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Stressing Need for More Affordable Units

Reston Interfaith introduces community to its continuum of housing and services.

Job opportunities, public safety and public education in Fairfax County — and Reston with it — are among the top-rated in the country, but fewer of its residents are able to afford to live here.

As part of Affordable Housing Week, Reston Interfaith offered community tours of the variety of housing it offers to its clients. Organization members also highlighted some of the problems resulting from the lack of affordable housing in the area.

"Folks don’t know we have a problem," said Tim McMahon, director of housing programs for Reston Interfaith. "It shouldn’t be a luxury to work and live in the same area."

Reston Interfaith executive director Kerrie Wilson said the purpose of the tour is to get community members involved in dialogue of how to help replenish affordable units in the area. While the lack of those units affects Reston Interfaith’s clients, its employees suffer from it, too. "We’ve lost a number of social workers," said Wilson. She said those employees could not continue to commute from far away places to Reston. Currently, some of the organization’s employees commute from places beyond Winchester and some are driving in to work from Fredericksburg.

A PART OF THE TOUR was a video presentation of the affordable housing problems in Northern Virginia. It featured housing advocates and public officials from the area, talking about the need for more affordable housing. Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent Edgar Hatrick said he often hears that people want to work in Loudoun County, but cannot afford to live there. "It’s a quality of life issue, it’s important to have a diverse economy," said Hatrick in the video. Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Gerry Connolly (D-At Large) said in the video that addressing the lack of affordable housing is absolutely essential for all Fairfax County residents.

According to the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance Web site, housing affordability plummeted in Fairfax County between the years 2000 and 2005. The Web site, citing George Mason University reports, states that 64 percent of housing in Fairfax County was affordable to households earning the median income in 2000. In 2005, however, only 7 percent of housing in Fairfax County was affordable to households earning the median income. Also, the Web site states, from 1999 to 2004 the median household income in Fairfax County grew by 8.8 percent, while the average price of a home grew by 84 percent.

Wilson also referred to a George Mason study, saying that there will be a shortage of 30,000 homes in the next 10 years for people who want to work in Fairfax County. She said Reston missed an opportunity to build affordable units when the high rises in Reston Town Center were constructed. The county does not have any affordable units requirements for high rises, although it has since stated a goal of preserving 12 percent of any new development for affordable housing. "It’s very expensive to build affordable units," said Janet Maxwell, board chair of the Reston Interfaith Housing Corporation.

THURSDAY MORNING’S Reston Interfaith tour, one of three such tours during the week, took the participants to neighborhoods where Reston Interfaith owns and rents homes. The organization owns 36 homes in the general Reston-Herndon area. One of the reasons for the tour was to demonstrate that affordable housing is not ugly housing. "If we own a property, we keep it up," said Wilson.

Maxwell said the organization is committed to keeping its 36 homes affordable. "Although, it’s always a challenge to keep them in that condition," she said.

Another reason for the tour, according to McMahon, was to show the community that Reston Interfaith offers a continuum of housing and services. "We don’t provide just housing, but a continuum of services and a variety of kinds of housing," he said.

The organization operates the Embry Rucker Emergency Shelter for the homeless, and also operates a range of other housing options including limited financial assistance to some of its clients. The continuum of services includes providing housing near public schools and parks, and also operating a day care center at the Lake Anne Office Building.

Wilson said it is important for people who believe there is a need for more affordable housing to continue to tell their elected officials about it. Another factor that may help preserve affordable housing is if the community kept an open mind during development and density debates in its neighborhoods. Additional development projects may help preserve, or build, additional affordable units.

Maxwell said other members of the community could contribute to preserve more units. She said large employers who have large campuses could contribute by building some units on their land. The same holds true for churches and other institutions in the faith community, because they sometimes have large parcels of land that could be used for additional units.