City of Fairfax to Tackle Affordable Housing

City of Fairfax to Tackle Affordable Housing

Basically, the City of Fairfax’s affordable-housing policy is a work in progress. The City does have a policy but, as its leaders are finding out, it could use some tweaking.

It has a flexible policy that between 5 and 12 percent of the total units built should be designated as affordable. But it makes a difference whether these homes are earmarked for those making 80 percent of the City’s median income of $107,000, or 60 percent.

“I’d rather go with 5 percent, but make it meaningful and have the renters’ income be 60 percent of the AMI [Area Median Income],” said Fairfax Mayor Scott Silverthorne. “Eighty percent of the AMI in the City of Fairfax is essentially market rate, and people making 80 percent AMI can afford the rent. The people making 60 percent AMI – roughly $65,000/year or below – could use the help.”

He said the City Council is currently considering proposals to build 400 new units at Kamp Washington and about 160 at the Oak Knoll Apartments. Other projects proposed by developers would bring that total to 2,500 units, but Silverthorne said he’d be surprised if the City approved them all. “We’d have to take into account the impact on the roads, schools and City services.”

REDEVELOPMENT of Fairfax Circle was approved in June but, said Silverthorne, “Because we wanted that project built here, we didn’t adhere to our own 5-12-percent policy for affordable housing. So the developer will build less affordable units than we’d like to have seen there. And if we’re serious about upholding our policy, then we need to stand firm and hold developers to it.”

In return for providing affordable housing, developers get to construct more homes at a higher density. However, said Silverthorne, “We have to remain vigilant and work with the development community to make sure both their goals and our goals are met. Developers should be held accountable to provide affordable housing that actually is affordable.”

Louise Armitage, the City’s Human Services coordinator, compared the affordable-housing policies of nearby jurisdictions to Fairfax’s. In Falls Church, 6.5 percent of all by-right construction must be affordable at 60 percent AMI. In Fairfax and Arlington counties, it’s 6 percent at 60 percent AMI.

“In general, the entire region strives for 60 percent AMI,” she said. “State law says the affordable-housing ordinance doesn’t apply to four-story, or greater, buildings with elevators, but it can be applied to smaller buildings.”

“At the end of the day, it’s a negotiated process,” continued Armitage. “And developers in other jurisdictions understand that providing affordable housing is a cost of doing business. That’s because these jurisdictions have had affordable-housing policies in place since the 1990s. But the City was more affordable, so it wasn’t necessary then. So the City Council didn’t adopt an affordable-housing policy until last year.”

Now, as Fairfax’s older housing complexes head toward redevelopment, affordable housing comes into the picture as a significant issue. “When developers come before the Council, we now have the opportunity to negotiate with them to provide a certain number of affordable-housing units at 60 percent AMI,” said Silverthorne.

And, added Armitage, “No less than 6 percent of all the units should be affordable, to be comparable with the surrounding jurisdictions.

AFFORDABILITY is defined as no more than 25 percent of income without utilities, and 30 percent with utilities.”

Regarding last week’s meeting on this subject, Silverthorne said, “I think VOICE is to be commended for keeping this issue front and center with City Hall. Thanks to its continued interest and advocacy, housing affordability remains a priority for the Council. When we implemented the 80 percent AMI last summer, we didn’t know how high the new rents would be in the City because the Fairfax Circle rents weren’t disclosed until the end of the process.”

But the City has other chances, going forward, to implement an affordable-housing policy that actually achieves its desired goal. For example, Novus Fairfax Gateway LLC is currently seeking comments from City staff on its proposal to build a mixed-use project at Kamp Washington that would include 423 multifamily apartments.

“The developer’s suggesting 3 percent of its units be at 60 percent AMI and 3 percent at 80 percent AMI,” said Armitage. “We’d prefer to have all 6 percent at 60 percent AMI.”

And, added Silverthorne, “That’s the direction I’ll push the Council in, to make this affordable housing meaningful.”