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Sussex County Council revises affordable rental ordinance in bid to tackle housing shortage

Milton Pratt
Delaware Public Media

Sussex County Council voted last week to offer new incentives for developers to build denser affordable housing as the county’s housing shortage deepens.

A 2019 study by Housing Alliance Delaware found that a person earning minimum wage would have to work nearly 100 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent in Sussex County. Given the increasing demand for housing created by an influx of higher-income residents, the county's workforce — the largest share of whom work in lower-paid industries like retail, hospitality and manufacturing — the council sought a way to increase the availability of affordable rentals near existing workplaces.

The revised ordinance grants automatic approval to developments in the county’s designated growth areas – including town centers – that reserve at least a quarter of units for the county’s affordable rental program, among other eligibility requirements.

Sussex County Community Development and Housing Director Brandy Nauman says the previous incentives offered to developers to build affordable housing – introduced in 2006 – weren’t attracting interest.

“With our existing rental program, the only thing we were offering was an expedited review and a small density bonus, but there was no guarantee of approval," she said. Typically, she added, a new development would take 12 to 14 months to receive approval.

The revised ordinance retains the density bonus, allowing developers to build up to 12 units per acre – more than four times the current average density in Sussex County’s growth areas. It also includes new enforcement mechanisms, including a requirement that developers pay the county monthly market rent for any affordable unit they rent out at market price; those fines will go into the county’s housing trust fund.

Any new affordable units built through the program will now have to remain affordable in perpetuity – a change from the previous ordinance that allowed units to rise to market rate after 30 years.

She notes the program’s other requirements, including that approved developments be served by public sewers and arterial roads, are intended to mitigate sprawl and keep in line with the county’s strategic plan.

“We did our best to make sure these won’t be one-off apartment buildings in the middle of a cornfield in Gumboro," she said.

The previous program only resulted in the construction of a single mixed-income development in Lewes. A related program to encourage the construction of affordable homes for low- and moderate-income buyers stalled after the 2008 financial crisis. Nauman says the county plans to rework that program.

She adds many successful affordable rental programs elsewhere use mandatory affordability requirements, but Sussex County isn’t prepared to take that step.

“We just don’t have the support for a mandatory ordinance now, so this, in my mind, is very much the closest we’ve ever gotten to that," she said.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.