Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation visited Charlottesville on
December 4th, 2007 to participate in the Free Enterprise Forum’s
Economic Opportunity Luncheon series.

The Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow opened up his talk with
an anecdotal account of how Americans are relocating all over the
country in order to find affordable housing.  Utt informed his audience
that Virginia is not exempt from such “domestic migration.” Some
residents are moving from more expensive metropolitan areas to less
costly areas, and others are moving out of the state altogether.

This movement is nothing new.  Starting with colonialism, residents
of the New World moved ever Westward until they reached California.
During World War I, many poor southerners moved northward to the
industrial centers and to better paychecks.  Each of the large-scale
migrations in this country have had major economic repercussions across
our very own southern region, and both the migrations and economic
impacts continue.

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Utt reported that the median price of a Northern Virginia home is $400,000, and explained that although this appeared to be a typical example of housing in the U.S., this was rather a result of people “reporting the extreme things… so you presume that everybody’s suffering from this; it’s sort of like high home prices are like the weather.”  High priced homes, however, are not the standard everywhere.

“In fast growing, economically viable, prosperous communities, like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Indianapolis, the median home price is below $200,000 dollars,” Utt said.  In contrast to the trend in many cities – the majority of residents cannot afford the median home price – these cities demonstrate the reverse.

Utt argued that the home price differences between various regions are “largely a consequence of land-use practices.”  As a long-time resident of northern Virginia, Utt views such practices as growth limitation masquerading as growth control.  Specific zoning and high home costs can effectively price an area out of range for many, and therefore succeeds in limiting growth and, as Utt noted, “[pushing] the problem someplace else.”  This is why the Northern Virginia metropolitan area continues to expand; in fact, the southernmost suburbs are as close to Charlottesville as they are to D.C.

The effect of people living farther from jobs is that their commutes – whether by car or public transportation – are vastly increasing, and so is traffic congestion.  “A lot of the land use patterns are exacerbating the existing transportation pattern in ways that wouldn’t happen if you were allowed to have more development on all the land that’s up [in Northern Virginia], or denser development,” said Utt.  He advocated giving people a choice in the matter before they continued to eat up more land and increasing sprawl.

Utt pointed out that “creating artificial shortages through zoning [planners] can enhance the wealth of the community.”  He acknowledged that allowing for denser development would increase land supply and lower the false inflation of home prices, thus setting the stage for more desirably located homes at an affordable price.

In spite of this logic, sprawl continues to take place at an increasingly accelerated pace, and in Utt’s opinion, this is beginning to affect Virginia’s economic vitality.

While Utt did not evaluate Albemarle County’s approach to land use and zoning, the County’s designated growth areas are intended to foster increased housing density in the 5% of Albemarle best supported by public infrastructure, including water, sewer, roads, and schools.  Since mid-2001, almost 12,000 homes have been approved in the County’s growth area and many of those projects include proffers to build affordable housing.  The amount of County retail development in place or approved has doubled during that same time frame.

Developers who previously feared the Neighborhood Model as a costly burden are now embracing it as what the market wants in a new mixed use development (e.g. North Pointe, Old Trail, Biscuit Run, and Hollymead Town Center).  Since the Neighborhood Model was added to the County’s zoning regulations in May 2001, the Board of Supervisors has rezoned, at the developers’ request, large portions of the undeveloped land in the growth areas filling the housing pipeline with the largest increase in new homes in history.  As most of those homes have not been built, they have yet to have their full impact on the local housing market.

Kendall Singleton & Brian Wheeler


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