Housing study shows affordability weakness in local housing market

by stephen milligan

Demand for homes is up but income levels don’t match up

Housing demand is rising in Walton County but the homes being built are largely outside of the budget of local residents according to a new housing study commissioned by the Development Authority of Walton County.

“We hear a lot about growth in Walton County,” Shane Short, executive director of the Development Authority. “But we didn’t have any data on the local housing market. So I thought we needed to actually collect that data and see what our housing market actually looks like.”

The final report, assembled by Rope Roberts Consulting under the aegis of the Development Authority, shows homes are being built in Walton County but the number of people who can afford them is far lower than expected

Actually, the report shows the growth rate has slowed in the last decade, from 38 percent between 2000 and 2010 to only 15 percent in the past decade. Estimates expect it to drop even more, to only 7 percent by 2028 over 2020.

But the growth remains high. In 2000, the Census reported Walton County had a population of 60,687, compared to 96,673 in 2020. By 2028, the study estimates the population could reach more than 103,000 people, and possibly 163,000 by 2050, an overall 70 percent increase over now.

The problem is where can all the new people live. Walton County’s annual growth rate is about 3 percent, adding a need for nearly 3,000 new homes, and large industrial projects, like Rivian, are expected to create even more demand for homes in the area as new jobs are created.

Yet one-third of Walton County households earn less than $50,000 annually, while to purchase a $200,000 home, such a household would need an annual income of at least $65,000.

“When we look at the homes being built here, we have to ask, can people afford to live here?” Short said. “And the study shows a lot of them can’t.”

And $200,000 is at the low end of new homes being built in the area. The average home being built in Walton County right now sells for about $400,000.

“I used to see signs for new homes for $200,000,” Short said. “These same signs now all say $400,000. And now I’m seeing some signs for homes that say $700,000. These are expensive homes.”

The average hourly wage for production workers in Walton County is $23, which would allow them to afford a housing payment of $1,196 a month if estimated as about 30 percent of their income. Retail workers make less at about $16 an hour, meaning such an income could afford only about $832 a month.

“The housing market here doesn’t match the wages in Walton County,” Short said. “Affordability is a major weakness in our housing market.”

About 25 percent of total occupied homes in the area are renter occupied units, with rental amounts currently matching local income levels far more closely. But the housing supply is falling in Walton County, with a 9 percent increase in housing units coming in less than the 15 percent population growth in the last decade. Overall, it’s creating a housing market where older homebuyers with higher incomes are favored, putting younger people with less income at a disadvantage, such as new high school graduates and much of the workers who make up the service industry and production jobs that make up the majority of local employment.

Short, however, said the study is not intended as a policy recommendation in any direction for local governments and community planners, as much as an advisory on what the market trends are so they can make decisions with such data in mind.

“This is something our elected officials may wish to consider,” Short said. “We don’t need to be developer driven. We need to be community driven.”

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