It’s not as if no one saw it coming, but the decline in affordable market rate rental units in the City of Falls Church has been stunning, creating a veritably silent crisis in the City, except for the sounds of eviction paper deliveries, moving vans and pained, suitcase-carrying families headed elsewhere.
Affordable housing advocates in the City, and many of the strongest moved away after major efforts to increase the stock of affordable housing failed in the last decade, warned for decades about the imminent decline, including in a report in 2007 that over 700 affordable units were at risk due to pressures to raise rates.
Now, in just the last five years, according to a report by the Affordable Living Policy Work Group, the number of market rate rental units in the City has shrunk from 224 to 27 as of 2017. During that same period, there have been no substantial changes to the City’s affordable housing policy or steps to reverse the trend.
At Tuesday’s Falls Church City Council work session, its first post-summer meeting, members of the working group led by former School Board member Craig Cheney, documented this and other data to the Council, which is expected to refer the report’s recommendations for modifications to the City’s Affordable Housing Policy out to City boards and commissions this coming Monday night, and to adopt the recommendations in November.
But the current modifications include no formal initiatives and no money. While the entire region has been burdened by a dearth of affordable housing in the last decade, the City’s considerable efforts that finally failed with a 4-3 Council vote in July 2010 to kill an exhaustively-crafted senior affordable housing plan were officially dashed with the Council’s vote that September to withdraw $2 million from its affordable housing fund.
Modifications to the City’s policy recommended by the group include changing the name of the Affordable Housing Policy to Affordable Living Policy, accept cash in lieu of affordable units as proffers from developers of new housing projects, restart the First Time Home Buyer program to offer down-payment loans, encourage developers to provide affordable units for the life of the property, expand the median income thresholds for rental units into two tiers, one to meet lower income needs and the other to expand the prospects for moderate-income earners, establish a higher threshold from 80 percent to 120 percent of the area median income level for ownership of units, and encourage developers to proffer increased percentages of affordable units from six to eight percent.
The report notes that while the number of market rate affordable units has shrunk from 224 to 27 from 2012 to 2017, the number of committed units — that is, maintained as affordable as a matter of policy, not market factors — has grown slightly from 221 to 239 over that period.
As the number of affordable owned, not rented, units have dropped from 25 to 21 units, the total affordable units in the City has shrunk precipitously from 470 units in 2012 to 287 units in 2017.
Now at risk of falling out of the category of affordable are 96 units at The Fields residences when tax credits are due to expire there in the next couple years. Also, the time limit on affordable units in new projects built since 2002 are expiring, four having expired already and another two due to expire this year.
The recommendation for a two-tier approach to accommodate lower income families is in recognition of the fact that most existing affordable housing in the City is currently not affordable, at all, to those with lower incomes. As inadequate as the number of options are now, the current dominant so-called affordable rate requires a family to have a minimum income of roughly $46,000 annually.
That is, that level of income is required to demonstrate the ability of a family to pay an average $1,324 monthly rent designated as affordable.
According to the draft policy document, “Housing is considered affordable when the household pays no more than 30 percent of gross income for all housing costs including utilities. Target income groups for affordable living are up to 80 percent of Area Median Income. Target income groups for affordable workforce living are up to 120 percent of Area Median Income.”
By this measure, even those in the proposed lower tier of incomes would be required to prove incomes in the mid-$20,000 annual range.
(Curiously, no dollar equivalents of the percentages of median income levels were included in the working group’s draft report.)
The report includes unspecific references to the coming development of the 10 acres at the West End campus, and while it suggests that funds be deployed for a restart of the first-time home buyers program, offers no other creative options. It makes no reference to a prospective new effort at a senior affordable housing building, or to incentives to build single efficiency units or auxiliary units on existing single family home properties in the City, as Councilman Phil Duncan pointed out Monday night.
Councilman Dan Sze cited the chilling effect of having earlier project plans, beginning with the prospect for an affordable building on City-owned land adjacent the State Theatre, to a years-long effort at a project adjacent the West End Park dashed by virulent objections from neighbors, to another years-long effort at a senior affordable housing project on S. Maple at Annandale that included millions of dollars provided by the efforts of then U.S. Rep. Jim Moran.
The dashing of that project in July 2010 led to an angry reprimand by Moran and subsequently the Council’s vote to pull $2 million from its affordable housing fund. That resulted in the effective termination of the City’s Housing Corporation and the resignation of its executive director Carol Jackson, who assumed a similar position in Alexandria and in more recent years, following a move south, her election to the City Council of Charleston, South Carolina.
The working group, which met four times to craft its recommended modifications to the current Affordable Housing Policy, included co-chair Cheney, who made the presentation at the Council Monday night, co-chair Tori McKinney, Ayan Addou, Marion Jones, Shelly Skomra, Stephen Erik, Lindy Hockenberry, Eileen Williams, Bob Young, Brenda Harrernan, Joshua Shokoor and John Williams.