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Commentary: In Search of Affordable Housing

Challenges for Residential Studio Units and the need to address them.

Fairfax County’s Planning Commission will hold two workshops on Wednesday, Sept. 25 and Oct. 2 to expand the discussion about the proposed residential studio unit (RSU) amendment to the Zoning Ordinance. There will be a staff presentation on Sept. 25, and questions submitted online by citizens to the Planning Department will be answered in the second workshop on Oct 2. The plan is for both workshops to be televised on the county’s cable station.

There is a growing body of evidence that indicates the presence of an increasing percentage of single person households both nationally and regionally, and many of these households desire a smaller, more affordable place to live than what the market currently provides. The RSU amendment seeks to address this growing need. These smaller units—often referred to as micro units—range in size from 250-500 square feet, and are designed with kitchens and bathrooms in each unit. They can serve a range of people in our workforce, new graduates, returning veterans, those who are retired on fixed incomes, persons with disabilities who have limited incomes, and those with extremely low incomes. These are all people who want to live in our community, but with the current market housing choices, they have few options to be able to live affordably. In fact, given their incomes, many of these people may pay more than 50 percent of their monthly income for rent.

The proposed amendment allows the development of up to 75 small units for individuals earning up to 60 percent of the area median income—approximately $45,000 annually. Eighty percent of the residents in RSU developments will be at or below this income category; the remaining 20 percent will have no income restrictions. The amendment language requires development to take place near collector streets or major thoroughfares, with adherence to all height, set-back and open space requirements for the proposed zoning district. Parking requirements are reduced, taking into consideration the driving patterns or use of mass transit by the residents, as well as the historical data that shows lower rates of car ownership by many of these households.

Citizen groups in the county have responded to this proposal with strong emotion and concerns. Some of these concerns are legitimate and deserve to be considered, and some are based on unfounded fears and misconceptions regarding the design and scale of development, and the kinds of people who might live there.

Some of what drives this strong negative reaction is the overcrowding occurring in certain neighborhoods in the county. Illegal boarding houses have sprung up in communities, and homeowners there feel that the county has been slow or unresponsive to addressing the problem. These neighborhoods fear that RSUs could be a way to “legitimize” overcrowded housing situations, and so they are opposed to any RSU development in the lower density residential districts—even with the strict requirements for commercial construction, appropriate scale, location on a collector street and the necessary approval by special exception.

However, people don’t choose to live in overcrowded, unsafe conditions; they are forced to when they have no other options. In fact, housing advocates believe this new housing type could actually eliminate overcrowding in neighborhoods. Developing residential studio units throughout the county will provide more affordable opportunities for those persons living in illegal, overcrowded housing and those paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing costs.

The Alliance applauds the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission for taking the time to provide additional information about the unmet housing needs for singles, and addressing community concerns in these workshops. We believe this is a good first step to having a broader conversation about housing affordability in Fairfax County, and we would urge the county public affairs office, and the offices of the supervisors to become more engaged in disseminating information and providing opportunities for dialogue on this question.

Fairfax County is a large, diverse, urbanizing county with a population of 1.1 million people, and it is appropriate that county leaders adopt policies that address the needs of lower income single households (many of whom make up our workforce). In doing so, we encourage solutions that balance the legitimate concerns of neighborhoods with the equally legitimate need to address housing affordability in the county.

Michelle Krocker is executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, a broad based regional organization dedicated to the creation of successful communities through affordable housing education and advocacy.