At the October meeting of the Route 1 Task Force for Human Services, the area’s social service providers debated what Deputy County Executive for Human Services Verdia Haywood called “a major policy dilemma that we have in the county.”
The dilemma draws together some of the county’s most nettlesome issues — real estate prices, poverty, financial management and social justice — and Haywood outlined a contentious choice: whether to use limited funds to house many people who are struggling or a few who are desperate.
In late 2004, faced with a real estate boom so dramatic that even families earning more than $90,000 a year, Fairfax County’s median income, struggle to afford homes, the county’s Board of Supervisors created a committee tasked with preserving affordable housing. The committee recommended that one penny from every dollar the county earned in real estate tax be dedicated to this goal, and in spring 2005, the Board acted on the recommendation, creating a fund of almost $18 million.
At the meeting of the Route 1 Task Force, Paula Sampson, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, updated attendees on the affordable housing program’s first fiscal year, which ran from July 2005 to June 2006. She said the committee spent the money in a way that met, or nearly met, every expectation set by the Board.
But human services advocates at the meeting questioned how closely the committee’s goals correlated to the needs of the poor and the disabled. When Sampson reported that the committee is close to meeting the Board’s goal of preserving 1,000 units by 2007, the task force’s convener, Anne Andrews replied, “That goal is not high enough.” She asked Sampson how many units are needed.
Sampson said a study commissioned from George Mason University indicates a deficit of 30,000 affordable housing units in the county.
In fiscal year 2006, the committee met its goal of completely spending the $18 million penny fund allocated to it. In exchange, they acquired just under 500 units, almost all of them for people earning more than 50 percent of the median income of $90,300.
Haywood said the income streams from people earning moderate incomes allows the county to forge creative deals that leverage every dollar to purchase properties three or four times more valuable than the money spent. But to provide housing for the poor, whose heavily subsidized rents will cost housing providers money for years to come, the county is forced to sink its money into vouchers or buy properties outright in cash. Haywood estimated the county could only buy about 100 properties this way. “You’re not going to get a lot of units with no debt at all.”
ONLY 10 HOUSING UNITS were acquired in fiscal year 2006 for households earning less than $45,000 a year, half the county’s median income. Sampson estimated that for people at poverty level (earning less than 30 percent of the median) that number is closer to zero. Meanwhile, the committee purchased 484 units for households earning between 50 and 120 percent of the median.
“When I see how the one-penny funds have been spent, it really makes me angry that there are people whose incomes are over $100,000 a year who are getting helped by affordable housing,” said Rev. Keary Kincannon, of Rising Hope Methodist Mission Church, which is dedicated to serving the poor and homeless. “I really think we need to be putting county funds as well towards those people that are most in need. Everybody needs affordable housing the way it is now. Someone making $100,000 a year needs affordable housing. But they certainly have more options than someone who’s making 50 percent [of the median] or below.”
“There is definitely a recognition that we need to shift it this direction, so that the next year this is going to look better,” Sampson said, holding up the graph that weighed heavily toward the higher end of the income scale. She said the “diverse mix” of groups that supported the one-penny fund, including realtors, development lenders, employers and housing advocates, required the committee to focus on a diverse mix of recipients.
Sampson added that the county uses federal money, such as HUD vouchers, to fund most of its housing programs for the poor. She referred to a chart showing the number of housing units acquired with all of the county’s funding sources, including but not limited to the penny fund. Out of a total of 897 units, 213 went to people earning less than 50 percent of the median income.
Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland warned that as the real estate market cools and property taxes become less lucrative, the Board of Supervisors may waver in its commitment to affordable housing. He urged the initial advocates for the penny-fund not to be complacent. “It might be good to renew that effort and remind the Board how important that’s been, just the one penny — we obviously want two or three if we can have it — just to keep the pressure up.”
Sampson warned that falling home values do not mean falling rents. She said the demand for ownership units has meant that for years, developers built condos and houses instead of rental units. Now, a tight supply of rental units means she has been receiving phone calls about rising rents.