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Saturday, June 15, 2024

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Where Will the CMCo Workforce Live?

OCEAN CITY HOUSING AUTHORITY FILE PHOTO AFFORDABLE

By Herald Staff

A workforce problem has been building in Cape May County. We know this and we know many issues contribute to it. Let’s just take a moment and focus on one the rising cost of housing in the county.  

Each year, we celebrate the soaring tourist economy that is the backbone of private and public business in the county. We hear that after a one-year Covid dip, the economy has roared back. The shoulder season is expanding. Property values continue to rise, with our county leading all counties in New York and New Jersey in terms of yearoveryear home prices, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Proudly displayed is the fact that the county has 10 million visits per year, with a summer population on any given day that is larger than Seattle, Boston, or Atlanta.

Unfortunately, we have no reason to celebrate the workforce numbers needed to support that $7 billion tourism economy. The needed workers are not there and the reliance on temporary foreign workers brings with it its own problems and vulnerabilities, as we discovered when a ground war broke out in Europe. Workforce issues also hamper attempts to bring diversity to the county economy. 

A recent needs assessment conducted by the Cape May County Department of Human Services showed that among the critical basic needs in the county is decent, secure housing. Housing means affordable, stable, permanent, and acceptable living conditions. What the survey found is that a full 20% of households, one in five, in the county experience severe cost burden for housing. This means they are spending 50% of their income or more on housing. This is a rate higher than the state average, even though New Jersey ranks third among the 50 states in average rent, behind only Hawaii and California.  

In terms of rents and home purchase prices, we are on the high end of a state that is already higher than most. What does this mean for the future of our workforce?  

According to the U.S. decennial census data, from 2000 to 2020, Cape May County only lost 6.9% of its total population. What is much more shocking is the fact that the county lost 39% of its population 18 years old or younger. The population 65 and older grew by 30% in the same period. When we say we are aging, we need to realize that means losing youth. 

One major reason young families leave this county is they cannot afford housing here. Our median age is 10 years above the median age of the state.  

There is nothing wrong with being a place many people come to for retirement. We have much to offer. But we cannot let the aging of the county mean a loss of working-class families. A Rutgers study talks of the need for “missing middle” housing. High housing costs invariably lead young people seeking to form their own households to leave in search of more affordable opportunities. It is important to realize that we do not have the kind of economy that will hold these young families despite the high housing costs. 

In short, we may need them more than they need us. 

This is not a simple problem, and it will not bend to simple solutions. We need a concerted effort among county and municipal officials, along with the involvement of our business community. Like most solutions to complex problems, one must give to get. There will not be a painless way to deal with the issue of increasing decent, affordable housing for workingclass families.  

A solution mix might include easier zoning for accessory units, zoning for “missing middle” housing types, as opposed to a heavy reliance on single-family homes, and looking at regionalizing school districts to bring down housing costs. These are just a few possible areas of investigation. Whatever the mix of policy choices, it is clearly a problem in need of attention.  

Workers from neighboring counties face long commutes made almost intolerable by summer traffic. Temporary foreign workers are just that temporary. They require their own housing, and their presence is increasingly vulnerable to geopolitical factors.  

In the absence of a plan to increase housing for the workforce we need, market forces are driving us further away from such housing. A thriving economy may soon find itself throttled by lack of workers.  

————-  

From the Bible:   A shrewd man keeps his knowledge to himself, but a foolish heart proclaims its folly. Proverbs 12:23 

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