The shortage of affordable housing in Fairfax County and Reston rarely gets the analytical attention that the Connection’s edition of August 16-22 delivered in Mercia Hobson’s “3rd Wealthiest County in U.S. Fails to Provide Affordable Housing.” The article is based on conversations with several knowledgeable staff members of one excellent Reston’s charitable organization, Cornerstones, people serving the homeless and those in danger of becoming homeless.
The Cornerstones’ staffers work to assist families with rent and utility subsidies, food assistance, help in job searches and assistance working their way through the bureaucratic Fairfax County machinery for the services and too-frequently unavailable affordable units. Including insights from the other housing-focused Reston nonprofit, Reston Strong, might have made the article’s analysis even more compelling, given the latter’s exclusive focus on the lowest income homeless. In any case, the critical services identified describe the immense challenge hundreds in Reston face to keep a roof over their families’ heads.
The article did not directly address the shocking lack of affordable dwelling units to occupy, especially for the lowest income families. How serious is the shortage? The Cornerstones VP for Marketing and Communications is quoted as saying, “Affordable housing is practically nonexistent here.” This is most assuredly accurate for families making less than the average median income.
Recently, the planned development of 400 affordable units near the Hunter Mill Supervisor’s office was cancelled when the developer suddenly pulled out. To date, Fairfax County has no more affordable units in sight here, not even for the middle income beneficiaries of the cancelled project, not to mention genuinely lower income families. Nothing.
Back in 1919-20, during his first campaign for the Supervisor job, Walter Alcorn offered an innovative approach to increase the actual stock of affordable housing in Reston. Furthermore, his concept if adopted could have served needs of the genuinely lower income homeless. Reston had, and has, great excess commercial office space which he posited might be re-purposed into very low-cost apartment units, just the kind that could serve those now in tents, the filled-to-capacity Embry Rucker Homeless shelter and costly hotel space sporadically rented by the county for emergencies. Long vacant commercial space is still abundant in Reston certainly. Unfortunately, we’ve heard little more from Alcorn about this promising concept for the last three years. What happened?
A possible variation to Fairfax County’s tackling the acquisition and repurposing a long-vacant (abandoned?) office buildings or, e.g., a hotel, would be for the County to play a facilitating role supporting a charitable organization’s acquisition and management of the repurposing. This model would take advantage of the charity’s strengths and minimize the direct role of the County bureaucracy.
While I recognize that pursuit of such an innovative approach by Fairfax County isn’t easy, the needs of the homeless are serious and existing approaches have been failing for too long already! Furthermore, as Mercia Hobson’s on-target article suggests, wealthy Fairfax County certainly has the resources to address the problem. Now what’s needed is the will to get it done?