This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act that rooted out discriminatory practices by landlords on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, family status or national origin. Blatant prejudice along those lines are now taboo, but the City of Falls Church has co-opted a de facto discrimination by way of its high housing costs that are generally more within reach of affluent and whiter populations. It’s causing an progressive citizenry, including some in the City government, to investigate viable solutions to affordability as well as their commitment to their own beliefs.
To be clear, the act of discrimination implies a level of insidious intent. That’s not the case for current City residents, but it’s undeniable they’re living in a municipality that was designed to carry out a discriminatory purpose. According to “Falls Church – A Virginia Village Revisited” by Bradley E. Gernand and Nan Netherton, the City’s push for independence in 1949 centered around 1). a better education as well as 2). limiting the amount of black students. When the restrictive covenants that prevented minorities from purchasing certain properties were declared unconstitutional the year before, the City residents went out of their way ensure black neighbors couldn’t attend City schools by paying their tuitions for Fairfax County schools outside of Falls Church. City schools integrated in 1961, but by then they’d already gained a reputation for strong education and attracted wealthier parents within its borders, creating the current financial barrier of entry.
“Being such a progressive community, we say, ‘We don’t want Trump’s wall, that just seems crazy,’” City Councilwoman Letty Hardi told the News-Press. “But I want people to look ourselves in the mirror and think about the community we’re building and if we are essentially building a wall around Falls Church that once you’ve made it in, you’re not letting in anyone else.”
Falls Church’s Housing and Human Services (HHS) division lists the City’s median sales value for homes at just over $700,000. As the sale values increased, so did a demand to rent, which is why HHS director Nancy Vincent noted that rents have increased by 96 percent since 2000. Rents have risen faster than incomes, so the City has experienced an upper-crusting of sorts that has catered to high earners throughout the 21st century.
There haven’t been a plethora of housing options for people who hover around the City’s average median income (AMI) of roughly $107,000. The Fields, an apartment complex behind the Taco Bell that receives a tax subsidy from the City to remain affordable for its 96 units, is the only top-to-bottom affordable housing structure in the City and its tax credits will expire in the 2026. Aside from The Fields, other apartment complexes such as Northgate, Pearson Square, West Broad Residences and The Lincoln at Tinner Hill currently offer Affordable Dwelling Units (ADUs) — with the first two complexes filling ADUs using a lottery system while the other two keep their own list and prioritize residences to families, seniors or persons with disabilities. In total, there are 54 rental ADUs and 21 homeownership ADUs in Falls Church with $292,000 allocated for affordable housing in the City’s nearly $94 million FY 2019 budget.
That’s why affordable housing has become a chief focus of the HHS staff. On Tuesday night, an Affordable Housing Policy Workgroup – consisting of two developers, nonprofit representatives as well as a senior renting in the City among many others – had their first of four meetings aimed at drafting a final document by June that’s ready for adoption, according to Housing Program Analyst Dana Lewis.
As of now, the workgroup has six items in its purview: Preservation of The Fields as affordable housing, add to the City’s commitment to ADUs, Virginia Village redevelopment and preservation of units, create tax incentives to promote affordable housing along with a housing grants program and first time homebuyers program. These items were presented to a work session of the F.C. City Council this Monday night.
Economically (and legally) speaking, there’s nothing malevolent about the construction of the City. Supply and demand determine pricing, and nationally renowned schools with a friendly community to boot will draw widespread attention and create a high price of admission. It’s not unlike any other luxury item — there’s a reason streets have more Fords than Ferraris on them. But as Falls Church’s wealth became more garish and its demographics remained relatively uniform, City residents have noticed their own cognitive dissonance, especially in regards to the progressive ideal of diversity, which is a major component of the City’s “vision statement.”
“You can’t have diversity unless you have diverse housing options,” said Joshua Shokoor, a data and communications analyst for the nonprofit Falls Church Housing Corporation. “I don’t see how the City is able to accomplish any of their 2040 goals without including more diverse housing options.”
