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As Sussex grows, developers & advocates strive to keep pace

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The Sussex County Habitat for Humanity uses volunteers to build houses in southern Delaware for residents who earn 60% of their area’s median income level. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

Sussex County is growing and changing at a rapid pace — a pace that may leave families and working folks struggling to keep up.

No one is more cognizant of the county’s growth than the people who grew up there. Convergence Investments CEO and Sussex County native Colby Cox — who is heading a multi-faceted development project in Milton — believes that this growth is a crucial component in the future of the county.

“Recognizing that growth exists and will continue to…is absolutely mission critical to any municipality in Delaware,” Cox told Delaware Business Times.

Affluent retirees looking to spend their summers in a sunny, picturesque location need look no further than the beach towns scattered along Delaware’s southern coast. East of Route 1 and even Route 113, pricey beachside properties abound.

From 2020-2021, the county’s population increased by 4.3%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This rate of growth is 2.8% higher than the percentage increases in New Castle County and Kent County combined.

However, young working people looking to relocate to the county have often found its beaches to be inaccessible.

Through her work as director of development and advocacy at Sussex County Habitat for Humanity, Katie Millard has seen how the lack of affordable housing in Sussex County negatively affects the county’s low-income and disabled residents.

“A lot of the wages on the eastern side of the county don’t necessarily support the housing costs on the eastern side of the county,” Millard said.

Millard’s sentiment is shared by Sussex County Association of Realtors President George Thomasson, who noted that some potential buyers are dissuaded by high prices burdened by lengthy commutes.

Single family homes surrounding Delaware’s beaches often cost around $450,000, according to Thomasson.

“For a young family, or just a young couple starting out, that can be quite high. They have to buy further out — 20 or 30 miles away from their job — which becomes a problem,” Thomasson said.

Sussex County’s population grew by 4% last year, and it’s expected to grow even more in the next two decades with retirees. Roughly 18% of homes built were in suburban areas. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

By the Numbers

Sussex County has experienced explosive growth in the past five years.

Delaware’s beaches “aren’t going to be the sleepy little beach towns they were in the 1960s and 1970s,” Thomasson said.

Between April 2017 and May 2022, the county has documented approximately 16,800 permits for single-family units alone. Of those permits that lay within the limits of a Sussex County municipality, Lewes, Millsboro, and Milton rank the highest when it comes to the number of single family unit permits.

As director of marketing for one of the most active developers in the county, Schell Brothers’ Alyssa Titus has witnessed this expansion firsthand.

“Clearly we’ve been having a booming housing market,” Titus said. “People have realized this is a great place to live.”

In 2021, 18% of homes in Sussex County were located in a suburban — rather than rural — area, according to a report conducted by Realtors Property Resource (RPR) in May. The median age of the homeowners making up this residential cohort was 65 and the homes had a median value of $434,200.

Delawareans familiar with the area’s characterization as a retirement hub will likely find these figures unsurprising. Sussex County’s real estate industry is catering largely to retirement-age individuals; these individuals make more money and thus live in more expensive homes.

Favorable taxes and resort style living draw buyers from both in and out of state to the eastern part of the county, Titus said. These buyers are looking for highly amenitized homes in developments that foster a sense of community and are often already homeowners.

Growing ‘small towns’

However, buyers coming to Sussex County from out of state are also encouraging builders to develop areas further from the coast.

“Because I’ve lived here for 20 plus years, I’m like, ‘if you don’t live 10 minutes from the beach then you don’t live at the beach.’ But I don’t think that people who haven’t lived at the beach their whole life look at it like that,” Titus said.

Interested in beachside living, but not as interested in beachside traffic, buyers are looking beyond the Sussex County coastline.

“The traffic congestion has spurred [on] that westward movement so to speak, when you’re talking about new construction,” Thomasson said.

People are moving to Sussex County for a variety of reasons, though Bright MLS Chief Economist Lisa Sturtevant believes the atmosphere cultivated by the county’s residents is especially attractive to homeowners.

The western part of the county’s “agricultural communities and small town feel — the very things that many Sussex County residents rightly pride — are also what have attracted many outside residents over the last couple of years,” Sturtevant said.

Many working people are also moving to Sussex County for jobs or to be nearer to family members who have already settled in the county, according to Thomasson.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided these buyers with more flexibility.

“Prior to COVID-19 you had to go to an office every day, which has really changed. So we’re seeing more families than we did in the past relocating here,” Titus said.

Sussex County Director of Development and Advocacy Katie Millard, left, Site Supervisor Matthew Waryga and Resource Development Coordinator Kim Morton review plans for its latest housing project in Seaford. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

Pricing out

Despite both builders and realtors noticing an inflow of families and young working people to Sussex County, only 9.4% of the county’s population was in their 20s in 2021, with 11.3% of the population being in their 30s, according to RPR. Both percentages are projected to decrease by 2025.

A study commissioned by Sussex County officials shows that roughly half of the county’s workforce allows them to buy a home at $250,000, and only one-quarter of the market are listed under that price.

The housing market in Sussex County is seeing a return to pre-pandemic trends, experts noted. said. That being said, prices and inflation are continuing to rise, which is making it more difficult for people with less flexibility to commute to live comfortably along Delaware’s beaches.

“If you look at the transportation index in Sussex County people are paying a disproportionate amount of their income towards both housing and transportation, so people are having to move further from where they work, and then that’s causing them to pay more,” Millard said.

Sussex Habitat is working to address this issue through the construction of affordable housing in the county’s downtown development districts, which are prime locations for people to both live and work, according to Millard. The organization has built housing in Seaford, Laurel, and Milton and is in the midst of construction in Selbyville.

Building homes and rental properties that are targeted toward specific income levels will provide the most relief to lower income families, workers, and disabled people looking to find a home in Sussex County, Millard said.

Sussex Habitat coordinates with volunteers and contractors to build the homes that are sold at an affordable rate to people who are below 60% of their area’s median income level.

For years, Sussex County officials have been contending with how to incentivize developers to include rental units to bring — and keep — young professionals here. After months of discussion, the Sussex County Council is ready to present an ordinance that would require at least 30% of future development projects to be set aside for affordable units. A major draw is that up to 12 units per acres would be permitted by-right in all residential districts in key areas, with only requiring site plans to be submitted for review.

Amid this discussion, Cox’s Convergence firm is preparing to start its own housing project in Milton: The Granary. Incorporating new housing, neighborhood commercial elements, a functioning granary, and even a startup incubator for breweries into the town’s existing ecosystem, he hopes that it will rejuvenate his hometown.

The project includes 450 acres of land and a proposed 1,350 homes, 72% of which are single family.

“We’re trying to cater towards that middle-income family,” Cox said. The development will offer a range of price points.

It remains to be seen whether families and young working people will flock toward Sussex County’s rural communities, peripheral suburbs, or the built-up beaches as the county’s housing market settles back into a familiar pattern. But it’s a question that local government officials, advocates and developers will continue to work toward solving.

By Emma Reilly



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