Unlocking the Door to Affordable Housing

Unlocking the Door to Affordable Housing

County considers establishment of residential studio option to assist with housing affordability.


Small and affordable doesn’t necessarily mean boring. Many furniture companies, such as IKEA, Target and Macy’s, offer trendy furniture and rooms specifically designed for small living spaces, such as studio apartments. This small kitchen space is one of IKEA’s recent designs on its website.

In a move designed to increase affordable housing options for working-class individuals, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors took a step toward adoption of zoning changes that would encourage the development of low-cost studio apartments.

On Tuesday, the board unanimously voted to authorize a public hearing on a proposed zoning ordinance amendment regarding residential studio units (RSUs) that will permit RSU use in various residential, commercial and industrial districts by special exception or in all planned development districts.

“There is a tremendous need for housing at all income levels in Fairfax County,” Chairman Sharon Bulova said after the vote. “Permitting residential studios is an excellent way to accommodate lower income rental units and provide more housing choices for our residents. RSUs can be a great tool for providing efficiency apartments for our younger entry level workers, for seniors and others who may not need or want a lot of space.”

Donna Pesto, the county’s senior assistant to the zoning administrator, said the proposal would not change the building codes, and would apply to rental units only.

Voice Your Opinion

The Board of Supervisors recommended that the Planning Commission conduct additional outreach in the form of work sessions or other public engagement opportunities. The board will hold its public hearing on Nov. 19 at 4 p.m. For more information visit:


"There is a tremendous need for housing at all income levels in Fairfax County."

—Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-at-large)

UNDER THE PROPOSAL, Pesto said there could be no more than 75 residential studio units in a building and a minimum of 80 percent of units have to be affordable to low-income earners, those making about $45,000 per year or less. The maximum square footage for the units would be 500 square feet, plus a bathroom and kitchen.

“As parts of the county continue to urbanize, higher densities can be achieved, which makes the inclusion of more affordable housing more practical,” Pesto said.


The Crossings in Charlottesville, built by Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH), is the type of affordable housing Fairfax County is considering. Hailed as a “game-changer” for homelessness and a regional solution to affordable housing, the Crossings has 60 small studio apartments with support services in a mixed-income community.

“We see the residential studio use to be in the same zoning category as independent living facilities and nursing homes, which are all carefully reviewed and require case-by-case approval by the board,” Pesto said. “The standards are pretty stringent.”

According to county officials, the proposed amendment was prompted by a number of county efforts to address the issue of affordable housing for all income populations.

In the past 40 years, Fairfax County has become one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. As land prices soared, the creation of low to moderate priced housing plummeted.

For several years, county officials have grappled with housing options that will aid efforts to end homelessness, accommodate the area’s aging single population, and increase affordable housing for a workforce earning less than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI).

Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) said that while he supported the amendment, he thinks there is “still much work to be done before we pass it.

“We need much more community input to help shape this, and I have great concerns about the impact this could have on existing neighborhoods,” McKay said in an interview Tuesday night.

“It is vital that this amendment not jeopardize our residents' quality of life. I will work hard to ensure this does not negatively impact residents come November when it returns to the board, and at the same time provides vitally needed affordable housing,” McKay added.

“Our board has been exploring the establishment of residential studio housing for about 10 years,” Bulova said in an interview last week. “I think it’s a good way to provide more affordable housing options for county residents. By advertising this for public hearing, we will initiate the process for engaging the community in the discussion.

“Let me just say, my feeling is we really need to move this forward,” Bulova said.

“Small apartments have become the hot housing product in U.S. cities, where many places are marketing them under the name ‘micro-units,’” Pesto said.

She added that Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH), based in Charlottesville, has built studio apartments similar to what Fairfax County is considering.

LAST YEAR, VSH unveiled The Crossings in Charlottesville, hailed as a “game-changer” for homelessness and a regional solution to affordable housing.

Opened in March 2012, the Crossings has 60 studio apartments with support services in a mixed-income community. Thirty units are designated for homeless clients and 30 units are available to individuals earning 50 percent or less of the area median income.

Each unit is approximately 360 square feet and contains a kitchenette with full refrigerator and range oven, full bathroom and closet. The building has an extensive security system, secure bike storage, off-street parking, access to public transportation and is in close proximity to the central business district.

“This is exactly the type of affordable rental housing we are trying to make available in Fairfax County,” Pesto said. “It is most definitely a kind of development that we would permit under the Residential Studio amendment. … That’s one of their newer developments and I think it’s a good looking building.”

“This (option) is a critical component to our housing affordability,” Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said.