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Affordable Housing Policy Approved

But it's not clear how many units will be created.

Fairfax County may have gotten one step closer last week to providing affordable housing for some of its more moderate-income residents. The Planning Commission Wednesday endorsed a measure that would ask developers who build four-story buildings with an elevator, known as mid-rise developments, to contribute to the county's housing efforts.

The vote was intended to close "the loophole on elevator midrise buildings that has kept midrise buildings out of the [Affordable Dwelling Unit] ordinance," said Walter Alcorn, the planning commissioner who shepherded the measure through the Planning Commission.

But Alcorn said he did not know how many new affordable units would come out of the measure.

"It's not clear how many ADU's coverage of midrise will provide," he said.

The proposal comes from a task force on affordable housing composed of advocates, county officials and developers that has been working for two years to close this particular loophole. It will now be taken up by the Board of Supervisors at its May 19 meeting. If the board approves the proposal, it will take effect early next year.

HERE'S HOW it works. As part of the affordable dwelling unit ordinance, the county currently allows developers who set aside a certain percentage of their housing units for affordable housing to build at a higher density. The formula varies depending on the type of development. For instance, developers who build single family homes can build 20 percent more houses than allowed by the county if they earmark at least 12.5 percent of the new units as affordable dwelling units (ADU's). County officials can request that the developer provide the affordable homes as a trade-off for approving the building application.

But developers who build four-story buildings with an elevator have been exempted from the ordinance because, they argued, the cost associated with building a development with an elevator made it impossible for them to keep prices low and still make a profit. If the Board of Supervisors approves the ordinance change, midrise developers could be asked to keep 6.25 percent of their units for the county's moderate-income families in exchange for 17 percent extra density.

"I'm confident that the proposal that ultimately was recommended by [county] staff is fair and won't result in economic loss for the vast majority of cases," said Alcorn.

Even if midrise developments don't contribute much to the county's affordable housing efforts, Alcorn said the policy was a significant stepping stone to bringing the high-rise developments into the ordinance. The county will get many more affordable units when high-rise developers have to contribute, he said.

"The big loophole is still out there and that's high-rise and that's next."

DEVELOPERS OBJECTED to the ordinance change saying there were some "lingering concerns" that the ordinance change would cause developers to lose money.

"The ordinance is written so that providing affordable units is done at no economic loss," said Lynne Strobel, a land use attorney with Walsh Colucci who sits on the county's ADU task force. "We're not convinced that the way this is written we'll be able to achieve that."

But Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who also sits on the task force, said the new ordinance gave developers an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to affordable housing.

"We hear time and again that industry is wanting to help the efforts on affordable housing," he said. "This is a step forward and any step forward is vitally needed."

Strobel said: "I think unfortunately we just have some philosophical disagreements."

County officials and developers have sparred before over how much to ask from home builders. Last November, after months of study, the task force put forward a proposal that was rejected by the developer representatives on the task force just before it was to go to the Planning Commission for a public hearing. Task force members went back to the drawing board and produced what Alcorn called a "watered down" plan. At the April 10 public hearing on the proposed new policy, developers again objected that the policy could threaten their profits. In particular, they said, those builders who provide costly parking structures should not be asked to contribute as much.

County officials took the developers' concerns to a consultant, Bolan Smart Associates, who found that the policy was not asking too much of home builders.

"The staff really did their homework," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who testified at the April 10 public hearing in favor of the policy.

He noted that even though the county's policy has proven controversial with the home building industry, Fairfax asks less of developers than neighboring Montgomery County does.

"In the end, we're already arguing over a watered down percentage. 6.25 percent when Montgomery County is 12.5 percent is a far cry of what we really need in Fairfax."

Montgomery County has over 11,000 affordable housing units while Fairfax County has 1,436.