shows a 13% jump to 190,903 in 2001.

Trying to rein in growth and maintain some rural character, county officials want to limit dense development to the area near Dulles International Airport and create a 300-square-mile rural preserve to the west. To do so, they've approved drastic rezoning from one house on three acres to one house on 50 acres. The rezoning will stop the construction of more than 80,000 houses.

"The result is that no affordable homes can be built at all in these areas," the lawsuit by the FedEx worker says.

Complaints also are coming from employers, including AOL. They say the county is becoming too expensive for workers.

Teachers John Petrosky, 41, and his wife, Vicki, 42, joined Loudoun County schools two years ago because the salaries were good more than $45,000 for eight to 10 years' experience. They could have afforded a small house in Loudoun but chose instead to live more than a half-hour west in Berryville. There, they found a 2,600-square-foot house on a half-acre for $280,000. The same house in Loudoun? "Another hundred grand on top," Vicki Petrosky says.

Incorporating affordable housing in growth planning is gaining momentum among governors, mayors and urban planners.

California, with nine of the 10 least-affordable housing markets in the country, is taking the lead. Voters in November will be asked to approve $2.1 billion in bonds to pay for up to 27,000 new and refurbished housing units each year for five years. This includes many moderately priced apartments.

San Jose and San Diego may require developers to build a certain percentage of affordable housing. The state Legislature is considering ways to reward communities that do so. In the Silicon Valley stronghold of Santa Clara County, where half the homes cost more than $575,000, the school district built a rent-subsidized apartment complex for teachers. The first-of-its-kind program is being watched by school districts in Washington, Alaska and Massachusetts.

Michael Schill, director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University, warns that growth controls can have serious repercussions.

"They may get some short-term gains by closing off developments," he says, "but in the long run, it's going to lead to the economic downfall of their communities, and it's going to price out their children."

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]


Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site