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Letter: Low-Income Micro-Units Could Come to Your Neighborhood

To the Editor:

Thanks to a recent meeting arranged by the McLean Community Association, some of us became aware of the Fairfax County Planning and Zoning Department’s (DPZ’s) proposal to amend the county Zoning Ordinance so that low-income efficiency apartments of less than 500 square feet can be built in virtually every residential, commercial, and industrial zoning district, including in low-density residential neighborhoods zoned for single family homes. The proposal would allow such units, variously called "Residential Studio Units" (RSUs), "Single Room Occupancy Units" (SROs), or "Micro-units," to be approved on a case by case basis by the Board of Supervisors either by "special exception permit" or by first rezoning and then requesting a special exemption permit. Up to 75 of such low-income rental units would be allowed in a single development. They could be located on "collector streets" in residential neighborhoods, almost anywhere other than a cul-de-sac. The income level for at least 80 percent of these units would generally be less than $45,000, although 20 percent could be available for higher incomes.

The proposed special exception for low-income dwellings would be in addition to existing special exceptions or special permits that allow such things as churches, hospitals, gas stations, private schools, child-care centers, assisted and independent living and congregate care facilities in low-density residential neighborhoods. The stated purpose of the new special exception would be to combat homelessness and to provide affordable rental housing to low-income households, both laudable goals. While the RSUs would have to be "compatible" with existing developments, the standard density requirements (floor/area ratio and number of units) would not apply, giving developers a "density bonus" to encourage them to build. The current proposal includes an option to convert single-family homes into these units. While each RSU is intended for a single occupant, officials acknowledged that the Virginia Building Code would allow up to two or three occupants, depending on the unit’s size (220 or 320 square feet living space plus kitchen.)

The RSU proposal is stunning in its breadth--it would apply to all residential districts from R-E to R-30. According to the county staff’s report, their proposal would require no fewer than thirty individual amendments to the Zoning Ordinance that now limits multiple family dwellings to zones R-12 and up. The current proposal also is more extensive than one the staff proposed in 2008 that called for Residential Studio exceptions in a) zoning districts permitting multiple family dwellings (R-12 and up); b) in association with a non-residential use (such as places of worship) already located in low density districts not allowing multiple family dwellings; and c) in commercial and industrial zoning districts. One wonders why the proposed Ordinance Amendment has been so greatly expanded from 2008.

At the recent McLean meeting, county officials were bombarded with concerns. Doesn’t this circumvent the basic Zoning Ordinance to put these units in low-density, single family home neighborhoods? What about the overcrowding in our neighborhood schools and congestion on our roadways? How would occupancy limits be enforced, since violations of current occupancy restrictions are rampant? How would incomes be verified and what role would Section 8 subsidies play? How would low-income residents and homeless get around since they may not have cars? Don’t low-income housing projects often become centers of criminal activity? Would we have to be fearful every time a neighbor put up a "For Sale" sign? Would young professionals really want to live in a low-income housing project?

The county officials acknowledged there had been no market study on demand for rental studio units in Fairfax County. Their report notes that micro-units have proven popular in New York City, Boston, and Seattle. In fact, they were first introduced in the cramped cities of Paris and Tokyo. But these are cities, where micro-units are collocated with city infrastructure--public transportation and grocery stores--as well as the workplaces of their inhabitants. Locating them in low-density suburban neighborhoods is quite another matter.

County officials pointed to a single study by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, entitled "Need for Affordable/Workforce Housing in Fairfax County," that concluded that 30,000 "rental and for-sale units" (not studio units) would be needed in years 2005-2025 for people earning less than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI). However, this report, that posited a "serious housing affordability issue," was published in November 2006, at the peak of the housing boom in which home prices had been appreciating at double digits. Since then, the housing market crashed, home prices plummeted, foreclosures rose to a high of 800 a month in 2010, the Great Recession came with stagnant unemployment, and sequestration and defense cuts. Is it wise at this time to propose sweeping changes to the Zoning Ordinance based on an eight-year old study?

According to the Fairfax County website (Trends and Implications for County Residents), the 2010 census showed that County added 112,000 residents in the last ten years, fewer than in the previous two decades in which 221,000 were added in the 1980s and 151,000 in the 1990s. The County also noted a decline in the number of working age persons (ages 24 to 64.)

At the McLean meeting, Supervisor Foust expressed concern about the current proposal to build RSUs in low-density residential areas. However, he thought RSUs might make sense in higher-density areas. He solicited public input and opined that rezoning lots might be preferable to using special exceptions.

The Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations and the McLean Community Association have adopted resolutions that, inter alia, call for permitting studio units in Residential Districts zoned at R-20 and higher and only if they are proximate to public transportation, retail, medical, recreational infrastructure. Many of the homeless are dependent on such medical and other infrastructure.

For the majority of us, our home is the single greatest investment we will make in our lifetimes. We rely on the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Ordinance to protect our investment. For those who want to learn more, there is a meeting on the RSU Ordinance Amendment before the Planning Commission on Nov. 20 at 7 p.m., in Room 106 of the Herrity Building. I thank the McLean Community Association for arranging the recent meeting with the county officials on this important matter.

Anne Gruner

McLean