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Accessible, Affordable: Hard To Find

Lorton Valley development offers Fairfax County’s first affordable housing with six fully accessible units.

Affordable housing is hard to come by in Fairfax County.

Even harder to come by is affordable housing that is accessible to people with disabilities, especially people who use wheelchairs.

In an effort to increase the number of “affordable dwelling units” available to people with disabilities, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors altered the county's first-time buyers’ policy to allow residents with disabilities priority to units fulfilling minimum accessibility standards.

“The need for affordable housing that’s accessible is greater than the need for market-rate housing,” said Carmen Sanchez, Fairfax County Disability Services Planning and Development. “The [Board of Supervisors] has dedicated $1.5 million to increase affordable accessible units within the county.”

John Hudson, director, Fairfax County Disability Services Planning and Development, said there is not a "clear count" of accessible, affordable housing in the county, but that when those classifications are paired "the pool gets small."

"When you're talking about Fairfax County, most townhouse [developments] are built up," he said, explaining that most units are built two or three stories high and not one level for accessible use.

But, Hudson said, the change to the first-time home buyers' policy should help speed up the home-buying process for people with accessibility needs.

"Screening [first-time buyers] and matching up [houses], that's the hardest part," he said.

In addition to changing the policy, the county proved the incorporation of accessible units in affordable developments is possible.

“The door is open,” said Paula Sampson, director Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development about the success of six accessible affordable dwelling units recently constructed. “[The developer] set a good example and things have gone well, so hopefully others will follow.”

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Feb. 8 for the new developments, dubbed Lorton Valley, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Gerald Connolly, said increasing affordable housing was one the board's top six priorities this term.

"We live in a county with almost 400,000 houses," he said. "And fewer and fewer are affordable each day. We have six [accessible affordable units] today, but we need 6,000."

The development was originally planned to be affordable units — not fully accessible.

But when Tonya Moseke, then a Lorton resident, joined the South County Federation board, things changed.

“I wanted to possibly buy a house in Lorton, but nothing was accessible,” said the 31-year old, who now lives in Silver Spring, Md.

Moseke, who has rheumatoid arthritis, said because she is in a wheelchair most of the time, she needed a house that would meet her wheelchair accessibility requirements.

“I wanted to change the policy with the first-time home buyers program,” she said. “So, if an accessible unit became available, a person with disabilities could get it first.”

To do this, Moseke said she worked with area disability advocates, county housing authority officials and KSI Services, Inc. — developer of Lorton Valley — to change the policy and attempt to have at least one or two accessible units included in the new development.

Instead, Rick Hausler, president KSI Services, Inc., worked with the federation and county officials to create six accessible units.

“To my knowledge, this is the first concerted effort to make sure the units were fully accessible,” said Doris Ray, advocacy and outreach coordinator Endependence Center of Northern Virginia.

Covering Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in addition to the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church, Ray said Endependence has found officials in each jurisdiction are willing to develop affordable accessible housing.

She said Arlington and Fairfax counties and the City of Alexandria help their residents with disabilities in finding homes or by encouraging units be modified so people with accessibility issues can visit friends in non-accessible areas.

The problem is finding a developer to construct accessible units.

In Fairfax County, according to disability services, one in eight people have some type of disability and one in four people on the waiting list for affordable housing have a family member with disabilities living with them — making the lack of accessible affordable dwelling units being built an increasing concern.

“Townhouses and single family homes are excluded from the requirement that they have to be even remotely accessible,” said Ray. “What is lacking are units that are two or three bedrooms for people with disabilities and their families.”

Ray said in 1988 a Fair Housing Act amendment was created to protect against this type discrimination concerning the rental, sale and purchase of all housing.

Any building, private or multi-family, that received U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) money after 1989 has to comply with HUD regulations that five percent of the units built be fully accessible.

This means they have to be wheelchair accessible, with wider doorways and adequate turn space, lowered environmental controls and counters and grab bars in the shower and by the toilet, among other things.

In addition there are adaptable housing requirements that ensure housing be constructed under accessibility regulations so an owner can go back to make the unit fully accessible if necessary.

But, that is at the owner's expense.

“If they build accessible units from the beginning it’s about one-tenth or one percent of the total construction costs,” said Ray, adding once a unit is built it is more expensive to make it accessible.

Because President George W. Bush recently cut HUD funding, people with disabilities and those that use Housing Choice Vouchers, or Section 8 — financial subsidies to help low-income homeowners — were hit hard because the amount of affordable housing being built was also cut.

“A lot of people with disabilities have a low income and depend on social security as a fixed income,” said Moseke. “The housing market is increasing, so people with money who can afford larger homes push out those with lower incomes.”

Although the six units at Lorton Valley are the first in the county to fall under both the affordable and accessible classification, county officials and advocates believe with persistence, encouragement and incentives to developers, more affordable accessible units will be constructed in the future.

"We need to try to get people in the general community to realize the extent of this need," said Ray. "One of the problems is we're behind, we're behind where we thought we'd be when the Fair Housing Act was adopted in 1988."