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Viewpoint: Sussex needs to build more homes not less

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Joe Conaway

The Sussex Economic Development Action Committee (SEDAC) has continued to support business development in Sussex County, including solving the doctor shortage, expanding broadband access and improving the permitting process. But were we really addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room? I’m speaking of the serious shortage of all types of housing.

Nationally, and it is clearly reflected in Sussex County, the annual growth rate of housing stock from 1968 through 2000 grew by 1.7%. But that same, the growth rate for the last two decades grew by only 1% and in the last decade by only 0.7%. For those who say we have too much building happening in Sussex, the numbers clearly point out that we are not building enough.

Since 2010, the number of young adults ages 25 to 34 living at home with parents has increased by 2.5 million and more than doubled from 2010 to 2020. In the last 20 years, the gap between existing and new homes totaled more than 5.5 million housing units. This is one of those occasions where Sussex County is right there with the best of them; unfortunately, in this case, it’s a big time negative. We are not building enough homes for our people.

This type of housing is difficult to find at best in western and central Sussex and impossible to find in eastern Sussex. Try to live where you work if you live east of Route 113. The cost of what one must pay to rent or buy a home in eastern Sussex makes it almost impossible for a young or middle-income individual or couple to buy or rent a home. 

Therein lies the problem. How can we recruit new businesses to Sussex if they have nowhere to live? Sussex County has one of the highest out-migration of 18- to 25 year-olds in the nation. Without a place to call your own, why stay here?

But what happens when a developer seeks to build affordable housing? The first problem is that the zoning ordinance doesn’t allow the density needed to build these homes and still make a profit. The second problem is the anti-growth sentiment. You know them as those folks who came to Sussex since 2010 and believe somehow that they didn’t cause the traffic problems that we have. 

I continue to hear that traffic is going to kill the attraction of Sussex County. For some reason though, it didn’t seem to stop these aginners from coming here. Is it just that they don’t want anyone else here? I often wonder what time of day they bought their homes. It must have been 3 a.m. for them to have missed the traffic that was already here. I can only say it one way – if you came here after 2000, you are the traffic.

From 2011 through 2020, the state spent $4.15 billion on just road construction. New Castle County, with 22% of the landmass of Delaware got 72.39% of the money while Sussex County, with 48% of the landmass got 16.86% of the money. 

Since my career in and around government started in 1973, Sussex has never gotten its fair share of road funds. While giving testimony on the floor of the State Senate about this same problem back in the ‘70s, I was told by an up-state senator that traffic in Sussex was only a 100-day problem and we would just have to get used to it.

How do we begin to finally end these problems? The governor, the General Assembly and the secretary of transportation are beginning to address our road needs by spending more on construction in Sussex. It’s just a beginning, but it is a start.

If we are to construct a variety of types and costs of housing throughout this county, we have to increase density in all the areas of Sussex in which people want to live. Quality and affordable developments can go hand-in-hand with increased density.

The Sussex County Council has taken a giant first step toward that goal with the creation of a Housing Trust Fund of $6.3 million to assist nonprofits and other groups with a new grant program for housing. 

I have great faith in the people of Sussex County to do the right thing as they have done since we first approved a change of zoning in January 1971. 

Joe Conaway is a former Sussex County administrator and chair of SEDAC.

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1 Comment

  1. Karen Euceda April 14, 2022

    I’m a native of Delaware,and I remember years ago we had a building moratorium for 5yrs.we need this again.every land mass is going for development. Please stop the building.our wildlife has no where to go but in people’s backyards.plus doctors,schools,hospitals. They can’t find enough staff to work.make people buy already built homes.or go away.

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