A Sussex County housing consultant says it's not the role of county government to manage or build housing. However, Lisa Sturtevant said, government can develop incentives and policies to provide a path so developers will build projects for residents of different income levels.
Sussex County's comprehensive plan sets a priority to explore ways to promote affordable housing options, especially for residents who work in eastern Sussex County where housing costs are high.
As Sturtevant's firm, LAS of Alexandria, Va., meets with stakeholders and the public over the next few months, she said her goal will be to provide county council with recommendations for housing options. Over the past few weeks, her company has compiled housing data; meetings with stakeholders are ongoing.
She presented housing data to council May 21, and that night county officials hosted a public comment session.
What Sturtevant heard from the public loud and clear is that it's time for action to provide more affordable housing to Sussex residents.
Sturtevant said it’s not in the county’s best interest to get into the housing business. “But Sussex County can set up incentives to structure more housing options and also make sure regulations work as effectively as possible,” she said. “It could mean some changes, but hopefully we can move the needle for people who are facing housing hardships.”
Education is needed
Among the first steps is to arrive at a shared definition of affordable housing, Sturtevant said. “If a development is part of an incentive program, it must meet that definition. The incentive could be for housing for mixed incomes.”
That statement drew response from the crowd with people noting under current county zoning, residents would object to any high-density or affordable-housing projects near their communities.
Sturtevant said there is no research that below-market-rate housing and rentals lower property values of surrounding homes.
She said she understands there is fear among residents that their neighborhood could change. She said other areas in the country have addressed the issue successfully, and her team can provide residents with information to educate others.
High density by right?
Preston Schell, president of Ocean Atlantic Companies, said developers need high-density zoning to construct affordable housing.
Unfortunately, he said, there is not much land already zoned high density, so land-use applications for rezonings are required, which draw opposition from residents affected by proposed development. “The residents who live nearby come in and throw out their horror stories,” he said.
He said county officials should consider an ordinance to create high-density zones where developers can build by right, without going through the rezoning process, such as what is permitted on AR-1 zoned land.
East vs. west
Sturtevant said Sussex has a large housing affordability gap, and large disparities in housing costs on the east and west sides of the county. The median price of a house in the county is $287,000, but prices vary greatly in eastern and western Sussex.
In addition, the top job sectors are the lowest-paying jobs, including the retail, accommodations and food service industries whose workers struggle to afford houses and rentals in eastern Sussex.
In addition, many workers who have jobs in eastern Sussex County are forced to live in central and western Sussex where houses and rents tend to be more affordable.
But there is a catch to that, Sturtevant said. Adding in transportation costs, most of the savings workers get on housing are erased.
Of the nearly 76,000 jobs in the county, 11,935 people are employed in the retail trade, 11,858 in healthcare and social assistance, 10,330 in manufacturing, 10,113 in accommodation and food services, and 8,725 in government.
Sturtevant said workers need to have an income of $27,000 to $30,000 per year to afford a house under $200,000. “People with the key jobs in the county are limited to options for home ownership,” Sturtevant said.
Sturtevant said locating the best areas to focus incentives for developers that make the most sense to connect people to jobs and reduce transportation costs will be a priority of her firm's mission. “And we need to meet with the development community and be as frank and candid as possible,” she said.
She said a survey of rentals throughout the county for two-bedroom apartments vary from $1,000 a month in Seaford to $1,500 and higher in the Lewes area.
“There is a demand for higher rental housing, and the market is not responding to the lower-end market,” Sturtevant said. “There is a way to put incentives in place for lower-end rentals.”
She said federal funding is available for rental subsidized projects.
Sturtevant said data show manufactured housing units – considered affordable housing throughout the county – have declined over the past few years.
Consultant: Accountability required
Sturtevant was asked what would be different about her firm's effort when other housing initiatives in the county have not resulted in much action.
She said her staff’s goals are twofold: To provide everything needed to county staff and elected officials to implement approved recommendations including steps to put solutions into practice with specific outcomes focused on action and accountability.
Secondly, to provide resources and education to residents and officials who don't realize there is a housing problem, and to provide tools to staff and advocates to understand the repercussions if no action is taken.
Sussex County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Kevin Gilmore, who has been at the front line of county housing issues for more than a decade, said this is the most encouraged he's been the last 15 years.
Housing for homeless
Finding housing for the homeless is also a goal of the initiative.
The point-in-time count shows there are 118 homeless people in Sussex County on any given day.
Sturtevant said that number is low because it does not include people who are living with friends or relatives, those who are doubling or tripling up and those who are vulnerable to homelessness.
She said more data is needed. Sturtevant said people who are vulnerable are one car repair or healthcare bill away from losing their housing.
Steven Smith of the Christian Storehouse in Millsboro said addressing the needs of housing for the homeless has to be a top priority. “These are human beings who have fallen on hard times,” he said. “Emergency housing should be a priority. People are living in cars, sometimes with their children.”
Smith said the working poor with cars are forced to park in area parking lots to sleep at night. “They should not be guilty of a crime. Stop fining them – that would be a huge start,” Smith said.
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