Sussex needs more variety in housing

February 27, 2018

Sussex County is facing increasingly difficult decisions about its future. Developers are building more and more single-family homes. Farmland is being rezoned to provide land for both homes and shopping centers. Residents of some of our towns and cities are being displaced by the growing demand for housing.

At the same time, there is no effort to provide affordable, workforce housing. So not only are residents being displaced, and farmland lost, but those needed to provide services to all our residents are struggling to find affordable housing for purchase or for rent in Sussex County.

The Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice supports policies and zoning decisions that provide affordable housing for all income groups and ensure the ability of residents to remain in their homes.

The housing market in the eastern part of Sussex County is the fastest growing and most expensive market in Delaware. Eighteen percent of Eastern Sussex homes are valued at more than $500,000 and 45 percent of the homes are valued at more than $300,000. New construction to take advantage of high home values and accommodate the population growth is overwhelmingly single-family, low-density housing.

Developments of low-density housing are spreading west of Coastal Highway along Route 9, Beaver Dam Road, and Route 24. The alliance believes that Sussex County needs to think creatively about the mix of housing available, and whether that serves the needs and goals of the area today and in the future.

With such expensive housing, how are we going to keep the Eastern Sussex area vibrant with a supportive combination of people and services? How are we going to attract the next generation to settle here? The alliance believes that we need to attract and retain young professionals, teachers, police, doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, EMTs, and medical technicians.

The charm of this area includes many small, locally owned and operated businesses and restaurants. To preserve that special character we need budding entrepreneurs, chefs, crafters, writers, and artists. Yet, many of these professions have modest salaries.

There is a large income gap between the wealthy coastal communities with many retirees and the workers who staff the businesses in the area. In eastern Sussex County, 30 percent of households earn less than $25,000 per year. In western Sussex County, 36 percent of households earn less than $25,000 per year. The local employment base in healthcare, tourism, and retail, as well as support services, typically pay less than median income for the area.

Eastern Sussex has a shortage of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households. It takes an annual wage of almost $60,000 to afford the average Sussex County house. If you are a medical technician at the hospital, or a young teacher, or an electrician, or a cook, or a cashier, or a waiter or waitress, where are you to live in Sussex County? Many of these workers cannot afford to reside in Eastern Sussex. They must commute from the western part of the county, which adds to the increasing traffic congestion and transportation costs, further burdening the budget of workforce families. These workers are likely dealing with the combination of low pay, poor housing, and higher transportation costs.

The Delaware Housing Needs Assessment 2015-2020 estimated that almost half of all renters and one-third of all homeowners have housing challenges. These challenges include paying more than 30 percent of their income for rental or ownership housing costs, or living in overcrowded or substandard living conditions.

Saving for a down payment to purchase a house is nearly impossible for many young families and most low-wage workers.

For those looking for rental properties, the situation is equally discouraging, if not more so. An article in the Aug. 18, 2016, Sussex Post reported on a presentation made by Sussex County's Housing Coordinator and Fair Housing Compliance Officer Brandy Nauman to county council. Nauman informed county council: "Currently, the fair market monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Sussex is $987. The average renter makes $10.92 per hour in Sussex.

To afford that two-bedroom housing unit you have to make $19.46 [per hour] or work 94 hours per week at a minimum wage job...The affordable monthly rent for someone that is low income is $464. So that is a pretty big gap."

Sussex County needs affordable workforce housing opportunities. At the same time, most residents are anxious to preserve as much open space as possible in the area. This combination means looking at models for higher-density, lower-cost housing, rather than continued heavy reliance on the low-density, single-family housing that starts at well over $300,000.

Mixed housing can be sited close to existing neighborhoods, or new developments can be encouraged to set aside part of their communities for mixed-size housing. The alliance believes that mixed-size, mixed-age, mixed-price and mixed-density housing would be a welcome addition in the Eastern Sussex area, in particular.

The continuing influx of retirees means that over time we will need housing for the aging population who want to downsize, sell the single-family home, and stay in the community. The median age in the coastal communities of Lewes, Rehoboth, and Bethany is about 67, so half of the population is over the age of 67. This segment's demand for smaller living spaces will increase rapidly as the baby boomers age.

Yet, the shortage of affordable housing is a long-standing problem. For example, the attorney general of the United States sued Sussex County and the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission in 2012 to enforce the Fair Housing Act alleging that, "There is a documented need for, and a short supply of affordable housing in Sussex County." US DOJ used data from both the Delaware State Housing Authority and the Census Bureau to support its claims: data that estimated that "23,737 households (32.5 percent of all households) in Sussex County are cost-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their gross adjusted income to housing costs...[and that Sussex] County has less than 2,000 housing units that are specifically designated for low-income households...." Since then, the gap between the median income for a Sussex County family of four and affordable rents and affordable mortgages has continued to increase. And, the gap is even bigger for families below the median income level.

Why does the alliance see this as a racial justice matter? The simple answer is that the alliance is concerned because the problem has a disproportionate impact on the households of racial minorities. In this process of renewal and rebuilding, poor communities and their residents are displaced, traditional community and family life are adversely affected, and small businesses are discontinued. Gentrification is a national phenomenon which has been present in Sussex County for some time; it is not going to abate on its own. The alliance believes that action to address this problem and change in the county's planning decisions is required.

The alliance believes a mix of housing options for all residents of Sussex County, including workforce housing for lower-wage earners in Eastern Sussex, should be available. The alliance hopes that our local and county planners will consider economically feasible models for communities which incorporate single-family housing in proximity to two-family and multiple-family dwellings to form more diversified neighborhoods.

Drew McKay and Sandra Derr are members of the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.

Editor’s note: This commentary has been updated to correct the average fair market rent for a 2-bedroom unit in Sussex County, which was $987 in 2015, according to Delaware State Housing Authority. The much higher number originally provided was incorrect.



  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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