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Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Howard County too wealthy?

      We all know that we live in a wealthy county. But when is a good thing so much that it develops a significant downside?  Can you ever be too healthy or too wealthy?  Forbes magazine listed us as the fourth wealthiest county in the Country with a median income of $108,000. It is no wonder that every upscale retailer wants to open a store in our County.  Our location, close to DC and the federal government, and highly educated population certainly has a lot to do with our wealth.  In fact, 4 of the 5 wealthiest counties in the Country are in the DC area.  Quick question--which county has a higher median income, Fairfax County Virginia or Howard County?  If you guessed Fairfax you are wrong ($108,000 Howard County, $106,000 Fairfax).  Montgomery County doesn't even make the list of the top 10.
    So is there a downside to being a wealthy county?  That thought occurred to me on a recent bike ride through Western Howard County. It was not hard to notice the fact that modest homes built there in the 1950's and 60's are being replaced by homes in the $500,000+ range.  It is a little strange to see an older 1000 sq ft home next to a 6,000 sq ft home but it tells you where we are headed in our County's housing stock--at least in Western Howard County.
       It seems that new reasonably priced starter homes are a thing of the past.  The affordable homes that Ryland and others sold in Columbia in the 1970's provided young families with an opportunity to buy a new home to start a family on a modest salary.  Those options today seem much more limited.  Buying an older home in a school district that has low test scores maybe the only way to find an affordable home today.  The choice seems to be between affordability and being in one of the "desirable" school districts.  The idea of having diversity of housing choices seems to have been diminished starting sometime in the 1980's as Columbia and Howard County became a desirable place to live.  This desirability certainly pushed builders to want to maximize their profit by building larger more expensive housing.  I have blogged before about a small rancher in Oakland Mills (one of those "California ranchers" so common in our early villages) being replaced by a $500,000 brick colonial when the original rancher burned down.  Today even the small remaining out parcels in Columbia usually have larger colonials squeezed together with very small yards.  Is the finding of the 2010 Census showing that the only age group that had declined from the 2000 Census in Howard County was the 0 to 4 age group.  Some of this may just be a result of couples having smaller families but I wonder if it also reflects the lack of affordable starter homes.  I remember moving into our new affordable starter home in the late 1970's and 90% of us having kids in this age group within the first couple of years.  We got to know all of our neighbors because we had to be out watching our young kids as they rode their big wheels up and down the sidewalks.
      What we see today is the older villages of Columbia that were built with affordable homes and apartments carrying an increasingly disproportionate share of our County's affordable housing.  This has led to a stigmatizing of certain villages, neighborhoods and school districts.  This trend is hard to reverse once these perceptions become ingrained.

   Ask any realtor  about the number of families looking to buy a home in Howard County and they will tell you that usually the first requirement is to only show them homes in the desirable school districts.  The cycle of desirable schools creating desirable neighborhoods has a profound impact on how our County can continue to provide for the diversity of our population.  It is not diversity to only have a mixture of high performing schools and low performing schools, some desirable neighborhoods and some undesirable neighborhoods.  The challenge going into the future for our County is to provide that diversity in every community and school in our County.  This may have to start by having affordable new homes for young families.  Often it seems if we are moving in the opposite direction.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Blame it on the environmentalists and others who limit land for construction. Limited Supply will force howard county property prices higher.