The business of housing Loudoun’s workforce
As she began to look around, a family member told her about the Affordable Dwelling Unit program.
Palmer checked on the LoudounCounty.gov website and found a brochure which included some of the eligibility requirements.
A prospective applicant must not currently own property, but must make between 30-70 percent of the area median income. In addition, the applicant's credit score must exceed program minimums.
After filing paperwork, pre-qualifying with her bank, choosing her home and completing other obligations, she closed on a house May 3, 2013.
The process allowed her to move into an affordable home in the One Loudoun neighborhood within the span of six months.
The stories of other prospective home-buyers with modest incomes hoping to buy homes in Loudoun County sometimes go differently than that.
Frequently workers choose to move out to Clarke County, Manassas or West Virginia, where a bigger yard and more square footage can be bought for the same price.
The commutes are sometimes 40 minutes or more to work.
The county's lack of ability to effectively house the workforce puts a strain on some businesses and critical infrastructure like roads, not to mention employees' quality of life.
Affordable housing cuts across every sector of the population in Loudoun County – from the disabled and elderly to blue collar workers and young members of the workforce.
If there are service industries that need to be staffed, how do we house them if they can't afford it?
“Affordable workforce housing needs to be switched from a charity issue to an economic development issue,” said Kimball Hart, the executive director of the Windy Hill Foundation, a not-for-profit company in Middleburg that rents affordable workforce housing.
"The thought is that affordable housing gets put over in the social services category," Hart went on to say.
Tony Howard, the CEO and President of the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce, agrees.
“It’s a business issue here in the county,” said Howard. “We need to be able to recruit and retain quality employees and let them lay down roots in the community.”
It's an issue Greg Miller, the owner of PM Hospitality, knows all too well.
Many workers in the hospitality industry live in Manassas and other areas of Northern Virginia, are trained in Loudoun, but leave as soon as a job comes up where they live.
In a recent survey conducted by the department of economic development, the most cited weaknesses for the county in recruiting talent were housing prices and traffic.
Howard says it would be a struggle for a young professional with a starting salary of $30,000 to $40,000 to find affordable housing in Loudoun County.
“[Owning a home] is often beyond the means of somebody starting early in their career,” said Howard.
Hart and Billow acknowledge that the county has made large strides to put the issue in the forefront, and that workforce housing has been a top priority for the CEO cabinet and the Economic Development Advisory Council.
Supervisor Suzanne Volpe has also worked with the housing stakeholders group to come up with suggestions and work on the issue. That body meets frequently.
So what can the county do to start making changes?
“We need to talk about [the ADU program] and spread the word,” said Dawn Billow, a Realtor who helped Palmer get into her house in One Loudoun.
The waiting list for the program is currently a fraction of the projected need for the county.
Howard thinks the ADU program is great, but understands the limitations of the program and believes making a business case for more affordable workforce housing would be best.
"We need to let the market forces lead the way," said Howard.
"Allowing for higher density near the rail will help. A project in the right location should allow for higher density."
Hart believes that other jurisdictions have done a better job of understanding the place workforce housing has in the role of economic development.
His thought is that, “in order to understand what you need to do, it is important to understand current housing shortfalls.”
Hart would like to see Loudoun put together a study that defines the county's workforce housing needs, as the Fairfax Revitalization and Housing Authority have already done with their housing blueprint.
“You can’t have commercial development in a vacuum,” said Hart. "Workers need to live somewhere, and they can’t all live in Clarke County or West Virginia and commute."