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Affordable Housing Proves To Be Hard Sell

County’s first land giveaway for affordable housing meets with alarm by neighbors.

Well over 100 people, many of them neighbors of the Fairfax County Government Center and many of them quite distressed, showed up at a meeting at the center Tuesday, July 17 to discuss the county proposal to place approximately 200,000 square feet of affordable housing in the Government Center’s backyard.

Affordable housing is one of the top six goals set by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and Paula Sampson, director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development, explained to the crowd that the county had examined some 700 parcels of its own property before settling on the Government Center grounds as the proposed site of its first affordable housing complex, known for now as Residences at the Government Center.

Neighbors were primarily concerned that the development, which is intended to include a large number of studio apartments, known as single-room occupancies or SROs in affordable-housing parlance, might be intended in part as housing for the homeless. Frustration was also expressed over the fact that eight acres of trees would have to be knocked down in the north of the property, as well as another acre of trees on the southern edge, in order to make way for the new buildings.

County officials assured that the development would not house the homeless or unemployed but would serve as "workforce housing" and that the loss of woodlands should not affect property values.

Sampson noted that the county’s request for proposals from developers stipulated that the buildings would house people making anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent of the area median income. "About 50 percent of Fairfax County employees fall under that range," she said. By those standards, a family of four would need an annual income anywhere between $47,250 and $94,500 to fall within the development's target demographic. A single individual’s income could range from $33,075 to $66,150. Preference would be given to Fairfax County employees, said Sampson.

In this region, she said, "kids out of college either live with their parents or move away. We want to keep our work force here."

ASKED IN A later conversation about the influence that the county’s preference would carry, Sampson said that if a county employee and a non county employee applied for housing at the same time, for example, the county worker could be moved in first.

The request for proposals was issued in November, and the county is now in the process of negotiating with six developers, she told the audience at the meeting. In its request, the county asked for a range of sizes of housing units, from studios to four-bedroom units, although Sampson said there would probably be more one- and two-bedroom units than anything else.

"I think studios are a good option for young people who don't have a lot of money," she said. "It is not a shelter for the homeless."

Peter Murphy, who is the chair of the county's Planning Commission and its Springfield representative, explained that plans for the development would not enter the approval process until after a contractor had been selected. At that point, he said, community meetings would take place, as well as a Land Use Committee meeting to which the public would be invited. The Planning Commission and the Department of Planning and Zoning would also have their say before the proposal reached the Board of Supervisors. Murphy said the public would have several opportunities to provide input throughout the process.

John Payne, the Housing Department's director of Real Estate and Revitalization Planning, estimated that the chosen developer would not have a site plan until at least next September, with construction beginning perhaps sometime in 2009 and lasting up to four years.

Sampson explained that a developer would be able to offer affordable rent because the company would receive a free 50- to 99-year lease on the land from the county. Also, if the developer needed to borrow money to pay for construction costs, the county could finance a low-interest loan.

However, said Cathy Muse, director of the Department of Purchasing and Supply Management, rights to the property could not be transferred without the county's approval, and in the event that the developer went bankrupt, the land would revert to county ownership.

Pressed by the audience to guarantee that the complex would not house undesirable tenants, Sampson responded, "We don't want a slum sitting there when we have our headquarters right next door."

"This supervisor will not support housing for the homeless right there," said Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield), who will be retiring from the Board of Supervisors in December. "I hope the person who follows me will keep that same thing in mind."

Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large), who was not at the meeting, said later that the development "is not a homeless shelter" and that its purpose would be "to allow police, firefighters and teachers to be able to live in larger numbers in the area they serve." He noted that only 28 percent of the county's police and 22 percent of its firefighters live within its boundaries, a situation that the board considers unacceptable.

"If we're going to preach that, then why don't we start with our own property?" he asked.

WHEN THE QUESTION of Section 8 rental vouchers was raised at the meeting, McConnell flatly stated that she would not support Section 8 housing on the site.

"If the board doesn't want there to be Section 8, then there won't be Section 8," said Sampson.

John Kershenstein, Springfield representative to the County Redevelopment and Housing Authority, noted that the developer’s contract would then have to stipulate that Section 8 housing could not be included, and the definition of "workforce housing" would have to be tightened.

However, asked in a later interview how Section 8 housing would be barred from the development, Sampson said the decision would rest primarily in hands of the landlord. "If he's amenable to Section 8, then we’ll talk to him about Section 8," she said, but again assured that the buildings were not intended to contain Section 8 housing.

Murphy responded to residents’ complaints that the loss of woodlands would diminish their property values, remarking that, although most development is met with that same objection, "there is no empirical proof of that." He said he had never seen assessments drop as a result of "taking down some trees and putting in some development."

Asked later whether the loss of trees in a strong housing market might merely cause assessments to go up less than they would have, Sampson said she had not seen a study on the matter. But she noted that, in Fairfax County, "property values have gone up tremendously, and a lot of trees have come down in the process." Assessments, she said, are primarily tied to location.

However, residents also worried about a decline in their quality of life. "They're raping the land of the trees," said Rick Ally, who lives nearby. "I'm not going to take my kid out for a walk around a housing development."