Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Keep Housing Affordable

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Keep Housing Affordable

On July 25, the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance and the Coalition for Smarter Growth sponsored a well-attended community forum on the preservation of market-affordable housing along the Richmond Highway corridor. We organized the forum to call attention to the risk of losing the affordability of existing, privately-owned apartments as a consequence of Fairfax County’s recent adoption of the EMBARK Richmond Highway corridor plan.

This is an exciting plan that will bring modern bus rapid transit, mixed-use development, improved bike and pedestrian access, new parks and plazas, and opportunities to attract new businesses and residents.

EMBARK Richmond Highway creates a vision for an area of the county that has long suffered from underinvestment. However, without robust strategies to preserve the private sector housing that is affordable, hundreds of low income households could be displaced due to rising rents or redevelopment of their properties.

We are disappointed that strong preservation measures were not incorporated into the EMBARK plan as we called for, but we thank Supervisors Dan Storck and Jeff McKay for creating an EMBARK Housing Advisory Group to address this issue. This group has begun to meet and their challenges will be considerable.

Many owners of apartment complexes along the corridor may already be raising rents and some expect that the value of their properties will increase based on the reality that the Embark Richmond Highway plan, with transit improvements and mixed-use higher density development will bring new investment to the area. The higher sales prices sought by these owners makes it more difficult for affordable housing developers to purchase older apartment complexes and convert them to long-term committed affordable units. Higher purchase prices simply do not allow these affordable housing deals to work financially.

Throughout Northern Virginia, we have lost tens of thousands of units of housing that would be affordable to a family of four earning 60 percent or less of area median income or approximately $66,000 annually. Given these losses, our goal should be no net loss of affordable housing. Currently, major sectors of our workforce cannot afford to live in the communities where they work and are forced into longer commutes, increasing traffic congestion. Housing that is affordable provides a platform for families and individuals to become more self-sufficient, and children experience less stress and have better educational outcomes when they have a secure place to live.

There exists a wide range of preservation tools and best practices for the Richmond Highway corridor, and we encourage both the advisory group and county staff to identify and adopt the appropriate strategies.

As a start, the county has agreed to develop an inventory of both committed affordable housing and older, properties with private-sector rents that remain affordable in the corridor. Priority should be given to those buildings most at risk of conversion to higher rents and the greatest potential for redevelopment.

The county should consider planning and zoning tools that provide for increased development potential in return for preserving existing affordable units. Also, financial incentives such as tax abatements for owners who commit to maintain rents at an affordable level in well-maintained complexes or county funding for maintenance and improvements in return for committing units to a period of affordability should be considered. In either an acquisition or redevelopment scenario, the county must provide gap financing to developers of affordable housing. To do this, the county will need a larger housing trust fund and should consider a substantial bond for affordable housing development.

Co-locating affordable housing with public facilities — fire stations, libraries, and community centers — offers an opportunity to acquire land at little or no cost. There are numerous examples of co-location across Northern Virginia, including the county’s own Residences at the Government Center. Moreover, the county should work with supportive houses of worship to create housing on their land, as some churches have done in Arlington and Alexandria.

Maintaining and expanding affordability along the EMBARK corridor allows low-income households who live there – overwhelming people of color – to participate in the new neighborhoods of opportunity that will be created there. This is at the core of the One Fairfax Pledge adopted in July 2016, directing that “a racial and social equity lens be applied in the planning and delivery of all public services.” Recognizing that “people of color are driving Fairfax County’s population growth, and their ability to participate and thrive is central to the county’s success,” recommendations for the corridor must be viewed through a lens of social and racial equity. This is the county’s promise in One Fairfax.

As regional organizations who have worked on issues of multi-modal transit, mixed-use compact development and housing affordability in South County, we look forward to working with the Housing Advisory Group and the community to ensure adoption of a set of strategies that make the EMBARK corridor a thriving, diverse and sustainable community for all who live there.

Michelle Krocker

Executive Director, Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance

Stewart Schwartz

Executive Director, Coalition for Smarter Growth