Taxes, Sprawl, and Local Government
- Barely any mention of housing density here, nor of progressive (really
old-fashioned) high-density, where property values and quality of life
*increase* with density...will they ever get it?
Space for Employers, Not for Homes
Residents Driven Farther Out as D.C. Suburbs Lure Business and Limit Housing
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page A01
First of three articles
In the pages of its master plan, the suburb of Clarksburg seems perfect.
The old farming crossroads off Interstate 270 in northern Montgomery
County is being transformed into a town-size development of homes, shops
and offices, all according to a detailed scheme crafted by county
planners. The developers are dressing up the project with traditional
home architecture and a village green, and they call their creation "a
new American classic town."
Yet for all its proposed charms, the Clarksburg plan embodies the kind
of basic imbalance that is setting off waves of inefficient land
development around Washington.
The master plan approved by Montgomery County leaders permits enough
office space and shops to employ 40,000 workers. But it deliberately
does not provide for enough housing for all of those workers -- fewer
than 15,000 new homes. By the time Clarksburg is completed, homes for
thousands of workers will have to be built elsewhere.
But where? The answer resounding from county governments across the
Washington region these days is: not here.
Attracting workers -- but not the homes for all of them to live in -- is
not official policy just in Clarksburg and Montgomery County; it has
increasingly become the practice across the region. Local governments
believe this makes financial sense because workplaces pay more taxes and
use fewer government services than homeowners do. And governments
maintain this imbalance through zoning and other development controls.
But by creating housing shortages, the policies push developers, home
buyers and renters farther and farther away to find available land and
more reasonably priced houses.
This migration, in turn, produces longer commutes to work, more road
congestion and the destruction of remote natural habitats, planners say.
The extra auto travel contributes to other troubles, including air
pollution and the "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. And, most of all,
"Many local governments haven't controlled growth, unfortunately --
they've deflected it," said Gerrit Knaap, a planning professor and the
director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education
at the University of Maryland.
Developers are often blamed for sprawl, and as self-interested
businesspeople, they often lobby for road and home-building projects in
outlying rural areas. But to a large extent, they are only catering to
the housing demand in the Washington region within the constraints
placed on them by local governments.
"Developers do what makes them money -- they build what they find to be
profitable," Knaap said. "But what they find to be profitable is
determined by consumer preferences and public policy."
During the 1990s, the number of jobs in the Washington region grew much
faster than the supply of housing, according to a study by George Mason
University's Center for Regional Analysis, leaving a shortfall of 43,200
homes. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which
compiles job and housing projections based on reports from each of the
local governments, says the number of jobs in the region will increase
by 550,000 this decade, while the number of homes will rise by only 312,000.
Assuming the typical 1.5 workers per home, that leaves a shortfall of
"We already have an imbalance," said Robert E. Griffiths, director of
technical services for COG. "And with these growth trends, the gap gets
bigger in the future. More housing development is happening further and
further from the center."
Landsat satellite imagery of the region taken since the 1980s, analyzed
and mapped by researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center with NASA
funding, illustrates the development pattern.
The images show that until the mid-1980s, development in the region was
suburban but relatively focused around its historical centers in
Baltimore and Washington. Since then, more development appears as
splatterings, much of it on large lots far from the region's core of jobs.
"Since 1986, and even more so since 1990, there is a lot more
low-density residential development appearing in outlying areas," said
Scott Goetz, associate scientist at Woods Hole. "The scattering of
development has become much more prominent."
Planners as far from Washington as Caroline County, Md., on the Eastern
Shore, and Berkeley County, W.Va., report an uptick in applications from
developers who feel squeezed out of the Washington area by tight
"I'm just amazed that people would go back and forth from here to the
Washington area, but they do," said Paul Harner, a town supervisor in
Liberty Township, Pa., a hamlet about 70 miles north of Washington that
finds itself on the front lines of the sprawl wars. "Now that those
places in Maryland have stopped home development down there, we realize
it's coming up here."
Between 1982 and 2001, the average distance commuters drove daily on
freeways and major roads in the Washington region rose more than 40
percent, from about 10 miles to 15 miles, according to the Texas
Transportation Institute's widely used survey. The number of hours lost
per person to congestion rose from 10 to 34 hours a year.
