There was a time not long ago when we lamented the fast growth in our communities, what a 2007 letter-writer to the Daily Chronicle described as a “vainglorious parade of residential developments.”
The housing boom of the aughts brought new subdivisions to communities across DeKalb County, from its larger cities such as DeKalb and Sycamore to smaller ones such as Waterman and Cortland. Housing developers seemed to many like the wolf at the door.
Today the wolf is largely absent. It turns out it wouldn’t be so bad if he’d come knocking again.
The moribund pace of growth in our communities might not be as disruptive, but its consequences are being felt just the same. Although rapid growth brought more obvious consequences like more traffic, more schoolchildren, and farm fields that sprouted crops of houses, near-flat growth is bringing its own kind of hardship: Falling property values, higher property tax rates and lost jobs.
DeKalb County Board members are facing this reality now in crafting their annual budget. The value of an average home in the county has decreased from $200,000 in 2010 to $160,000 in 2013. There haven’t been many more people coming here to share the property tax burden, either: Countywide, new construction will account for less than 1 percent of the total assessed value of the county.
Few new taxpayers and declining property values add up to higher tax rates on county property owners. The county will also have to consider whether to cut its budget, and budget cuts generally require laying off workers, people who often live, work and spend their money in DeKalb County communities.
County government is not the only place this scenario is playing out. Sycamore’s School District 427, which absorbed large numbers of students during the building boom, has projected that by 2018 it will have 140 fewer students than in 2010. Enrollment declines mean less state aid for the district and also require staff cuts; the district has laid off the equivalent of about 10 teachers since 2012. This year, 18 teachers retired, sparing the elimination of more jobs.
Some communities are trying to encourage homebuilding by waiving impact fees. In Genoa, where there are 700 to 800 buildable lots available, the city does not impose impact fees on the first 20 houses that are built – but they haven’t reached that number since enacting the policy after the housing market bottomed out.
The area has not been without any proposals for new development: Plans from ShoDeen for a new subdivision of more than 1,500 homes it calls “Irongate” near DeKalb High School were approved in 2013, but build-out is projected to take 20 years. Sycamore, too, is seeing some new homes built within its existing subdivisions at North Grove Crossing and ShoDeen’s Reston Ponds subdivision.
Few people yearn for the days when new subdivisions seemed to be sprouting up everywhere. But the jobs they created, from the people swinging hammers to the workers in the public and private sectors providing services for new residents, are missed.
Until the housing market recovers nationally and in our communities, no economic recovery will be complete. Local governments should work to find ways to attract new development when possible and sensibly manage their budgets, without placing undue burden on taxpayers, until the wolf is at the door once more.