How do you get fewer homes, but more people?


SOMETIMES things aren't what they appear to be. Seeing all the houses being built in Howard County, one would assume that growth is exceeding all expectations.

That conventional wisdom, however, was knocked for a loop by recent data indicating some home-building rates have not met predictions.

My first thoughts were that if fewer houses are being built, then population growth must not be as great either. Which would mean all the talk about new families overburdening a crowded school system was just that -- talk. But that's not the case. You have to consider a number of factors in assessing the housing data.

Fewer homes being built

For the past seven years, the county Department of Planning and Zoning has compiled all of its information on subdivision plans, site development plans, building-permit applications and certificates of occupancy.

This year's annual Development Monitoring System Report contained startling information that fewer dwellings were being built than predicted in the 1990 General Plan. It projected 50,000 new residential units by 2010.

Building and occupancy permit applications indicated about 2,000 new dwellings were being built in the county each year, well below the 2,500 a year predicted.

But looking at the aggregate number of dwellings being built doesn't tell the complete story.

To project population growth, the Planning Department uses a formula based on U.S. Census Bureau assessments of the average number of persons who typically occupy each type of dwelling: 3.1 persons per single-family detached house; 2.6 persons per townhouse; and 1.8 persons per apartment.

Applying that formula to the total number and types of residential building permits issued last year, the county should grow by 5,830 persons. That's higher than the 1990 General Plan prediction of 5,600 new Howard County residents each year.

In other words, though fewer than predicted housing units are being built, the anticipated population growth for Howard County is on pace.

Planning officials say one reason for that is more single-family homes -- which contain more occupants per unit -- are being built than the General Plan predicted.

Developer profits

Many developers have eschewed multiple-family units in favor of single-family detached houses that deliver a bigger profit.

Of the 5,830 predicted new residents, only about 546 will live in apartments or other multi-family dwellings. And most of these will be in the new apartments in Columbia's Town Center.

The Development Monitoring report also includes important information on non-residential construction. It shows that 242 building permits for non-residential space were issued last year, which is nearly half the permits issued over the past five years.

Of the nearly 8 million square feet permitted for non-residential construction over the past five years, more than 3 million square feet was permitted last year.

Non-residential construction means jobs. Howard County has averaged 4,800 new jobs each of the past five years. But last year there were more than 7,000 new jobs in the county.

The General Plan prediction of 14,540 new jobs between 1992 and 1997 has been exceeded by 9,000 jobs. That's great. But, again, things aren't always what they seem. Let's consider the types of jobs we're talking about:

The Planning Department report included state data showing 107,881 jobs in Howard County. Of those jobs, 34,540 are in the service sector and pay an average weekly wage of $672; another 20,975 jobs are in the retail trades, paying an average of $321 a week.

Relate those low wages to the expensive homes that developers prefer to build around here and there's a problem. A lot of people who work in Howard County can't afford to live in Howard County.

Using state data on property transfers, the Planning Department development report noted that of the 3,140 house sales recorded during the first nine months of 1997, the average price of 1,308 existing single-family houses was $204,900.

The average price of 525 new houses sold during the same period was $272,000. Prices above $400,000 are becoming common.

Need affordable housing

The disparity between average house prices and wages paid in the county dramatizes the importance being placed on developing more mixed-use subdivisions.

But it's not enough to have the right mixture of residential and commercial development. Howard County also must have more housing alternatives for the people who work here.

Police Chief Wayne Livesay says it's difficult for many of his officers to afford to live in the county. Yet one of the best deterrents against crime is to have a police officer live nearby.

Any community is made better when its workers take the type of pride in it that only residents can have. The emphasis of too many developers on high-priced housing in Howard County prevents that from happening.

Harold Jackson is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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