Commentary: County Falling Behind on Its Housing Goals

Commentary: County Falling Behind on Its Housing Goals

On June 9, the Residential Studio Committee of the Fairfax County Planning Commission voted to recommend that the review of the Zoning Ordinance Amendment for Residential Studio Units be tabled. This recommendation will be voted on by the full Planning Commission at its July 24 meeting and it is almost certain that it will be adopted. After months of committee hearings and community meetings throughout the county, the RSU amendment will be quietly put to rest.

What were the factors that defeated this proposal? They were many and varied, including:

  • virulent community opposition;

  • fear of overcrowding, which is a real issue in some parts of the county;

  • an abject lack of knowledge by the larger community about the issue of housing affordability — who needs it, current housing costs, income levels of the workforce, the impacts on our quality of life;

  • a zoning ordinance that didn't allow the flexibility needed to develop these units;

  • absence of leadership from the Board of Supervisors in communicating the county's growing unmet housing needs and helping to shepherd a community discussion that was balanced and respectful.

Is Fairfax County committed to providing housing that is affordable for all its residents?

While the Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in 2007 and the Blueprint for Housing in 2010, they have done very little in the ensuing years to provide the resources needed to implement these plans. In 2009, when the county reduced the Penny Fund for Housing to a half cent, the financial resources to leverage private capital to preserve and develop new affordable housing were lost (the remaining half cent is used to pay the debt service on the bonds issued for the Wedgewood Apartments acquisition). From 2005 to 2009, the One Penny Fund preserved over 2,200 units of affordable housing. Since 2009, the number of new or preserved units serving households earning less than $64,000 or 60 percent of area median income has declined significantly.

The FY2015 Housing and Community Development budget provides $5 million for new construction or a preservation project of 120 units, and approximately $3 million for Bridging Affordability, a rental subsidy for households moving out of homelessness. This is a paltry amount of funding for a county of this size and wealth. As has been famously said, "show me your budget and I'll show you your priorities."

Other policies to provide funding for housing have been studied and tabled by the Board of Supervisors, the most recent being the “3-2-1 policy” which would secure a contribution from commercial development in transit and high density areas of the county to support the development of workforce housing. This policy is currently in place for the Tysons redevelopment area, but board members felt that if applied to other areas of the county, it could deter new commercial development which has slowed down in the last few years. However, both Arlington and Alexandria have commercial development fee policies in place, and the result has been a significant increase in resources for affordable housing with no apparent impact on commercial development.

The unwillingness to adopt new, proven funding strategies, combined with minimal local investment in housing programs means that the county is falling farther and farther behind in meeting the goals for the 10 Year Plan and the Blueprint for Housing. How can homelessness be addressed in a meaningful way if the stock of affordable housing isn't growing? How does Fairfax County ensure that there is housing in its communities for the workforce in the retail, hospitality, health care, public sector and entry level jobs? How does the county promote the development of stable, affordable housing for homeless children, youth aging out of foster care, persons with special needs, seniors on fixed incomes and low wage working people?

The final motion on the RSU amendment at the June 9 meeting included a recommendation stating that "there be a broader community dialogue about affordable housing, including a discussion on how best to provide for a range of housing opportunities .... that will serve the county's current and future residents at all income levels." The Alliance enthusiastically endorses this recommendation, and believes the time for discussion is now. An honest community discussion would hopefully break down some of the barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding surrounding housing, and engage more members of the community in building consensus for solutions.

The growing shortage of affordable housing and the severe cost burden for an increasing percentage of the county's population is not unique to Fairfax County. This is a challenge that threatens the vitality and sustainability of the entire region, and some jurisdictions have made progress in increasing their affordable housing stock through a variety of financial and land use tools. As the largest jurisdiction and the engine of job growth for the region, Fairfax County should be the leader in addressing the housing issue. Instead, they are lagging far behind due to negligible investments and the absence of vision to address the unmet housing needs of its residents both today and in the future.