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Op-Ed: Expansion Can’t Meet Lexington’s Housing Needs

Text was originally published as an Op-Ed by Susan Speckert in the Lexington
Herald-Leader on March 25, 2017.

Done in an intentional and planned way, infill and redevelopment is sustainable and ensures continued investment into and improvement of our city while protecting our iconic Bluegrass landscape.

It also creates more housing opportunities inside the city — where the demographics tell us we need it.

To plan responsibly for our future growth, it is important to understand recent trends and demographic projections. Fayette Alliance partnered with other community stakeholders to sponsor a housing market demand study looking at trends and projections for the next 10 years.

Fayette County has been growing at a consistent pace, welcoming about 20,000 additional people every five years. The study translates this growth into a need for approximately 22,780 additional housing units over the next decade.

Over half of the new housing demand will be for seniors. Like the rest of the nation, our population is aging. The Kentucky State Data Center reports that people 65 and older will account for nearly half of our estimated growth in the next decade.

This growing group will require low maintenance “evolving formats,” such as duplexes, fourplexes, townhomes, condominiums and detached homes on small lots, according to the study.

Some will argue we must expand the Urban Services Boundary to accommodate our projected growth, despite the fact that there are over 5,600 acres of vacant land and thousands more underutilized acres inside the USB.

But a recent report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies suggests otherwise. It finds that seniors’ living situations are keys to their quality of life and capacity to live independently. It concludes that a growing senior population will increase the need for affordable, accessible housing that’s well connected to services, necessities, social activities, entertainment, amenities and transportation options — in areas where they will remain integrated into, not isolated from, the community.

This is especially true for middle- and lower-income seniors. But building housing in an expansion area is expensive, and adding land into our inventory does not translate into more affordable homes.

This is one of the lessons we should learn from the last expansion in 1996. At that time, 5,400 acres were brought inside the USB with the vast majority designated for residential development. The Expansion Area Master Plan recognized the expense of building in an expansion area and tried to incentivize developers to build affordable housing.

While the wisdom of locating affordable housing on the perimeter of the city is questionable at best, the fact remains that developers did not take advantage of the incentives and did not build any affordable housing.

Expanding did not result in more affordable homes.

The second group projected to see the greatest growth is the 20-29 age range, a little younger than the 32-35 range that the National Association of Realtors cites as the average age of a first-time home buyer. People in the younger age group are almost exclusively renters and prefer to live in walkable areas that are easily accessible to school, work, entertainment and necessities.

Moreover, as student loan debt mounts, many young people need to live in areas that are accessible to multi-modal forms of transportation.

In order to meet our community’s needs for housing for both this younger group and seniors, the city must recommit to infill and redevelopment as our primary growth strategy. Without this strategy we cannot grow in a smart, intentional way that works for all our citizens.

Creating this strategy will be hard work. But our community deserves it. And it is clearly what the overwhelming majority of our citizens prefer over irresponsibly expanding our Urban Services Boundary.

View Housing Demand Study Read Op-Ed in Lexington Herald Leader