Friday, April 28, 2006

What about the children?!?

All this talk about enhancing future housing opportunities for current Howard County homeowners got me thinking about a study I read recently for work.

Avoiding Failure to Launch: A Grown Children Benchmark for Projecting Future Housing Needs examines the situation in Orange County, California by collecting data on the housing preferences of local 25 year olds and compares this with the number of 15 year olds living in the county today – giving us a sense of what their needs will be ten years from now.

Like all academic studies, the piece is rife with caveats, but the fundamental model, analysis and results are sound – namely, without taking into account the housing needs of other groups, Orange County in ten years will have far fewer houses than grown children looking for houses.

The situation in Howard County, I would wager, is roughly similar. As much as I’d like to recreate exactly the model used in the study above, I have neither the data nor the statistical wherewithal to do so. But I do have the back of this envelope and a penchant for assumptions. Let’s see what happens.

According to the 2004 American Community Survey (published by the US Census Bureau), there are around 43,000 teenagers (ages 10 to 19) among us. How many of them would actually choose to live in Howard County once they’ve grown up? The above study basically says all of them (with the understanding that those who move out for good would likely be replaced by someone of the same age moving in from somewhere else).

Another factor in determining housing needs is the number of people per house. Clearly, some are going to be married. Some will have roommates. And some (well, a few) will live alone.

Using the data available to them, the study’s authors conclude that the ratio of housing to population is around 35 percent; that is, the number of grown-children households is roughly 1/3 the total population of these children when they were 15.

Using their findings, Howard County’s teenagers today will create in the future roughly 15,000 additional households (43,000*35 percent = 15,000) or approximately 1500 households per year beginning sometime in the next five or so years (the age data is aggregated into a 10-year chunk).

Since we currently allocate housing units at a rate of 1600 per year – and many people think this is already too much, and the “built out” drumbeat grows louder – we are probably looking at a significant housing shortfall for our Prodigal Sons (and Daughters). Factor in the fact that people other than our children will likely try to move here, and “probably” becomes “certainly.”

As important as it is that we find ways to help current residents stay in Howard County if they wish, I would argue that a more important goal should be adequate housing for our children once they’ve grown. From a strictly economic standpoint, it would be nice to get some returns (tax dollars) on our investments (public schools). But who cares about economics?

The more important reasons for providing homes for children who have grown up here are related to family, community and values. I know some kids just want to get as far away from their parents as possible when they grow up, but most, I would argue, do not. They seek the family support structure, especially when they start a family of their own (Grandparents: The World’s Best Babysitters).

Others, moreover, have social networks that they wish to keep intact – friends, mentors, teachers, etc. – something that rests to a large extent (for now) on geographic proximity.

Finally, our children are products and stewards of our collective community values. Not only does it make perfect sense that they would choose to live in the community that shaped them, but it also seems ideal for us to have our children return to ensure our shared values are preserved.

Maybe I’m just frustrated by the fact that so many of my friends have been forced to move elsewhere in search of cheaper housing (in fact, western Baltimore County is so crowded with them that we can probably call it North Columbia [wait, isn’t that what we call Ellicott City?]). As far as I know, many of them would have preferred to live in Howard County, but…

It’s great that we are working to make it easier for seniors to age in place and proposals are being floated to ease the tax burdens for most homeowners, but these are reactionary measures meant to address problems that are present now.

While seemingly everyone supports “good” planning, few seem to agree on what exactly “good” means. I don’t have that answer, but I do know that failing to think about the future housing needs of our own children is the epitome of bad planning.

No comments: