Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Aging in isolation

Concerns about a slow-down in the housing market may or may not be warranted, but at least one part of the market is still bubbling.

Cindy Fudge is in an enviable position. She has sold 13 homes, each in six figures, and the models aren't even ready -- and won't be for another three months.

While that pace is sofentening, it seems unlikely she will be stuck with vacant lots.

"We've been well received," says Fudge, the sales representative for the developer, Dale Thompson Builders, at Scot's Glen, a luxury development in the early stages of construction in Columbia. "We have a lot of people who keep calling us."

The development is tapping into the seemingly insatiable market for age-restricted housing -- units limited to people at least 55 years old -- in Howard County.

That segment has been the single largest driving force for the housing industry in the county for the past five years, and officials expect the trend to continue as the so-called baby boomers reach or near retirement. Indeed, the over-55 age group is the fastest-growing category, and it is projected to increase by more than 46,000, to almost 100,000 people, and will comprise almost one-third of the county's population by 2030, twice what it is today.

Wow! That is a lot of old...uh, rather, over-55 people.

The county has made it pretty easy to develop age restricted housing by allowing such uses in many of our zoning districts. And rightly so. Such housing likely generates the same amount of tax revenue as non-age-restricted residential, without adding any expenses to the county's school budget, the biggest piece of our budget pie. Moreover, building housing for seniors who want to age in place reduces the strain on our traditional housing market, which may increase the prospects for new families wishing to make Howard County their home.

Overall, then, over-55 housing seems like a good idea. However, something about the housing doesn't sit right with me, and I've never fully been able to figure out why.

I'm partly concerned about segregating an entire segment of our community into their own, isolated neighborhoods--many of these developments are gated, the antithesis of what Columbia stands for. While isolation from children and the outside world may be what buyers of these houses want, the last thing we need as a society is to further dissociate ourselves from our neighbors, regardless of their age. Alas, the consumer is king and their choices never wrong.

Additionally, we've got to look at our changing community dynamics in context. The Baby Boomers, who are becoming the target market for age-restricted housing, are a bit of a statistical anomaly. When this cohort moves on to a better place, are we going to be looking at a glut of single-story houses in gated communities with overly-restrictive ownership requirements? I'm not sure, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

I'm sure if I spent more time thinking about it, I could come up with more reasons to be skeptical of age-restricted housing's awesomeness. For now, though, this is all I've got, and neither seems to be enough of a worry to stop building such communities, especially given their apparent popularity with buyers.

No comments: