Tackling Affordable Housing

Tackling Affordable Housing

Panel tries to find solutions.

Affordable housing will become an increasingly desperate need for many families in Fairfax County as the county continues to grow and as lower income workers make up more and more of the population.

That was the problem tackled at a Nov. 13 panel discussion organized jointly by the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.

"We really do have a very big problem," said Hunter Mill District Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D).

ACCORDING TO Anne Cahill, a county demographer, the average price for a rental complex unit increased by $400. Half of that increase occurred in the last two years, she said. The average rental price for a unit in a complex now stands at $1,159.

On the home ownership front, prices have increased by more than 20 percent since 1999 to the point where there are now very few single family homes priced under $180,000. On top of that, Cahill said, the poverty rate in Fairfax County has gone from 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent between 1990 and 2000.

"You're talking about over 43,000 people, twice the population of Fairfax City," she said.

The hot housing market also created a strong seller's market which further reduced the supply of affordably-priced homes, said Patrick Jablonski, a Realtor and chairman of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors.

"We've gone to a place where we're leaving folks behind," he said.

But he predicted that the interest rate on home loans would stabilize to within 1 percent of what it was three years ago — before historically low rates sparked high demand — which would result in what he called "a soft landing."

"When we're talking about housing we're talking about people," said Tom Kam, a social worker who sat on the panel. "We have a significant immigrant community moving in."

"The challenge to us is how we serve our new residents," he added.

ONE POSSIBLE way to provide more affordable housing is through community revitalization, said Michael Carlin, the former chair of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

"Successful revitalization can lead to affordable housing," he said.

Community revitalization is a process in which localities invest in an area to make it more attractive to businesses.

With economic revitalization, "we're going to see economic opportunity," he said. "We're going to see the development of retail and shopping," as well as mixed use development.

"The critical element is to get those risk-takers, the people who will invest in those communities at the table," he added. "I know there is also commitment on the part of elected officials to revitalize."

Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D) said the county had made commitments to revitalize certain areas of the county such as central Springfield but that budget pressures might make further investment difficult.

"It's always been difficult to find money and it's going to be more difficult now," he said.

Nevertheless, with revitalization, "we can leverage public sector investment to something that more than recoups our investment over time."

But, he added, "it has to be something the community wants and it has to be quality."

"Just because housing is affordable doesn't mean it has to be bald-faced ugly. It doesn't mean it has to be badly managed," he added.

Successful revitalization projects and more affordable housing will also require the county to accept higher densities in certain areas, which, Kauffman said, is something "Fairfax still trembles at the thought of."