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Narrower Focus Sought for Affordable Housing

Advocates: Fairfax not doing enough for low income residents.

John Osler has taken refuge in homeless shelters, anti-hypothermia sites and on friends' couches over the past several months.

The 49 year-old quit his job as a security guard at the International Monetary Fund building to pursue a romantic relationship in New Jersey. When he returned to Fairfax County, Osler struggled to find permanent work and hasn't been able to look for stable housing, he said.

"I have had real good runs and off runs. Work was steadier in the winter. From October to February, I was landing repeat construction positions," said Osler, who generally lives near the Route 1 corridor.

But even if he found work as a full-time, low-skill construction worker — a position that earns approximately $15,578 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — Osler would have a difficult time finding a place to live that he could afford.

A recent report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Tenants and Workers United found that Fairfax County residents making less than $20,000 per year are likely to live in housing they can’t afford 80 percent of time if they are homeowners and 90 percent of the time if they are renters.

As a result of the findings, advocates asked the Fairfax Board of Supervisors this week to focus more of their affordable housing resources on low-income households.

Several witnesses from Northern Virginia churches and advocacy groups testified during the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors budget hearing Monday night, April 9. They said the county currently uses too much of its affordable housing trust fund to preserve housing for moderate-income households.

"THE PEOPLE WHO are really being shut out of Fairfax are the low-wage workers. Ambulance drivers earning $34,000 per year can't afford a one-bedroom in Fairfax," said Cheryl Cort from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

A resident should spend approximately 30 percent of their total income after taxes on housing for it to qualify as "affordable." For a household earning $18,000 per year this is approximately $450 per month. A household earning the median income for the region, $83,300, can afford to pay about $2,233 per month for housing.

According to the Smarter Growth report, the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Fairfax is $1,134 per month. This is considered affordable for most Fairfax renters, who make an average of $65,114 per year, but out of reach of the county’s 40,330 households who make less than $34,999 per year.

In 2005, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors agreed to dedicate one cent of the county's total real estate tax each year to affordable housing. In fiscal year 2008, the county’s dedicate revenue source will provide approximately $22.7 million for affordable housing.

"This was a huge advance for the county. Until the one-penny fund, Fairfax was really lagging behind Montgomery County and D.C. Chairman Connolly and the other supervisors have really responded to the need," said Cort, who added that Fairfax was setting aside approximately $3 million annually for affordable housing before 2005.

Since the one-penny fund was established, the county has preserved 1,361 units for affordable housing for moderate and low-income residents.

"This board is dedicated to the preservation of existing affordable housing," said Board of Supervisors chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large).

BUT TOO LITTLE of these resources have gone to preserving low-income housing, said advocates during Monday’s budget hearing.

During the first two years of the fund, only 4 percent of all the housing units preserved were affordable for residents at 50 percent of Fairfax's average median income, $31,000 for an individual or $44,000 for a family of four, according to the report.

The county used the fund to preserve 252 units for those making 100 to 120 percent of the average median income for the county — or $94,000 to $120,000.

"Units were preserved for people making over $100,000. That is not right and that needs to be changed," said Keary Kincannon, pastor for Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in Mount Vernon.

Officials point out that Fairfax has added several more low-income buildings recently, including Janna Lee Village Apartments off the Route 1 corridor. The purchase in January brought the total number of units preserved for low-income families by the fund up to 20 percent or 391 units.

While the county recognizes the need to provide more housing at the low-end of the spectrum, Connolly also said that the supervisors have a mission to respond to a wide range of residents’ housing needs, including those with moderate-income levels like teachers and police officers.

"Let us not lose site of what has happened. We were the first board in the history of Fairfax County to dedicate a revenue source to affordable housing," said Connolly.

But the county’s own Affordable Housing Advisory Committee is asking the board to focus more of its efforts on low-income residents. The committee has recommended that the Board of Supervisors use at least 50 percent of the affordable housing fund for county’s families making $44,000 or less per year, said the committee's chairman Conrad Egan. About 76,500 of Fairfax’s 367,000 households fall into this category, according to the coalition report.

"As we gained more experience with the fund, we became more sensitive to the amount of money that could and should be allocated to extremely low-income families," said Egan.

Egan added that when the fund was originally established, the Board of Supervisors had instructed county staff to be "opportunistic" about the properties that were selected for preservation, which may have inadvertently lead to the preservation of more moderate-income housing.

"We view our responsibilities as serving a wide range of incomes including low and extremely low-income households but we also serve moderate income households too," he said.

OUTSIDE OF the affordable housing fund, the county also runs other housing initiatives for extremely low-income families, like the federally funded public housing and voucher programs, said Egan.

National Housing expert Danilo Pelletiere pointed out that the federal government has built no public housing complexes since the early 1990s and that the market does not create low-income housing on its own.

"The market does not create housing at the lower end. Why would you as a builder or a developer get involved with lower end housing?" asked Pelletiere.

Some advocates would like to see the board pass a binding ordinance that guarantees a large portion of the fund would be used solely for low-income housing.

It is unlikely the board would pass an ordinance, said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who chairs the board’s Housing and Community Development committee.

"Some things you put in an ordinance can tie your hands instead of free your hands," said Hudgins.

Instead, the board may implement a policy to use more of the fund for low-income housing, she said.

"We know there is a larger need at the lower end of the spectrum. We could do it through a policy much faster than we can do it through an ordinance," said Hudgins.