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Board Moves on Affordable Housing

Mid-rise buildings have to contribute, now it's on to high-rise.

After a two-year joust between developers and county officials, the Board of Supervisors Monday took steps to provide more affordable housing in the county.

Supervisors approved a zoning change that would require that developers who build four- or five-story apartment buildings with an elevator have to set aside a certain number of their units for the county's affordable housing program. In return, the developers would be able to build at a higher density. Under the plan, 5 to 6.25 percent of the new units would be earmarked for the county's moderate-income families allowing the builder to increase density by up to 17 percent. The proposal was first floated by a county-wide task force that had been struggling for about two years to find a fair way to require so-called mid-rise developments to contribute affordable housing.

"I think we have moved forward with the aspect of mid-rise," said Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), a member of the task force. She said the county should now focus its energy on getting affordable units from high-rise developments.

THE INITIATIVE was cheered by housing advocates but criticized by developers who said it would cost them money. And that, they said is unconstitutional because state law requires that the ordinance not affect their bottom line.

The changes "are not revenue neutral" said Charles Bay, a developer with Trammel Crow.

Lynne Strobel, an attorney with Walsh Colucci who represented the building industry on the task force, said she had not heard from a single homebuilder who supported the new ordinance.

The builders, she said, approached the issue with "good faith" recognizing the county's need for affordable housing, she added.

"When we started to look at how this would be applied in the real world, some of my clients got a little concerned," she said.

THIS IS NOT the first time the task force has proposed new regulations. Last November, the group was close to proposing more stringent requirements when developers rejected them. Some task force members, such as Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), said at the time that they were "annoyed" that the building industry had backed out at the last minute. But the task force got back to work and produced the current plan.

On Monday, Kauffman said he was happy with the final version.

Other supervisors also said they were happy that the board had taken action to increase the county's stock of affordable housing even though no one knows how many units the new policy will actually provide.

"There's a moral imperative and frankly long term there is also an economic imperative," said Supervisor Gerald Connolly (D-Providence).

Board Chairman Katherine Hanley, said the original county's affordable housing ordinance had opened a loophole for mid-rise developments to avoid contributing to the county's housing efforts.

"It was never intended that these should have been exempted in the first place," she said. "It has been a long road to fix it."

Monday's vote was a good first step but more needs to be done to address the housing shortage, said Francis Steinbauer, president of Reston Interfaith Housing Corporation.

"It requires a much more comprehensive, county-wide strategy that involves not just one but many segments of the community over a period of time," he said. "The problem is big and it's growing so we ask you please ... consider the next steps you can take."

The Rev. Clarence Davis, pastor at Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church in Reston, said this policy would help "people yearning for a piece of the American dream."

Those people, he added, "must not be sacrificed at the altar of profit."