As the Falls Church City Council takes baby steps this summer to address the housing shortage crisis impacting the City, region and nation, action by area elected officials at the national and state level are beginning to escalate.
No longer is it the accepted wisdom that the development by Amazon of its HQ2 campus in Northern Virginia will barely impact the area for years to come. In fact, the impact is being solidly felt right now, taking the form of homeowners who might otherwise be selling, holding tight to their properties on the expectation that values will rise dramatically over the coming period.
This means that the availability of housing through the usual market turnover is already shrinking, driving prices up for housing of all shapes and sizes, and restricting the supply.
This makes the problem of what has been called “affordable housing,” that option serving the needs of persons and households with less than the median average income, is quickly becoming even more acute than it is already.
Greater income inequities in other high-tech regions have created an almost obscene disparity between the wealthy and the plight of those, even those with jobs, who can barely, if at all, escape homelessness.
In Falls Church, the problem is fast approaching a tipping point, and City government has been very reluctant to step up to its responsibilities because of a long history of resistance here by well-off residential property owners to anything that they (usually wrongly) perceive as negatively impacting their home values.
That mentality, though probably in the minority even here, is what may keep the word, “Friendly,” out of the City’s motto, “The Little City,” for some time.
But who knows? A generosity of spirit makes for a happier quality of life, and the youth growing up in the environment of one of the finest school systems in America could be placing a kind of moral pressure on their adult units that will facilitate some meaningful progress.
Christopher Fay, the imposing figure who heads Homestretch, Inc., one of the nation’s (not just the region’s or the City’s) finest non-profit entities addressing the issue of homelessness that is located right in the City of Falls Church, told the News-Press in an exclusive interview this week that in taking up the issue of affordable housing, the City Council should bravely explore all options, temporary and more permanent, to deal with the underlying problem behind affordability of housing, which plagues families as “the trap of poverty,” a phenomenon that has progressed since World War II through federal, state and local laws that add to the disparity of incomes between the rich and poor.
Fay said that even issues like the new tolls on Interstate 66 are contributing factors, making it harder for those with less ability to pay those tolls to keep up. “After awhile, only the wealthy can afford them,” he said, because the working poor have to travel such long distances from where they can afford to live and where they work.
Institutions are incentivized to prey on the poor, like payday lenders that are allowed to impose incredibly high interest rates on poor families desperate for some cash to pay bills.
It was reported by the Federal Reserve recently that fully 40 percent of American households cannot bear to absorb an unexpected bill of $400 or higher, living “one paycheck from the street.”
Job training, for example, as Fay expressed, is key. His organization has taken over 2,000 families in the Northern Virginia area and with an array or training and services has placed them in jobs and permanent residences.
But the options are dwindling. Fay noted that one of the Virginia Square four-plexes that his organization used to look to for affordable housing was recently purchased and put back on the market at a non-affordable rate. There is also the case of The Fields, an apartment complex behind the 900 block of West Broad where a tax incentive arrangement with the City to keep rents affordable is due to expire in the next few years, threatening a reversion to much higher rents there.
It is not a problem that the private sector can solve, Fay offered, at least not without the cooperation and active involvement of government. “There is no fault in the notion that developers need to see a project making economic sense for them,” he said, adding the factor of local “not in my back yard” resistance that, for example, killed plans for a senior affordable housing project in Falls Church almost a decade ago.
People were circulating fliers warning of the dire consequences of providing a modest number of seniors with an affordable place to live. They were trying to scare people with the spectre of a Chicago-style rundown housing project and, eventually, the project died for lack of a single vote on the City Council. That was a decade ago, and there has been nothing done in Falls Church since, except in the case of negotiations with a multi-family residential developer for a “proffer” of a small percentage of units to be provided at a more affordable rate.
On the issue of whether an emphasis should be placed on creating a single building dedicated to affordable housing or “sprinkling affordable housing around” a community, Fay said he prefers the latter. “Rather than having housing in one place and services sprinkled around, it is better to scatter the housing and have concentrated services,” he said.
He favors a wide array of prospective approaches, including incentives by local government for the construction of micro-unit apartments, of auxiliary housing units that existing homeowners can add to their properties, prefab small homes that are available from Amazon, for example, for such a purpose, and the concept of the so-called “tiny house” movement, in general.
After Hurricane Katrina created such tragic human displacement in New Orleans in 2004, model “Katrina houses” were developed by teams of architects as affordable ways to place people back in decent and inexpensive dwellings. The City of Falls Church was approached to provide a space to display one such unit. But nothing materialized.
It was also noted that in Oregon, a jurisdiction has placed dozens of very small cubicles in areas where the homeless are invited to sleep in them with the benefits of a basic roof over their heads and better security.
“Anything that works even as a temporary solution should be explored,” Fay said, but the goal should be to break people out of the trap of poverty.