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Knolls Redevelopment Causes Affordable Housing Concerns

Landmark Communities has a perfect right to knock down the Knolls of Newgate apartments (now called Sunset Knolls) in Centreville and replace them with luxury townhouses. It doesn't need a rezoning or special permit from Fairfax County for the redevelopment.

Yet a citizens group hearing the plan Tuesday night, June 21, couldn't help but worry about all the struggling, low-income residents who'll be displaced because of it.

"What happens to these people when their leases are up and it's time to leave?" asked At-Large Planning Commissioner Jim Hart. "Where do they go?"

Representing the developer, John Thillman came to the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee meeting as a courtesy to present details of the project. He called it a "condo regime" of two floors over two floors.

The Knolls is along Machen Road and St. Germain Drive, and the new development's access will be directly across the street from the Centreville Regional Library. The project includes sidewalks all around and a 600-foot private street to be maintained by the new homeowners association.

Each townhouse will be about 2,000 square feet and have its own car space and garage. There'll be elevator options and rear doors in each unit so children could have easy access to neighboring homes. So what's the price tag?

"They'll be in the low $600,000s," said Thillman. "And they could go higher, depending on what goes into them — elevator options, etc."

He explained that the Knolls apartments have been rental properties since 1967 and, for many years, things were fine. "But over the past 10-15 years, it's fallen into disrepair," he said. "There's a lot of crime in the units, and it's gotten so bad that the police occupy one of the units daily."

Noting that the Knolls currently provides affordable housing, Thillman said he knows the Board of Supervisors wants more such housing in the county. So, he said, "We're not obligated to do it, but we're gonna put 15 units of ADUs [affordable dwelling units] in there. They'll look the same as the other units from the exterior, but have less-upgraded interiors."

Planned are 176 townhouses, plus the 15 ADUs, for 191 units total. Thillman met with the nearby Sanderling Condominiums homeowners association in April and, he said, "They're excited about [the new project]. They want to get rid of what's there and can hardly wait to see the new condos come in."

Thillman said Sanderling residents will face the front of the new units so "it'll look attractive to them." Calling it "a nice, urban product," he said the new condos will look great and that property will be "owner-occupied for the first time since the '60s."

"Are there any amenities, like a clubhouse?" asked WFCCA Chairman Jim Katcham. "Just a couple tot lots and maybe a gazebo," replied Thillman. "This is awfully dense for something with no amenities," said WFCCA's Judy Heisinger.

"It really disturbs me that we're losing all that affordable housing," said WFCCA's Carol Hawn. "And 15 ADUs aren't a lot. We can all sit back in our half-million-dollar houses and say, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.' We may be affluent, but we're not that far away from something like this."

She said the Knolls has been "a great source of affordable housing" — a place where people who have jobs, for example, stocking grocery-store shelves, making tacos and waiting on tables were able to make their homes.

But Thillman said the property-owner's debt "isn't taken care of by the rents that he gets. He's making an investment decision, not a social decision." Still, said Hawn, "I'm not pleased with this as the outcome for that parcel."

WFCCA's Russ Wanek asked Thillman if he knows the impact the new condos will have on the local schools, and Thillman said no. "So you're just gonna do it, and whatever happens, happens?" Answered Thillman: "Yes."

"I think there's a social cost to the community when there's a displacement of an existing population," said Hart. "And I doubt that the people living there now would even quality for an ADU." And when they're all evicted, he asked, "Does it put a strain on the shelters, food banks, WFCM [Western Fairfax Christian Ministries] and organizations like that? I think there ought to be some coordination with the county agencies and charitable organizations so they can anticipate this."

Thillman said the tenants have all been on month-to-month leases for the past 18-24 months and "there's constant turnover, so it's not the same people." He said the Knolls consists of 160-170 apartments and, as people come and go, renovations are made and damage is done. Said Thillman: "It's been a vicious, downward spiral."

Nonetheless, said Hart, "These people are going to have to live somewhere and accommodations have to be made." WFCM Executive Director Dorothy Fonow thinks so, too. She didn't attend Tuesday's meeting, but has known about the Knolls redevelopment for awhile.

In March, she went to a meeting of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance and, she said, "We're not doing well, at all, [at providing enough ADUs], and it's because of things like [the loss of the affordable Knolls apartments]. Low-cost housing can't compete with commercial developers because the price of the ground is jumping."

Fonow said it's also getting to the point where neither the county nor the nonprofits can afford to vie with the developers for valuable property. She expects the current Knolls residents to probably go "over the border to Prince William County, which is marginably affordable."

She said property development is seen as a way of making money, without any thought going into the unpleasant matter of the working poor who are turned out onto the streets to make way for nicer-looking, more expensive homes for people with deep pockets. "It's a big issue for all of us," said Fonow. "It's really hard for people even making a moderately low income to survive here. And wiping out the Knolls doesn't help; it's a shame."