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Monday, May 27, 2024

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Review and Opinion

Only Older People Can Afford to Live in Cape May County

Homes in places like Avalon, pictured, begin at over a million dollars and strict zoning makes affordable housing unlikely even for middle income earners.

Cape May County is facing an acute housing problem. The county has fewer and fewer affordable properties that meet the needs of young families. Rents are also too high for the pay levels of most young people in the county. Add to this zoning requirements that support higher property values making the development of new properties for working-class and middle-class families less likely.

The county’s character is impacted by the housing issue. Yet, this is an issue seldom addressed by our elected officials who have revealed no plan to ameliorate the problem.

Let’s look for a moment at how things are changing.

In 2000 a full 26% of the population was under 18 years of age. Better than one in four persons in the county were children and juveniles. They belonged to families that could afford to live here and chose to do so. Twenty years later in the 2020 census, the percentage of the population under 18 dropped to 17%. Over 10,000 young people were lost to the county rolls compared with 2000.

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Consolidation is not a topic for school administrators alone

and the decisions are not theirs to make.

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In that same period, the percentage of residents over age 65 grew from 20% to 28%, up by over 6,000 compared to 2000. That represented a 40% growth in the population over 65 years old.

School enrollments show the same phenomenon. In the twenty years from the 2001-2002 school year and the 2021-2022 school year, the county saw municipal school district enrollments drop by 21%.

The county morphed in those years from a county of parents to a county of grandparents.

Maternity care at the only county hospital could no longer be supported because of the low number of in-county births.

Yet through it all property values rose, especially in the island communities. The population on our islands dwindled, and second-home buying soared. Modest properties were demolished and larger homes on larger lots became the norm. This became a county to retire to, not a county in which to have and raise a family. The median age of county permanent residents is up to 51.6 years old, the highest in the state.

Several factors drove this transformation but one of the largest was the rising property values and the corresponding decline in housing affordable to working-class and middle-class families.

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A Culprit:

Residential zoning laws make the building of housing that is

within the reach of working-class families harder and less likely.

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What economists call the housing burden has become unsustainable. The county’s economy is not structured to reward moderate-income families with decent housing.

Zoning does not allow the necessary density for multi-family homes in areas where people want to live. The short-term rental phenomenon is reducing the stock of long-term rentals and driving up costs even on the mainland. Available renter-occupied housing is now well below the percentages common in the state and the country. Median gross rents are now well above the desirable 30% of median family income, forcing moderate to middle-class families to make choices about shelter as compared to other necessities.

Those who have a good education are fleeing the county as the crisis grows. The most recent census data from the American Community Survey shows one-third of our resident population has an education no higher than high school, a full 25% more than the state average.

Cape May County is a wonderful place to live. But the availability of decent and affordable housing is an issue that must be addressed. Not all factors driving up costs are within our control.  Zoning is.

More than the free market is at work here. Residential zoning laws make the building of housing that is within the reach of working-class families harder and less likely.

We need a dialog on housing affordability and land use. We need specific goals for creating housing that is within the reach of young families and fixed-income seniors.

It is time to decide what kind of county we wish to have. Starting that dialog is a responsibility we can no longer avoid or the price we pay may be a steep one.

An increasingly geriatric county is inevitable only if we allow it to be so.

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From the Bible: Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. — Proverbs 16:3

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