Housing Choice & Diversity: An Emerging Issue

Landscapes, the Chester County comprehensive plan policy element, outlines the county's plan for housing, based upon the guiding goal:

"Provide diverse, affordable housing to meet the needs of all households in a manner consistent with land use goals."

This goal would be achieved through the support of multiple objectives and policies related to:

Further, the Chester County Department of Community Development is charged with addressing the housing needs of disadvantaged residents, and supports the Landscapes2 housing strategy through its goal: "to provide safe and affordable housing to low- and moderate-income individuals and families in Chester County."

The Housing Goals, Objectives, and Policies outlined in Landscapes2 are comprehensive and consistent with the county's vision for managed growth and preservation. However, unforeseen forces in the market, national and regional trends, and significant demographic changes have made it difficult to achieve these objectives in the absence of a visionary set of strategies and implementation tools.

Landscapes2 will take on the challenge of developing the policies, strategies, and tools that will direct "The New Vision for Housing" in Chester County

Landscapes2 Public Input

"Housing, Housing, Housing" - A participant in the Landscapes2 focus group meetings summarized the importance of the housing issue for the residents and businesses of Chester County. Other comments raised by focus group participants included:

Public Input Suggestions

Through the Landscapes2 public input process, many recommendations were received concerning the update of the plan:

Housing Costs in Chester County

An analysis of demographic and cost trends reveals some of the reasons for the housing concerns expressed through the Landscapes2 public input process. The most significant factor is that, from 2000 to 2005, the median household income in Chester County did not keep pace with the skyrocketing cost of homes:

Expenses/income percent increase

Expense/Income Percent Increase

Note: Median Home Sales Price, Median Rent, Median Household Income
Source: US Census Bureau, 2000 Decennial Census, and 2005 American Community Survey. Chester County Department of Assessment, 2000–2005.

Housing cost increases have affected employer recruitment and retention across many sectors. Employees at every income level are having trouble finding housing that is affordable and meets their needs. Students and educators alike have problems finding affordable housing. Farm workers, senior citizens, low-income families, and people with special needs are faced with significant challenges in securing and maintaining homes that are accessible and affordable based upon household income levels.

What does "affordable" mean?

Affordability of housing is generally measured by a housing cost to income ratio of no greater than 30 percent. Any household exceeding that 30 percent threshold (of gross monthly income) is considered to be housing "cost-burdened." The number and percentage of cost-burdened households in Chester County increased significantly between 2000 and 2005:

Cost burdened households

Cost burdened households

Source: US Census Bureau, 2000 Decennial Census, and 2005 American Community Survey.

In addition, Chester County mirrors the national trend of an increased incidence of cost-burden with a decrease in household income. That is, lower-income families struggle more with housing costs than upper-income families; they also have a greater incidence of overcrowded and substandard housing conditions. However, this analysis shows that a small percentage of upper-income households in Chester County experienced cost burden as well:

Income and cost burden

Income and cost burden

Source: US Census Bureau, 2005 American Community Survey.

The negative impacts of housing cost-burden on households of all income levels can be devastating. Spending more than 30 percent of gross monthly income on housing costs often leaves insufficient resources for families to cover other critical needs including nutrition, heath care, transportation, and child care. And for many, transportation and child care are critical to accessing education opportunities and maintaining stable employment. Cost-burden increases dependence on public assistance. Home repairs and regular maintenance may be neglected, which erodes the quality of existing housing stock. Mortgage default and eviction rates are higher among households with cost-burdens, and increased risk of homelessness places significant stresses on both individuals and families. Vacant and abandoned homes and apartments detract from community quality and decrease neighboring property values.

In contrast, housing that is safe, in good repair, convenient to transportation and employment, and affordable for households at every income level, has the potential to stabilize families, and to improve and enrich neighborhoods and communities.

Future Housing Needs

Landscapes2 must address the housing needs of both current and projected residents of the county, and look forward to the year 2030. Population projections will draw upon recent growth patterns and the demographic trends of households to predict future housing needs. The population of the county between 2000 and 2005 increased at a greater annual rate than it had between 1990 and 2000. The growth in households over the five years from 2000 to 2005 was significant:

Increase in households 2000-2005

Increase in households 2000-2005

Source: US Census Bureau, 2000 Decennial Census, and 2005 American Community Survey. Chester County Planning Commission, Population Estimates 2005.

Approximately 13,500 new housing units were created over the five year period, averaging 2,700 units every year. This trend has been analyzed, along with other factors, and projections of future residential growth are now available:

Population and household projections 2005–2030

population and household projections 2005-2030

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: 2005 American Community Survey,
and Chester County Planning Commission, Population Projections (2007).

Chester County anticipates the demand for more than 48,000 new housing units between 2009 and 2030, or an average of approximately 1,800 to 2,000 units annually. A strong and healthy economy will require that all income levels are represented within Chester County's households, and that a sufficient diversity of housing choices is available for new residents.

Barriers to Housing Choice & Diversity

Land Cost & Regulatory Approvals

Homebuilders find it increasingly difficult to build moderately-priced housing due to rising costs of land and materials, and long delays in receiving regulatory approvals. Requirements for permitting have become more complicated and costly, and local impact fees have also contributed to higher home prices.

Community Design Standards

Standards for residential development, as regulated through local zoning and subdivision/land development ordinances, tend to favor large lot, single-family subdivisions. Large lots require more land and roadway length to achieve optimum densities, which increases costs. Also, standards for roadway design, and for elements such as curbs, sidewalks, parking, and landscaping, can be excessive as compared with the practical need for these elements.

Neighborhood Opposition: NIMBY

Historically, many communities have developed a negative impression of "affordable housing", having linked it to the failed public housing initiatives (typical of the 1940's through 1960's) that became centers of urban poverty and crime. As such, some affluent communities prefer to be "income-exclusive" and will discourage households with income-levels below the area median. Other communities have simply adopted a "no-growth" philosophy and reject any proposal for development, regardless of its nature.

Discriminatory Attitudes and Practices

Discrimination in matters related to housing, though potentially illegal, is commonplace in many municipalities. According to Chester County's Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice (2005), the most frequent acts of discrimination in the county are directed against members of racial minorities, persons with disabilities, and families with children. Many residents, including local landlords and land use decision makers, may not be educated about fair housing rights and responsibilities. Discrimination restricts housing choice, often having a disproportionate impact on households with low and moderate incomes.