Monday, October 11, 1999

Housing costs stump suburbs


Growth could slow without a solution

BY SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It wasn't her clothes, it wasn't her hair, it wasn't her race.

        Rachel Barker's more affluent Lebanon neighbors snubbed her because of her home — dubbed “affordable” by the county.

        Born and raised in Lebanon, this single mother of two returned as an adult 11 years ago to find a very different place: a county in a growth boom; a county where she could barely afford to live on her salary as a research specialist with a credit-card service company.

        Heated growth that has made Warren into Ohio's second-fastest growing county is leaving many moderate- and low-income workers out in the cold.

        It's a problem in other high-growth areas, such as Northern Kentucky, but particularly acute in Warren — and a new proposal for a “megamall” raises concerns about where its thousands of workers would live.

        In the short term, the primary concern is about more commuters and worse traffic. In the long term, the fear is that busi ness will stop moving to Warren County.

        Some developers are suing townships over zoning that they say excludes and discriminates against lower-income families.

        “What we're seeing is that all these communities and counties and townships want economic development, but they don't want to house those people that will fill those jobs,” said Joseph Trauth, a Cincinnati lawyer who represents developers suing to open up areas to affordable housing.

        Meanwhile, nonprofits in Warren County have turned into developers to help families like the Barkers.

        It took Ms. Barker six months to find a $90,000 house in April in Franklin Township. Until then, she endured insults from neighbors of her Colony Woods “affordable apartment” complex in Lebanon.

        “They would say, "Those people don't need to be mingling with our children,'” Ms. Barker said, recalling comments at Lebanon town hall meetings. “I took offense to that, because I was low- to moderate-income, that made me a bad person.”

        Ms. Barker's frustration with Warren County's upscale housing is shared by more than young, struggling families who can't afford to live there.

Jobs plentiful
        Employers strain to find workers in Warren County for an increasing number of retail and service jobs that pay $8 to $11 an hour.

        Business leaders and planners fear that a lack of starter homes for employees — from $80,000 to $120,000 — is fueling a labor shortage in high-growth spots from Butler to Boone counties.

        In Warren County, job and population growth rank second in the state.

        However, job growth drastically eclipses housing, rising 181 percent between 1980 and 1995 while housing grew by 45 percent.

        Warren officials worry that if workers can't make their homes there, businesses will stop doing so, too. That's already happening.

        Last year, Cinmar, a catalog company owned by International Cornerstone, decided to expand in West Chester instead of Lebanon partly because it feared it wouldn't find enough workers. The company is building an 860,000-square-foot distribution center at Union Centre Boulevard and promises to bring 1,110 jobs with it.

        A host of problems blocks affordable housing in booming parts of Greater Cincinnati: escalating land costs, local zoning laws, attitudes and a lack of regional planning.

        Affordable housing is not the same thing as subsidized housing. Unaffordable housing is anything costing more than 30 to 35 percent of one's salary.

        “In my view there will be a crisis point and already behind the scenes there is,” said Daniel Woodring, president of Performance Plus Technologies in West Chester.

        Mr. Woodring, a consultant for employment, training and development, helped plan Warren County's labor force summit two years ago.

        “What happens is you end up hiring people less than qualified for what you need. Businesses will stop coming and opening up. But probably more than that, if they do open up, they will be surprised because they won't be as effective as they thought because they won't have the qualified work force.”

        The scramble to buy land in Warren County further escalates land costs. The higher the land costs, the harder to build cheaper homes.

        In Lebanon, the new-house market is geared for $150,000 and up, said Steve Longacre, senior sales associate with Henkle-Schueler Realtors.

        Single-family lots run about $25,000 in Lebanon. After fees, construction and other expenses, developers have more than $100,000 in a minimal, 1,000-square-foot house, he said.

        Then they tack on a profit margin.

        “There isn't a lot of incentive to build small houses or affordable houses,” he said.

Prices rising
        In the first half of this year, the average sale price of 310 homes sold in Mason was $205,092, according to the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors. In Lebanon, 138 homes sold for an average of $150,090. In Hamilton Township, 101 homes sold for an average of $153,532.

        South Lebanon, Franklin Township and Massie Township had average sale prices fall under $120,000, but the number of homes that sold there in the first half of the year were 11, 91 and three, respectively.

        “We do get people in the office or calls from people looking for homes in the less than $100,000 price range,” Mr. Longacre said. “It's frustrating because they definitely don't exist. You just have to say to folks, "Sorry, there's nothing on the market.'”

        For Tony Condia, director of governmental affairs at the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati, the issue is not with the market. It's public policy.

        Township and city zoning laws limit the number of houses developers can build on an acre. The fewer the homes, the more they will cost.

        “As you look at the land-use policies, you will find overwhelmingingly they are not supportive of affordable housing,” Mr. Condia said. “You simply cannot build $120,000 homes in some of these communities. You find most of the communities simply do not want that.”

        Villages and cities use what Mr. Condia calls “exclusionary zoning” to encourage upscale homes and prevent the building of apartments or smaller homes.

        The home builders association was among a handful of developers that sued Clermont County's Union Township in August over township zoning amendments that call for bigger houses.

        Developers won an initial victory last week when Common Pleas Judge Robert Ringland granted their request for a preliminary injunction against two of the four township amendments.

        Union Township's stated reason for raising the minimum square footage for houses — protecting property values — does not square with its responsibilities, the judge wrote. “Maintaining property values is not a legitimate township interest, but the public health, safety and morals are.”

        Mr. Trauth has two other suits, in Warren County against Deerfield and Hamilton townships, over zoning decisions related to multifamily or small homes.

        Mason City Manager Scot Lahrmer argues that communities have a right to use their zoning to dictate the town's flavor. Also, city officials want to prevent school crowding by controlling the number of homes and apartments.

        Mason has some of the most “unaffordable” housing in the county, according to a year-old study by the Warren County Housing Advisory Committee. About 64 percent of Mason's homes cost more than the city's median salaried employees could afford.

        “I think that a majority of this is driven by the market, and a lot of that is driven by the planning in place by the city and the foresight of the council to make sure our city is poised for future development and growth,” Mr. Lahrmer said.

Regional advocacy
        Others advocate regional planning instead of cities focusing on themselves. Joe Kramer, vice president of economic development for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, would like to see more homes built in Cincinnati at $150,000 to slow the flight to the suburbs.

        “Employers are going to need a diversity of employees, but what they have to rely on is people coming long distances,” Mr. Kramer said. “If you have people coming from Grant County to work in Florence rather than coming from Florence, that puts a lot of pressure on the highways and adds to the ozone (problem).”

        The Warren County Balanced Housing Corp. came together last year as a spinoff from the study by the Warren County Housing Advisory Committee.

        The balanced housing group plans to refurbish homes and sell them cheaply to low-income families, said Charles Peckham, the group's chairman. Eventually, the group will build houses.

        Also, Warren County Community Services holds workshops for residents to prepare them for owning a home. Money saved by participating tenants up to $1,400 is matched by the program and goes toward a down payment.

        That helped put Ms. Barker and her two sons into their new house, where her bedroom walk-in closet is the same size of her youngest son's former bedroom.

        Now her sons have a back yard, where they romp with their new dog, Cocoa, Ms. Barker said. “I don't plan on ever moving.”

       



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