Fairfax City Examines Its Housing Supply and Types

Fairfax City Examines Its Housing Supply and Types

Smaller, more accessible and affordable homes are needed.

More multifamily homes, than single-family, have been built in the City in recent years.

More multifamily homes, than single-family, have been built in the City in recent years.

Households spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing are considered “cost-burdened.”

Fairfax City needs more affordable homes for working people with lower incomes, downsizing/accessible options for seniors, and a variety of home sizes for residents’ different stages of life. Those were among the main recommendations of a citywide housing assessment done by consulting firm TPMA (Thomas P. Miller and Associates).  

The goal was to determine the types of homes most in demand in the City for a full range of incomes, and which housing types would most support growing sectors of Fairfax’s economy. TPMA performed the assessment in January-February via research, outreach, a citywide survey and City needs analyses.

The results will help Fairfax decide how best to plan for its residents’ future housing needs. And during a recent City Council work session, TPMA’s Aaron Finley revealed the information learned, along with recommendations for the City to consider as it moves forward with its housing strategy.

“There’s been a recent surge in economic development here, and we project an estimated demand for 4,000 new housing units – split equally between rental and for sale – over the next 10 years,” he said. “The City is already diversifying its housing stock to meet a variety of needs and income levels, and we continue to see an increase in demand for new, residential development.”

However, said Finley, “The existing housing mix has some gaps and makes aging in place difficult because of the lack of downsizing options. So more diversification of the housing mix is needed.”

Regarding for-sale homes, he said Fairfax needs smaller, more-affordable units. “We have lots of townhomes, but many are the same kinds and costs,” said Finley. “We don’t have a lot of variety in the types of for-sale housing here. And a lot of the new units are approaching and sometimes surpassing the million-dollar price tag.”

He also noted that attached, two-unit condos and duplexes are the same type of home, but vastly different from each other in size and cost. “The residents don’t support eliminating single-family zoning, and they want more detached homes built. However, adjustments to increase housing density haven’t resulted in affordability.”

Recommendations to improve the housing mix include expanding permission for homes to add accessory dwelling units. “This can increase affordability,” said Finley. “But infrastructure, parking and traffic needs also have to be figured in.”

In addition, he said, Fairfax should continue promoting residential development within its designated Activity Centers, while maintaining a variety of uses within them. The City should also find areas to replace existing commercial development with residential and make sure new developments have an equal mix of sale and rental units.

Finley said Fairfax should encourage development of various home sizes to fill gaps in “housing life-cycle stages” and consider revising its policy/standards to accommodate cottage communities and smaller, detached homes. “There’s an opportunity to create these units that can fit into neighborhoods,” he added.

He further stressed that housing affordability is a major concern in Fairfax City. Noting that housing costs have jumped dramatically in the past five years, Finley said, “Median house prices [during that time] have increased $150,000 – a 25-percent increase.” They rose from $573,500 in June 2018 to $721,000 in June 2023. Finley attributed it to limited housing supply and the selling prices of new homes.

The rental situation is also a problem. “The average, three-bedroom unit is renting for nearly $3,000/month,” said Finley. “Almost 29 percent of households are cost-burdened – spending 30 percent of their income on housing. And many are severely cost-burdened, with 50 percent of their income going toward housing.”

In Fairfax City, market-rate, or naturally affordable homes, are the oldest ones – built between 1959-1964. Finley said the City’s ADU (affordable dwelling unit) ordinance has helped, with some dedicated ADUs included in new building projects. But, he said, “Since 2016, nearly 150 affordable housing units have been lost to new development.”

For example, in March 2022, City Council approved Pulte Home Co.’s plan to demolish the old Breezeway Motel on Fairfax Boulevard and the Fairfax Gardens Apartments on Cedar Avenue. In their place will go 40 townhouses, 20 two-over-two condos and a commercial building. But the project also ejected more than 100 low-income people from their homes.

During Council discussions on that project, then Councilwoman Janice Miller said, “The issue that keeps me awake at night is the reduction in public housing – and not just the Fairfax Gardens Apartments. Between 75-90 people at the Breezeway will have a tough time finding another place to live. Pulte provides a good product, but it’s a lot of what we already have. Affordable housing, we don’t have.”

It's no wonder then that TPMA emphasized housing affordability in its report. As of March, average Fairfax City rents were $2,109 for a one-bedroom apartment; $2,375 for two bedrooms and $2,845 for three bedrooms. These prices make things tough for employees in fields such as home health care, food prep/service, retail sales, teaching (1-10 years’ experience), law-enforcement and social work, as well as for nurses, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. (See chart).

“Some of these essential workers will be important to the community’s residents as they age,” said Finley. “But we’ll lose them to other areas if they can’t afford to live here. To really make a dent in affordability, the City needs to identify or create a dedicated, annual, funding source devoted to the creation of affordable-housing programs. And it should also work with Fairfax County’s Housing Authority.”

Other recommendations include preserving existing affordable housing and trying to replace such options lost to redevelopment, exploring using publicly owned lands through Community Land Trusts to develop affordable housing, and continuing to seek public-private partnerships to develop housing for very low-income households.

Regarding senior/accessible housing, Finley said one in five City residents will be over age 65 by 2030, so options are needed to enable them to age in place. And accessibility features should be available in homes here, including affordable ones. According to the resident survey, the top four things needed by aging seniors are one-level homes, accessory dwelling units, universal design features (easily to use, regardless of physical abilities) and affordable options for downsizing. 

Finley said steps the City’s already taking include allowing permission for Accessory Dwelling Units for family members and those with disabilities, as well as approving senior housing units as part of Northfax West and in Fairfax’s adopted Small Area Plans.

In addition, he said the City needs to “think of the market it wants to tap into” to attract new residents. For instance, identifying Northfax for mixed-use development, said Finley, is “a good opportunity for offering shared, communal spaces and attracting young people.”

Following his presentation, Councilmember Jon Stehle said he doesn’t want to wait five or 10 years to do something. “There’s no reason we can’t try accessory units now in one of our neighborhoods,” he said. “Publicly owning the land that a house sits on is a new, creative idea. We need to take action, and I’m eager to move forward.”

Councilmember Tom Ross said Council should discuss the recommendations they heard, possibly during a joint work session with the Planning Commission. And Councilmember Billy Bates wondered if adding more housing in commercial areas should be limited to the Activity Centers or be built throughout the City’s commercial corridors.

Finley replied that, “As the demand for offices declines, we should look at commercial areas throughout the City, while not losing commercial revenue.” Mayor Catherine Read then thanked City staff and TPMA for their work on this project, saying, “This has been very enlightening, and we appreciate the level of work and detail you accomplished.”