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A Shrinking Market

Affordable housing in Northern Virginia gets harder and harder to find.

This is the first of an occasional series on affordable housing in the area.

When Mary Alice Glenn retired in 1996, she needed help to find a place to live. Everything was too expensive. But, she found a subsidized place to call home in Reston.

She’s lucky and knows it. “I do feel real fortunate to have it,” said Glenn.

While Glenn is one of thousands in the area who benefits from the available affordable housing, she knows how difficult finding something affordable can be. Not enough is available compared to the need, she said. The Reston native, who spent a career helping others by working for Reston Interfaith, knew people who lingered for two or three years on waiting lists hoping for an affordable place to live.

“It’s hard to get affordable housing now,” said Glenn. “That’s why there are so many people that don’t have homes.” Glenn said that, even with all the shelters, she still hears stories about people living in the woods. “It’s sad, real sad,” she said.

MOST EXPERTS ON affordable housing say the same thing about the available stock in the area — it’s shrinking. Despite efforts from county governments to replenish or preserve affordable housing, the area is losing it at a faster rate. It’s all about the growing discrepancy between supply and demand.

“We are hemorrhaging affordable units, especially in the last five years,” said Walter Webdale, president and CEO of AHC Inc., a private, nonprofit developer of low- and moderate-income housing whose mission includes the preservation of the supply of affordable housing in Northern Virginia. “As affordable housing is lost, we can’t re-grow what we lost. We are built out. It’s not as if we can go out to the suburbs and make more.”

In Fairfax County, the hemorrhage was mitigated by the $18 million raised last year for affordable housing from the real estate tax. Historically, however, the county has generated affordable housing by forcing developers to include inexpensive units as a condition of having projects approved.

Despite these efforts, the county has had difficulty preserving the stock of affordable housing. The county has lost about 1,700 affordable housing units subsidized by the federal government or other grants since 1997. Many of these units have been turned into condos or have adopted market rates. The county estimates that the existing gap in affordable housing is 30,000 units and growing, said Kristina Norvell, director of public affairs for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

It’s a similar story in Arlington County. “In 2000, there were 19,700 affordable units, which accounted for 52 percent of the multi-family rental housing market,” said Fran Lunney, Arlington’s coordinator of housing planning. “We lost 9,300 in the last five years, so that’s 25 percent of the supply.”

Webdale, who worked in Fairfax County’s Department of Housing and Community Development for 25 years and served as its director, is aware of the affordable housing shortage and decline. When he retired in 1999, he rededicated his career on developing more affordable housing. In the past seven years as president of AHC Inc., Webdale has helped add 1,700 multi-family affordable housing units to the area’s affordable housing supply.

But the current love affair developers have with building high-end condo developments and converting apartments to condos has helped accelerate the aggregate loss of affordable housing, Webdale said.

“We have been seeing a tremendous increase in new condo developments and conversions of the rental stock to condos,” said Webdale. “What that does, from our perspective, is change the whole formula of preserving affordable housing because we now have to compete with the condo market from both sides: preservation and new builds.”

WITH HOME VALUES in the region skyrocketing the last five years, more and more people are being affected by the housing crunch. In 2005, the average house price in Arlington and Fairfax counties eclipsed $500,000, according to market reports from the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors.

The increases in home values often price the average earning police officer, firefighter and public school teacher out of the homeownership market, according to figures from Arlington County.

And the rental market hasn’t been immune either. To afford the rent of a one-bedroom apartment in the region, someone would need to make $41,600, according to AHC Inc. To afford a two-bedroom apartment in the region, someone would need to make $47,840.