Housing policy updates to the City of Falls Church’s Comprehensive Plan still need serious work by the City’s planning staff, at least three members of the Falls Church City Council insisted at the Council’s work session this Monday.
Any thoughts that the Council might simply rubber stamp the document were drowned out by what, in polite language, came across as serious and insistent comments from Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly and Council members Phil Duncan and Letty Hardi, even as their emphases were on different aspects of the draft.
Original plans to have the Council sign off on the update and pass their OK off to the Planning Commission for final adoption next month now appear unlikely.
Among the objections that arose were lack of specific proposals for maintaining or expanding the City’s woefully diminishing stock of affordable housing, including no recommendations for funding, much less at levels required to address what many policy makers are now identifying as a regional housing shortage crisis.
With only 244 housing units defined as “affordable” in the City now, Hardi noted that 40 percent of that total (96 units) are in The Fields, an apartment complex that currently holds its rental rates low thanks to a tax subsidy from the City. However, that subsidy agreement is due to run out in just a few years, and no one has yet proposed a plan for extending it.
Also, of the 244 units in the City now, only seven are three bedroom, and all of those are at The Fields.
Councilman Duncan raised the prospect of adding a penny to the real estate tax rate as a strategy, if begun immediately, that could at least “rescue The Fields,” he said. Hardi raised the prospect of drawing revenue from the meals tax, as the City of Alexandria has done.
“We need to elevate the importance of this issue,” Hardi said.
But Connelly and Duncan offered harsher criticisms of the report.
“I don’t like any of it,” Duncan said, suggesting that it reflects “a negative view of what has happened in the City since 2001.
Connelly was critical of the report’s focus on the “preservation” of “historical neighborhoods,” saying that to her, the language smacks of racism. “‘It sounds like the desire to keep my enclave neighborhood separate and special rings of that, as does historic integrity and neighborhood stability.’” She suggested they can be seen as a “code for racism,” that “harkens to a time that never existed.”
She also assailed the notion that changing the term, “small town character,” to “close knit community” represented any kind of improvement in intent. “Close knit,” she said, “implies that there are those who are inside and those who are outside such a ‘close knit community.’” Notions affirming diversity and a welcoming attitude toward persons of all types would be better, she said.
Council member Ross Litkenhous raised the notion of “auxiliary dwelling units” as exemplifying the kind of policy initiatives that could be meaningful. The units could be incentivized for City residential landowners as small living units that can be placed in the backyard of existing homes, but that no such recommendations are in the current draft.
Council members also criticized the Planning Department conclusion that the growth in families with incomes in the $50,000 to $100,00 range is a significant product of the data. Households with incomes of $200,000 and higher have gone way up, to 1,031 in the last decade, it was noted, and those with incomes between $150,000 and $199,000 have also risen sharply (by 449).
This belies a trend that would seriously skew the analysis that suggests that housing needs by 2044 would be far less for these classes of households.
A major flaw in the draft could be related to the fact that a survey sent out by the City’s Planning Department on these issues drew only 93 responses.
The survey was administered over less than a two week period, from May 29 to June 10, and yet by the data evaluated in an attachment to the draft, considerable staff time went into tabulating and attempting to evaluate the result.
There was no ability to evaluate how those in the community geared to respond to such surveys may have constituted a skewed sample and to present it as meaningful of anything at all was questioned at the Council meeting.