Building for the future: Residential growth surges to match population demands

single-meta-cal April 21, 2021

With more than 100 people moving to the Huntsville area each week, it’s no surprise the Rocket City is now the second-largest municipality in Alabama. If current trajectories hold true, it could be the most populous City in the state in three years or less.

Normally, such growth would cause City leaders to ask two important questions – are there enough jobs and are there enough places to live?

A two-story home under construction is in the background. There are building supplies around it on pallets, and there is a commercial dumpster on the right side.

There were 3,778 residential building permits issued last year – 57% more than 2019’s total of 2,407. Of those, 1,514 are single-family detached homes, while the rest are a mix of townhomes and apartments.

In the case of the former, jobs are largely what’s driving the population boom. Mayor Tommy Battle’s administration has brought 30,000 new jobs to Huntsville, including Facebook, Polaris, GE Aviation and Mazda Toyota Manufacturing.

Thousands more FBI personnel and their families are coming here because of the new FBI facility at Redstone Arsenal. Huntsville’s selection as the permanent home of U.S. Space Command will bring thousands more.

On the housing front, Huntsville’s real estate market is among the hottest in the country. The average number of days on market for homes sold in 2020 was 29, down from 46 in 2019.

In the latest figures from the Alabama Center for Real Estate, residential housing demand is up 15% year-over-year, while available inventory is down 43% year-over-year. A bright spot for Realtors, sellers and homebuilders is that median sales prices are up 12%.

Between 2019 and 2020, average home sale prices increased in 60 of 64 census tracts in the City. Some of the highest increases were in neighborhoods seeing an uptick in building activity, including in Northwest and Southwest Huntsville.

“It’s no surprise the real estate market and new home construction is booming because Huntsville is no longer one of the best-kept secrets in the South,” Mayor Battle said. “Not only do we have high-paying, high-tech jobs, but we have quality-of-life amenities that are second to none. The building we do today will impact our citizens for years to come, and that spans from the very tallest commercial buildings to single-family homes.”

Meeting the demand

Sensing the need to accommodate Huntsville’s growing population, developers are swinging into action. A three-year trend in single-family home construction permits tells the story – 107 in March 2019, 183 in March 2020 and 206 in March 2021.

According to the 2020 Huntsville Development Review, there were 3,778 residential building permits issued last year – 57% more than 2019’s total of 2,407. Of those, 1,514 are single-family detached homes, while the rest are a mix of townhomes and apartments.

To expedite the demand for residential growth, you’ve got to have partnerships. We’ve been focused on putting innovation in the planning and inspections departments, and we’ve got a great group of folks there. It’s just a well-oiled machine.

These numbers are important for many reasons, but they’re especially important to economic development officials trying to lure the next commercial development.

“Retailers decide to spend millions of capital on a new brick-and-mortar location, it comes with a lot of scrutiny and analysis like household median income,” said Shane Davis, Huntsville’s Director of Urban and Economic Development. “It’s also not uncommon for them to take a ZIP code area and want to see the last two years of new housing permits and remodeling permits. They want to know it’s a community people want to be in.”

Huntsville’s Planning Commission approved about 30 major single-family residential subdivisions in 2020, spanning all parts of the City. Many of these developments are built on large, cleared tracts, but that’s not always the case.

A Jaguar Hills development sign with homes under construction in the background

More homes are being built in Huntsville neighborhoods like Jaguar Hills that haven’t seen new construction in decades.

“In this current building surge, we’re seeing subdivisions pop up in neighborhoods that haven’t seen significant residential development in decades,” City Planner James Vandiver said.

His examples included Jaguar Hills in Northwest Huntsville on the former campus of Johnson High School, which has 30 homes in its first phase. Merrimack, in Southwest Huntsville near McDonnell Elementary School, currently has 101 lots.

Farther south, Hays Farm is a broader redevelopment of the Haysland area and includes both single- and multi-family housing. About 450 housing units have been granted preliminary approval so far.

Growth is driving the demand for housing, but Davis said Huntsville’s willingness to work closely with developers is a key component. He added it’s important for developers to know the City is a willing business partner.

“To expedite the demand for residential growth, you’ve got to have partnerships,” he said. “We’ve been focused on putting innovation in the planning and inspections departments, and we’ve got a great group of folks there. It’s just a well-oiled machine.”

Training the next generation

Society is becoming more automated, but there’s one thing artificially intelligent robots can’t yet do – build. As skilled builders and trade workers retire, there are fears a next generation won’t be available to take their place. The North Alabama Homebuilding Academy (NAHA) is working to change that.

The program offers free, hands-on training to those ages 18 and older who are legally allowed to work in the United States, plan to pursue a career within the construction industry in North Alabama and who successfully pass a drug screen prior to starting the program.

Barry Oxley, executive officer of NAHA, recently told the Huntsville City Council the idea for the Academy stemmed from a concern over a dwindling number of skilled workers in the area.

“Over the last three years, we’ve doubled the number of houses, but we haven’t doubled the number of tradespeople in our area,” he said.

Davis said programs like NAHA are important because the students will be contributing to not only Huntsville’s growth, but the Tennessee Valley region. He explained their trade education will allow them to find success in both the residential and commercial construction markets.

“Those same skills used to build a house are needed to build hotels, office buildings or the next fast-food restaurant or retail building,” he said. “I think you’ll have graduates start in residential construction and then maybe move on to a multistory building in Research Park.”

Oxley said those entering the building field are from all walks of life, ranging in age from 18 to over 60. Some students have been veterans, while others were food delivery drivers. Another interesting fact – 15% of students have been women.

“Eighty-five percent of graduates are employed,” Oxley told the Council, adding that the average wage for new NAHA grads is $14.60 per hour. “These are folks going from $8 to $9 an hour jobs and getting a nearly 50% raise.”

To further prove the program is working, NAHA was recognized in October by the National Association of Home Builders as the Best Workforce Development Plan.

“The CEO of the National Association of Homebuilders, when he came down, said this is the model that should be used throughout the United States,” Oxley said.

Shifting tastes

If a NAHA graduate sticks with a career as a skilled tradesman or tradeswoman, they’ll have plenty of work in Huntsville, and not just new construction. In addition to single-family home development, many existing homes are seeing substantial renovations.

A sold sign is on a grass area in front of a new house in Jaguar Hills.

A sold sign is seen in front of a new home in North Huntsville. Planners are seeing a gradual shift toward new construction in urban areas where there are more entertainment options.

“Additions and alterations to new homes citywide were up by nearly 50 percent last year, which is a sign that many people are investing in their homes and, in turn, their neighborhoods,” Vandiver said.

Much like the additions and alterations, building growth is occurring citywide and not always in large developments.

“We’re also seeing an increase in older homes being demolished and new homes built in their place,” Vandiver said. “The Dallas Mill, Lowe Mill and Whitesburg neighborhoods are some examples of areas seeing this type of activity.”

Many of those reinvestments are occurring in homes closer to the City’s center, an area Vandiver said is also becoming more attractive to builders because it’s closer to recreational opportunities like breweries, restaurants and music venues.

“There’s a growing number of people wanting to live closer to the City, to be closer to entertainment, friends and work,” he said. “Up until now, this shift has been most visible in the form of multilevel apartment complexes, but now we’re seeing a mix of housing types being built in neighborhoods adjacent to these activity centers, from detached single-family residences to duplexes and townhomes, reflecting the changing tastes of the market. It’s a sign that the quality-of-life investments the City of Huntsville has made to attract residents over the past 20 years are paying off.