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Senior Housing Project Draws Political Lines in Falls Church

The decisive split-vote approval by the Falls Church Planning Commission late Tuesday night of a senior affordable housing project saw battle lines clearly drawn involving three of the eight candidates running for the Falls Church City Council this May.

The vote saw commissioners Lindy Hockenberry and John Lawrence, both running for the Council, on opposite sides. Hockenberry voted in favor of the project, and Lawrence, who chairs the planning board, against. A third candidate, Ira Kaylin, spoke out strongly against the plan during the public comment period of the meeting.

Two more candidates, School Board chair Ron Peppe and Barry Buschow, were present in the audience for the vote, but did not comment.

This Monday, the plan will come back to the City Council for a final vote. There, still two more of the candidates in May will go on record for or against the project: Vice Mayor Hal Lippman and David Snyder. Both voted in favor of a preliminary approval on March 8, but neither said their final approval would be an easy decision.

The project, a new six-story, 66 unit building at 360 S. Washington St.,   is named The Wilden in honor of the late Bob Wilden, a tireless and lifelong proponent of affordable housing who played a major role in raising the funds over the last decade to make such a project possible in Falls Church.

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Carol Jackson.

Observers were surprised that Lawrence, whose candidacy was backed by those attending the Citizens for a Better City convention in February, voted “no” on the plan, even though he knew the votes were there to pass it.

A fellow board member, a former unsuccessful Council candidate Ruth Rodgers, voted against the project on the first of two votes Monday, but then switched to vote for with the five-vote majority on the second vote, leaving only Lawrence and Rob Meeks voting against.

When the first Planning Commission vote to reject the project failed, 4-3, it was followed by a vote to recommend it that then passed, 5-2.

The plan for a 66-unit new senior affordable housing project in downtown City of Falls Church cleared a major hurdle with the Planning Commission’s action, even though it took until midnight to achieve.

Among other things, the vote keeps the project on the tight time line it needs to qualify for heavily-leveraged funding tools. If the Council gives it the final OK next Monday, it will come back to the Planning Commission for a site plan approval next month.

Carol Jackson, the tireless head of the Falls Church Housing Corporation (FCHC) who has pushed a variety of plans to achieve this goal for almost a decade, remarked to the News-Press Tuesday, “We are humbled and thrilled to have the confidence of the Planning Commission’s vote.”

Listening to the extended debate Monday night, Jackson remarked, “I was struck all over again that we enjoy a sacred trust mission and a special place of partnership with our City. The FCHC’s board and long-standing members do not take our partnership with the City for granted. We are fully aware and respectful of the fiscal crisis by which we have all been buffetted financially, along with our City partners.”

She added, “We will use the City’s precious resources in good stewardship practices.” The City’s component of the funding is in the form of a $2 million loan that will be repaid within 15 years that constitutes only 12 percent of the overall funding.

The remainder of the funding will come from the federal government (low income housing tax credits and stimulus funds grants) accounting for 50 percent of the funding, the state (with local government matched favorable rates and terms for the debt) at 25 percent, and the FCHC at 12 percent.

Jackson, in her comments to the News-Press, noted that Community Builders, Inc., with its record involving 25,000 affordable housing units east of the Mississippi, will handle to building and operation of The Wilden.

After Monday’s arduous meeting, Jackson left town for a few days of respite to points south.

In Monday’s meeting, the first vote rejecting denial was critical. Commissioners Hockenberry, Mike Kearney, Melissa Teates and Russ Wodiska voted for the project, and Lawrence, Rodgers and Meeks voted against. Lawrence and Meeks also voted against the second motion, made by Hockenberry, for an affirmative recommendation of the plan.

Had the Planning Commission voted against recommending the project, the City Council would have needed to achieve a super-majority this Monday to approve it.

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