Saturday, July 23, 2005

Is Anyone in WV Noticing This? Unaffordable Housing in NoVa Forces First Responders to Live Far From Communities They Serve

Today's Washington Post has a piece on how local governments in the DC area are having to play landlord to provide subsidized housing for police officers and firefighters due to the astronomical cost of housing in the entire metro area. I point this out to highlight the problems that are already beginning to afflict the Eastern Panhandle, although on a smaller scale for now.

The Post highlights the story of a single mother who is a Fairfax County firefighter living in a county-owned condo that she rents for $800 per month after heavy subsidization by the county. While starting firefighters in Fairfax earn over $40,000 initially and quickly go to over $50,000, that's not nearly enough to make ends meet in place where the market rate for a house is $500,000+ and an apartment is upwards of $2,000 a month. Indeed, many of the region's first responders along with other public employees live as far away as Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. And this doesn't even count the tens and hundreds of thousands of private sector workers making less than a six-figure income who are a crucial part of the DC metro area's economy.

Unaffordable housing that has forced poor and middle income workers to live as much as two hours away from where they work has become a very common problem in California, where environmental and zoning laws have restrained the supply of new housing, and in the Northeast, where there is no more land. In the case of the DC metro area, the lack of land in the inner and middle suburbs and zoning efforts in the outer counties are taking their toll, and as I've said before, our Eastern Panhandle is the next battlefield that will suffer the onslaught. Moreover, the astronomical housing costs that the DC metro area is suffering despite the massive development for dozens of miles into the suburbs and former countryside gives rise to extreme pessimism about the ability to solve rapid price increases by increasing the supply sufficiently to prevent the translation of high demand into high inflation.

Before the cash-strapped state of West Virginia passes the point of no return and is stuck with the bill for quickly building dozens of new schools and mile after mile of water and sewer lines, new roads, and extra lanes on existing roads, shouldn't we tackle head-on the questions of whether to cap housing growth and, together with Maryland and Virginia, develop a plan to balance the growth of employment with the capacity of the region to serve as a home to the people who will fill those jobs? We cannot continue forever with a regional economy over in the DC suburbs where most people cannot afford to live in or even within a reasonable (i.e., a 20-30 minute commute) distance of the communities where they work. And Heaven forbid some disaster that would not be adequately responded to because the cops, firefighters and EMTs all live an hour or two away, even with lights, sirens, and a brick on the gas pedal.