Building back up

January 24, 2012

There's reason for a bit more cautious optimism about the economic outlook these days after there was a bit of an uptick in applications for new residential building permits.

Certainly, the news comes as a mixed bag. Permit numbers were up in 2011 compared to the previous two years, which were terrible. And the numbers of four years ago at the peak of the most recent housing boom were not up to the highs of the 1980s, either in terms of raw numbers or percentage of growth in county residences.

A couple things are at play here. Home building has been an important underpinning of the county's economy since the first post World War II housing booms brought new neighborhoods to Aberdeen, Edgewood and, to a lesser degree, Bel Air. The biggest increases in terms of raw numbers and additions to the population came in the 1970s and '80s.

By the end of the 1980s, a lot of the land within easy commuting distance of Baltimore and other job centers had been largely consumed, so the physical unavailability of land for major new development swaths comparable to Constant Friendship, Box Hill and Riverside meant most new developments would be relatively small — though still large enough to necessitate the issuance of in the range of 1,000 new home permits a year.

The hit of the last recession was a hard one for the home building industry, but it appears to be climbing out of the hole, having hit the 550-permit total in 2011, up substantially from the previous year's 378.

As is typical in the county in the aftermath of economic troubles, the recovery of the housing market is driven by properties on the low end of the cost spectrum, namely apartments in this recovery. That this bit of good economic news comes paired with improved employment numbers and word that a Hollywood production company has taken up residence in nearly three acres under roof in warehouses in the county, makes it seem like this might not be a false start.

Amid all this, it's worth noting that home building is driven by a single factor: The desire of people to live in Harford County. Sure, the price of housing figures into any equation, but people choose to live in a place because they like it and it's close enough to where they expect to work that commuting is realistic.

In recent times, economic downturns have been turned into arguments that favor a fairly liberal public policy with regard to new housing, in the interest of stimulating the market based on low prices. No doubt, this will be an argument in favor of expanding residential development opportunities in Harford County in the coming months as land use policy is up for overhaul. It'll be important for people who like the county the way it is now to keep in mind that building permit activity has picked up without a weakening of development policies and make their voices heard when the time comes.

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