Automotive emissions, though they have lessened with cleaner cars,
continue to keep the region in violation of federal air quality rules
and contribute to the "dead zones" of the Chesapeake Bay.
"We're trying to reduce the number of miles people drive because of the
emissions and the congestion, which is spreading so fast," said Ron
Kirby, the transportation director for COG. "But we haven't been very
successful. We have more cars going more miles."
While the housing shortage is pushing home buyers farther out to find an
affordable new home, more convenient places for suburban home
development have been placed under tight development regulations. More
than half the land in the Washington metropolis, from Stafford to
Carroll county and from Loudoun to Anne Arundel county, is zoned for
maximum densities of one home per three acres, according to a Washington
Post survey of jurisdictions.
Instead of stopping developers, however, such restrictions have led them
to carve up farmland or woods into home lots that may retain their
pastoral look but that planners consider wasteful, especially given the
"Too big to mow, too small to plow," agricultural planner Randall Arendt
said of such large "rural" lots.
Driven by high demand and low inventory, housing prices in the
Washington region have soared 65 percent over the past five years,
according to data from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise
Oversight. The rise in this region is 50 percent faster than national
home prices. With the region set to add a million people by 2020 and
housing developers leapfrogging outward in search of land to build on,
the trends seem likely to continue.
'Good for the Tax Base'
Several jurisdictions in the Washington area have pursued a strategy of
attracting more workplaces than homes, but Montgomery County under
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) made it an explicit goal. Duncan
proposed -- and the County Council approved in June -- a policy calling
for faster job growth than housing growth.
New residents generally cost the county money. The average household in
the county pays about $6,500 in property, income and other taxes to the
county. But the county spends about $8,500 a year educating the average
school student, not including state and federal aid.
"This policy is good for the tax base," Duncan said.
Or, as a Montgomery County booklet puts it: Creating workplaces faster
than homes is "the economic development strategy yielding the greatest
long-term net fiscal benefits."
County policy aims for employment growth of 2 percent and household
growth of 1.4 percent annually. Though it won official approval only
this summer, it appears to have been in practice for more than a decade.
In a major 1993 review of county development, planners found that the
number of jobs and homes in Montgomery County were "reasonably
balanced." Since then, Montgomery County increased its jobs figure by
110,000 while increasing its home supply by 42,000, according to county
figures. Assuming the average of 1.5 workers per home, this leaves a
shortfall of roughly 30,000 homes.
David Platt, the county's economist, said that assuming that those who
work in the county continue to want to live in the county, the gap
between the growth in jobs and the growth of homes will create an upward
pressure on prices.
Ideally, the housing limits in Montgomery and other suburbs would propel
buyers and builders into the District, some planners say, because there
they would be close to the jobs core and generally close to mass
transit. Thus far, however, the market for homes has moved more outward
than inward, as the development maps show.
Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who
voted against the strategy, called the new policy "indefensible."
"It exacerbates two of the most serious problems in Montgomery County:
traffic congestion and housing affordability," he said.
County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who supports
the policy, acknowledged that "we have a regional housing shortage
because of hurdles put up by local governments."
But, he said: "I get elected to represent the people of Montgomery
County, not the region. I support broadening the tax base."
Silverman noted that although the policy may drive up home prices, the
county has an affordable housing program that at one time was considered
a national model. In 2003, developers created 143 units under the
county's Moderately Priced Dwelling Units program, and the annual
average since the program began in 1976 is a little more than 400.
Duncan and Silverman said it was wrong, too, to assume that when
Montgomery's job creation outpaces the number of new homes, the county
has to "import" more of its workforce.
Some of the new jobs, they explained, will be filled by people already
living in the county and commuting elsewhere. When they find a job in
the county, they said, it will reduce commuting.
The critics of the policy are operating under a "false assumption,"
Silverman said. But he said he has "no idea" how many new jobs would be
filled by people already living in the county.
Census data suggest that the number of "imported" workers will be
substantial. Between 1990 and 2000, the share of people working in
Montgomery and living somewhere else grew 30 percent faster than the
number of jobs.
