Builders advised to think smaller Demographer says shrinking households don't need big homes

November 19, 1995|By Daniel H. Barkin | Daniel H. Barkin,SUN STAFF

Developers and homebuilders geared to putting up roomy, detached single-family residences may have to retool their marketing strategies if households continue to shrink, according a population analyst.

"Fifty-five percent of all the households in the Baltimore region have two people or less," Dunbar Brooks, principal demographer with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, told a developers' forum last week. The percentage is expected to reach 57 percent in several years, he told the Land Development Council (LDC) of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

Nearly two-thirds of the one- to two-member households are made up of people older than 40, the aging Baby Boomers, said Mr. Brooks, who is also a member of the Baltimore County Board of Education. Another factor is the prevalence of single-parent households, he said; half of all first marriages end in divorce.

"What does that mean if all the households are getting smaller," asked Mr. Brooks, whose nonprofit organization studies transportation, economic development and growth issues. "What kinds of housing opportunities are there [for builders]? In 2005 to 2010, do you want three and four bedrooms?"

Nationally, the number of one and two-person households jumped from around 29 percent in the 1970s to around 55 percent in the early 1990s, according to federal statistics.

And there are indications that the building industry in the Baltimore region is trying to respond to market forces. Townhomes continue to be the most prevalent construction locally, more than 43 percent of this year's new housing sales, according to the Legg Mason Realty Group's latest report. Detached new homes command around 41 percent of the market. The most popular detached-home subdivision -- in terms of sales in the third quarter, had dwellings averaging around 2,000 square feet. The hottest townhouse communities averaged around 1,200 square feet per unit.

But developers trying to meet the downsizing trend must contend with community groups and local government officials wary of higher-density housing. How to cope with "Not in my back yard" sentiment was one of the dominant topics in the LDC's annual forum last week at the homebuilders' Woodlawn headquarters.

Attorney Robert Hoffman, a land-use lawyer with Venable Baetjer & Howard, said that even though developers are now routinely meeting with neighborhood groups to discuss their plans, opposition is intensifying in Baltimore County.

The trend is for groups to "just say no," Mr. Hoffman said, "no matter how soon you see them, no matter what you're presenting.

"The pendulum has really swung in Baltimore County toward the communities, and they are feeling this power, feeling this strength, and they are creating quite a problem for the developers in the county," he said.

Nevertheless, developers -- companies that purchase raw land, install roads and utilities, and gain regulatory approvals needed before the homebuilders start work -- should continue to work with community organizations, he added.

"You can't give up on that, or else you'll be perceived negatively when you go to county government and you're asking for their support," Mr. Hoffman said.

The pendulum may not swing back until residents value the economic development benefits more than they worry about increased traffic generated by new housing, he added.

"Whether that's going to happen in the next 10 years, I don't think it is," he said.

Steve Koren, president of the LDC, said that developers should take the approach that their plans can be improved with community input. "Now who's it better for?" Mr. Koren asked. "It may not be better solely for you, but better for the overall [plan] when you count the existing community, the residents that would be moving in, as well as your ability to get your program financed and built."

ZTC The public confuses developers with "land speculators" who hold land and do nothing, hoping its value increases, Mr. Koren said.

"Most people in this room are land developers who add value and then would like a profit based upon that added value," he said.

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