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Developers, Advocates Argue Over Affordable Housing

County considers requiring midrise buildings to offer affordable units.

Housing advocates and developers squared off at the Planning Commission Thursday evening over a proposal that would require certain apartment buildings to provide affordable housing for low- and moderate-income county residents.

Under the proposal, new buildings that are under five stories and that have an elevator would have to set aside some of their units for affordable housing. In return they would get up to 17 percent extra density to offset their cost.

If 50 percent or fewer of the building's parking spaces are in above- or below-ground structures, the developer would have to set aside 6.25 percent of the total units for affordable housing. If more than half of the parking spaces are in off-street structures, the developer would only keep 5 percent of the units for affordable housing, according to the proposal.

Currently, the rules do not require affordable housing contributions for apartment buildings with elevators because of concerns that the cost of elevators and structured parking would not allow the builder to make a profit. But with construction in the county increasingly coming in the form of multifamily developments, county officials decided it was time to require those types of developments to contribute their share to the county's affordable housing efforts.

There are about 1,436 affordable dwelling units in Fairfax County. By contrast, Montgomery County, Md., which asks apartment buildings to set aside affordable housing, has over 11,000 such units.

A task force composed of county staff, elected officials and industry representatives was convened in 2000 to address the issue. An earlier proposal developed late last year was jettisoned at the last minute when the industry representatives objected that they would lose money if the proposal were adopted.

BUT THE SECOND draft proposal discussed on Thursday ran into the same problem. Developers said it was not possible to make sure they would not suffer losses by including affordable dwelling units even with the 17 percent bonus density provision.

"The task force did not reach a consensus," said Jim Butz, a developer who sits on the task force. "No builders support this ordinance." Butz said builders would lose $58,000 on each affordable housing unit.

William Lawson, an attorney representing the building industry, said the density bonus should be between 17 and 30 percent rather than the current 17 percent.

"We have reviewed numerous alternatives that perhaps we ought to go back and look at further," he said.

But Planning Commissioner John Kelso noted that a development composed entirely of affordable housing units next to the Franconia Springfield Metro station was able to provide structured parking, buildings with elevators and still turn a profit.

"I wonder how they do it?" he asked rhetorically.

Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn said he was "disappointed" that it had taken builders so long to express their opposition to the proposal. The task force has been meeting for over two years while mid-rise apartment buildings continue to be built with no affordable homes.

"I wish we had found this out a year ago," said Alcorn. Nevertheless, he deferred the commission's vote on the proposal until May 1 and urged the developers to cooperate with the rest of the task force to come up with a compromise. After the Planning Commission takes action on the measure, it will move to the Board of Supervisors for its final approval.

HOUSING ADVOCATES strongly criticized the developers and urged the commission to adopt the proposal citing the need for more affordable housing in Fairfax County.

"The building industry is being totally disingenuous," said Stephen Cerny, a Reston resident who testified on behalf of the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities.

Sharon Kelso, John Kelso's wife, who serves as chair of the county's Homeless Oversight Committee, said that creating affordable housing was vital to the county's economic recovery.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the two issue are related," she said. "They need a place that they can afford to live or otherwise they will move to the now booming metropolis of Stafford County."

The debate over affordable housing in midrise apartment buildings takes on an added urgency as the county works to extend Metro along the Dulles Corridor. Dense multifamily residential developments are planned for the corridor to beef up ridership on the new rail line.

Patricia Nicoson, president of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, said it was important to offer people affordable housing close to jobs and transit to allow people to live in the county without a car which would reduce the area's traffic congestion.

"We really would like to see as the rail comes to the corridor the opportunity to address this imbalance between jobs and housing," she said.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said that to reduce traffic, affordable housing "is more effective than simply an effort to widen and expand highways."

In moving to defer the vote, Alcorn gave advocates and opponents of the proposal a chance to iron out their differences on the task force. He said some changes in the proposal could be necessary but, he warned, "I don't want to support a motion that waters this down to the point that we don't get any units. That's just a pointless exercise."