As of 2000, about 154,000 workers were commuting to Montgomery, up from
140,000 in 1990.
"No matter how you dress it up, housing-jobs imbalance generally
exacerbates sprawl," said Marya Morris, senior researcher at the
American Planning Association.
It isn't just Montgomery, either.
The largest single housing-jobs gap in the region exists in Fairfax
County, which spends $7 million a year to bring in jobs. It's part of
the county's objective of drawing 25 percent of its real estate taxes
from commercial properties instead of homes.
During the '90s, the number of jobs in Fairfax County rose from 404,000
to 533,000, according to county figures, for a rise of 129,000, while
the home supply rose by 51,000.
Assuming the county average of 1.5 workers per home, this leaves a
housing shortfall of 35,000 homes.
"We've been phenomenally successful at attracting jobs to this county,"
said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "That
creates a tax base to finance the kinds of services we want to have."
"It's a vicious cycle," said John McClain, a senior fellow at the Center
for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "Every county, it
seems, is trying to load up on jobs but not houses."
'Make Their Neighbors Pay'
Even aside from the effects on sprawl and housing prices, critics blame
such policies in Fairfax and Montgomery for, in effect, shifting the
burdens of providing housing to neighboring jurisdictions. Some planners
call this a "beggar thy neighbor" approach. Its use by the region's most
affluent counties strikes some as particularly galling.
"What it comes down to is class warfare," said Michael Replogle, a
former Montgomery County planner who works for Environmental Defense.
"It's an effort to keep low tax rates in one of the most affluent
jurisdictions and make their neighbors pay."
For people who work in Montgomery, affordable housing often means a
commute north on Interstate 270. At Human Genome Sciences in Rockville,
for example, more than 100 of the company's 1,100 workers live in
Frederick County, six go even farther to Hagerstown and three live in
Pennsylvania, according to company figures.
In the Clarksburg area, one of four workers lives outside the county,
according to local employment figures. When the offices slated to be
built in Clarksburg are completed, the proportion living in those
northern locations is likely to be higher because the gap between jobs
and housing in Montgomery will have grown.
Planners in Hagerstown and surrounding Washington County said the area
is seeing a boom in home construction, much of it to serve workers in
Frederick and Montgomery counties.
"We haven't had a growth boom since the '40s," marveled Kathleen Maher,
Hagerstown's planning director. "With the housing we have in the
pipeline now, the number of homes we have will rise 20 percent."
Many will wind up living in places like Hager's Crossing, a planned
community in Hagerstown more than 40 miles northwest of Clarksburg and
an hour or so away in rush hour. Going home every evening, they will
cross thousands of acres of land preserved as "rural" under Montgomery
and Frederick planning restrictions.
Prices in Hager's Crossing start at $189,900 for a new townhouse and
$300,000 for a new detached home. Several families of Montgomery workers
live in the community, which is in the early stages of construction. The
sales staff said that as many as half the buyers are coming from Montgomery.
In some ways, these far-flung subdivisions are merely another version of
the American dream. But those home buyers who work in Montgomery see it
in less romantic terms. To them, it's more like a rational choice to
sacrifice time in the car in exchange for an affordable, larger home.
Ibiso and Telema Erekosima -- who both work for Montgomery County, he as
a bus driver and she as an administrative aide -- moved with their four
children for a simple reason. "It was the prices," Ibiso said. "We
looked in Pennsylvania, too, but that just seemed too far."
John Johnson, a computer worker in Germantown who just moved in with his
wife and their teenage son, made the same choice. "I couldn't afford
anything closer," he said. "My idea wasn't, 'Gee, let me see how far I
can commute.' It just ended up that way."
The other day, as he dug into a pizza that had just been delivered to
his new house, Johnson estimated that his new commute will be an hour or
an hour and a half each way.
"I don't think Montgomery County is against family values," Johnson
said. "But they certainly are cutting into my family time."
"It's my duty to fight those who have chosen to belong to the party of
death, those who say they receive their orders from God somewhere and
believe they have a duty to set the world on fire to achieve their own
salvation, whether they are in the warrens of Iraq, or in the White
House. I prefer to be a card-carrying member of the party of life."