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Fight for Affordable Homes Heated up in 2006

County efforts targeted homelessness and high home prices.

In 2006, Fairfax County undertook two major initiatives to address Fairfax County’s growing housing problem. One was a plan to combat homelessness directly. The other addressed what is often called the biggest factor contributing to homelessness in the county: the high cost of housing.

Tasked by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to envision a way to end homelessness in 10 years, the Planning Committee to End Homelessness held three public meetings in the spring, and in the fall released a document with guidelines to achieve this vision for the year 2016: “Every person in the community will access and maintain decent, safe, affordable housing.”

According to a 2006 “Point in Time Survey of Homelessness,” in Fairfax there are 2,077 homeless people in the county. 934 are single. 1,143 are members of 333 families.

“If we’re going to end homelessness rather than manage it, we need to make a major directional shift,” committee member Pam Michell told about 50 people gathered at Gum Springs Community Center in October. She and other committee members told the audience that the county must prioritize the homeless both for affordable housing waiting lists and in delivery of human services. It must also adopt a “housing first” philosophy prioritizing housing above all other solutions to a person’s problems. Michell said this means the county must “move people quickly out of shelter and work on the services component when they’re in housing rather than when they’re in shelter.”

The county is trying to make this housing easier to find with its Penny Fund for Affordable Housing. In late 2004, faced with a real estate boom so dramatic that families earning more than Fairfax County’s median income of $90,000 a year are struggling 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 for first fiscal year of the program: encompassing the last six months of 2005 and the first of 2006. In this period, said Paula Sampson, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, committee acquired just under 500 units, almost all of them for people earning more than 50 percent of the median income of $90,300. The latter half of the year brought the committee close to meeting the Board’s goal of preserving 1,000 units by 2007.

But this is just a tiny fraction of what is needed. Sampson said a study commissioned from George Mason University indicates a deficit of 30,000 affordable housing units in the county.

IN MOUNT VERNON, the dire housing situation was marked on April 14, Good Friday, when about 40 community members filled a tour bus to participate in Ventures in Community’s third annual “Way of the Cross” bus tour. They stopped at three sites along Route 1 “where we’re continuing to crucify Christ,” explained Rev. Keary Kincannon of Rising Hope Methodist Church: Washington Square Apartments, the future Buckman Road Development and North Hill. At each stop, a portion of the Gospel of Matthew was read, recounting the events leading up to the crucifixion. “Good Friday lends itself to looking at our sinfulness,” said Kincannon. “Our sin crucified Christ and our sin is crucifying the community.

The dearth of affordable housing in Mount Vernon is most starkly apparent in the prices of the nearly 20,000 single-family homes in the district. Only 109 (six-tenths of one percent) were valued at less than $100,000 while almost three times that many (301) were worth more than $600,000.

And many families are struggling to pay rent, much less afford a home. For the county’s average rent, $1,157, to be 1/3 of a person’s income (the standard calculation for how much should be paid for housing), a family must earn $41,652 a year. This is unrealistic for many families in Mount Vernon District. According to the 2000 Census, 1/3 of Mount Vernon’s 115,000 households earn less than $40,000 a year.

These trends are mirrored across the county. According to a George Mason University study, the median household income in Fairfax County grew by 8.8 percent between 1999 and 2004. The average rent in the county grew by 29 percent in the same period, and the average home price grew by 84 percent. The price of homes has risen ten times faster than the median income.

In 2000, 50 percent of all sold homes cost less than $250,000. In 2005, less than five percent of homes sales were below that amount.

“A family of median income (about $90,000) can no longer afford home ownership in Fairfax County,” the report concludes.

“WE NEED AFFORDABLE HOUSING in our area,” said Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland. “To make this community viable, we need people off all income ranges to live and to work and to do all of the jobs that are necessary to make a community run and run well.”

Kincannon predicted that Mount Vernon could become “a ghetto of wealth.” Fairfax businesses will not be able to find employees. “In the long run it makes it a less desirable place to live because we won’t have all segments of society to provide the services society needs.”

Kincannon said he believes the county must address the fundamental problems of its economic situation. Since the price of land is the largest expense for any new construction, he suggested the county should prioritize – through for-profit or non-profit construction firms – that the cheap land be used for affordable housing. He also said the county must change its zoning to allow for higher density developments and insist that developers add affordable units to all new projects.

Mount Vernon’s new Planning Commissioner, Earl Flanagan has said that as a member of the commission that advises the Board of Supervisors on land-use issues, he will work to increase the number of $100,000 homes in the county. He said the number of houses allowed on a parcel of land is a carefully weighed element in all planning decisions, but the price the houses will be sold for, and who will be able to live in them, is left up to the builder. “We created categories of land use allowing the marketplace to dictate how those parcels will be used.” The result: McMansions that have driven up average home costs. Flanagan said he will also encourage the Board not to sell the undeveloped land it owns to the highest bidder, and instead to designate it for use as housing for low- and medium-income people, who otherwise could be “condemned to rent for the rest of their lives.”

One hopeful event that should occur early in the new year is the county’s expected announcement that it has finalized a deal to preserve the affordability of the 319 apartments in Janna Lee Village, near Buckman Road off Richmond Highway. This will cost $19 million of the county’s penny for housing funds. According to Aseem Nigam, a director in the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the county is spending $5 million to buy the land beneath Janna Lee Village. It’s loaning an additional $14 million at low-interest to a for-profit affordable housing developer that will take ownership of the buildings and refurbish them. Rents will increase only slightly despite costly renovations to the apartments. One-bedroom units will rent at $850 a month and three bedrooms will still be less than $1,200.

Hyland applauded the preservation of affordable units, but he cautioned that the pennies from the government will never add up. “You’re looking at a funding source that even if you double and triple it and quadruple it, it still wouldn’t give you enough money as is needed for affordable housing in Fairfax County.”