Shokoor’s concerns were echoed in a letter to the News-Press a few weeks ago by Tony Scardino that observed the City’s dwindling middle class and lack of diversity in the citizenry. More housing options could satisfy this desire, yet the City also seems at odds with this motivation.
A long-term solution to affordable housing has always been including another complex such as The Fields, but that goal runs up against the main opponent to such structures: the “Not in my Backyard” (NIMBY) mentality. NIMBYism stonewalled the last affordable housing structure that was proposed, the Weldon, that included a lot of help from federal funding, in a 4-3 vote on City Council in 2010 out of the fear that its presence would sink property values of nearby homes.
That fear isn’t the incontrovertible truth it’s made out to seem. City resident Dr. Derek Hyra, an associate professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, believes NIMBY concerns are overblown. According to Hyra, an affordable housing structure could have citizens ranging from 30 percent to 120 percent AMI interspersed to avoid a high concentration of low-income residents, countering any expected drag on property values.
The secondary fear that City residents would have to shoulder any affordable structure through a tax raise is not clear-cut either. Per Hyra, most affordable housing initiatives are a public-private effort. If the City could attract investment through tax credits for developers or another kind of deal for nonprofits, a structure could be completed without a burdensome obligation for taxpayers and minimal fretting over tanking property values.
Hyra also suggested two approaches that Hardi and Shokoor mentioned independently – making more space for the affordable housing in the City’s operating budget or the long-term capital budget and raising the threshold of ADUs from six percent to 10 percent in new developments. Although to accomplish the former, the City may need to cut costs in other areas to accommodate the request.
Furthermore, Hardi believes that the City needs to be more focused on singular goals when accepting developer contributions for the public pot. Instead of having new developers pay toward multiple public services at once, the City could identify particular services of need – such as affordable housing – for a period of time to direct resources to them.
According to Shokoor, the City hasn’t produced new ownership opportunities since 2009 and is leaving an influx of renters cost burdened with no equity to show for it. Shokoor thinks a partnership with neighboring municipalities near a shared Metro station to do just that could be a win-win for the City and its cohort. Lastly, Hyra floated the idea of a bond referendum, similar to the $258 million measure that Portland, Oregon residents just passed last fall, though he also understands that residents may want to deal with the most recent school bond referendum before considering another one.
At the end of the day, it comes down to whether or not there is any interest in kickstarting an affordable housing initiative and whether it will actually benefit the community as a whole.
Hardi, Hyra and Shokoor all believe there is definite interest among City residents, as well as the all-important political will do something about it, but getting residents to sign-on remains a work in progress. Though Hardi did note that Falls Church’s trend toward serving predominantly well-heeled school-age parents is not sustainable for the City’s future health and should be addressed sooner rather than later.
As for the benefit to community, that remains to be seen. Urban scholars currently don’t have evidence to support the notion that low and high income populations living in close proximity generate a social gain for either. Despite that, Hyra’s confident that the “workforce housing” – the preferred term to describe the teachers, City employees and food service workers that any potential affordable structures could target – wouldn’t require the cultural “leap of faith” that it would take to connect high earners with those that live near the poverty line.
Part of it, as well, is understanding that with diversity comes difference, which in turn can breed discord. Even though its touted as a moral good, it doesn’t often manifest in an idealized way. Adjusting those expectations – and having the wherewithal to ride out the initial acclimation period – could provide a beneficial end result.
“If you want to have diversity, and bring together people of different ethnicities, races or sexual orientation, you’re likely going to get some conflict,” Hyra said. “On the flip side, you’re also going to get innovation. You’re going to get ideas that bubble up in diverse environments that probably wouldn’t in segregated, homogeneous communities. When you bring together different peoples, you get energy, vibrancy, art and culture, but there’s also going to be conflict.”
If the City and its residents want to remain true to their word about wholesale progressive values, it may want to atone for history of discrimination and push their chips into the middle of the table like few other liberal strongholds have on the topic of diversity.
Affordable housing reforms provide an opportunity to do so.