It’s no longer called an “affordable housing issue,” something that cries out to be shelved and delayed indefinitely, as the City of Falls Church has done for more than a decade. It is now being called a “housing crisis,” and has shot near the top of national alarm-bell policy priorities.
The Falls Church City Council and Planning Commission met jointly for a work session in the new City Hall Monday night and it came across that the urgency of the need began to sink in on at least some of the members.
So far, the City has had only one champion of the cause in the recent period (since the F.C. Housing Corporation’s Carol Jackson threw up her arms in frustration and left, only to get herself swiftly elected to the City Council of Charleston, South Carolina). That would be current Council member Letty Hardi, and she was firing on all cylinders in Monday’s conversation.
Joining her on the zeal scale was Council colleague Ross Litkenhous, with a major assist from James Snyder, the City’s director of planning and development services, who was swift to suggest a myriad of reasonable housing options that the City, with the right modifications to its zoning ordinances and perhaps some lucrative incentives, could begin to fill in the gap for more affordable housing options.
Snyder noted that the Council of Governments of the Washington, D.C. Metro area will be focused on the same issue at its upcoming summer retreat. The problem is not a local or regional one, it is national, he stressed, as the impact of growing income disparities is leaving a majority of average Americans simply unable to afford their homes.
The City of Falls Church, with 15,000 residents a tiny player in the Northern Virginia regional market led by its neighbors Fairfax County (1,145,000), Arlington (235,000) and Alexandria (144,000), has watched its stock of affordable housing not only to low income families but even so-called “workforce” families, diminish before its eyes, with nothing being done for more than a decade to stanch the wound.
As the trend leads toward more and more expensive homes, occupants of those are likely to be indifferent, at best, to this problem, and in many cases, Council members have commented that they’d expect any major moves to be bucked with aggressive resistance and opposition by these well-heeled people.
However, the “Amazon effect” in this region simply cannot be ignored (Amazon’s Prime Day this week resulted in its biggest for retail sales in its history). The giant’s decision to move its second major campus to Northern Virginia is impacting home values as we speak, with the first wave of real estate investors moving on residential real estate in a big way based on their projections of massive value increases.
Snyder said that the City can do much more to enable, as a matter of right, the construction of auxiliary housing units on existing residential properties, to enable “stacked” townhouses and, overall, to better encourage developers to construct townhouses in the 400-500 square foot range.
One impediment that Council member Phil Duncan pointed out, noting that three recent efforts at townhouse developments failed here, is the requirement for commercial use on the ground floor. Multifamily projects like Pearson Square and the Lincoln at Tinner Hill continue to suffer from the lack of a robust market for commercial retail on their ground floors, it was noted, and the shift in the nature of retail (toward online sales, etc.) may make this a permanent problem.
“We need a smarter calculus of what’s needed and what’s the value of what’s there” concerning the struggling retail market, Snyder said. “We should not be over proscriptive.”
“There are tools in the zoning tool box that we can use,” Snyder said. He noted that of 356,000 new housing units being built in the D.C. region, only a third of them could be considered affordable for the average fully employed family.
He said that incentives could encourage property owners here to build a cottage in the back of their existing home instead of tearing down their home and building a monster mansion.
Modifications to the City’s Comprehensive Plan on matters of housing and demographics “simply don’t go far enough,” commented Planning Commissioner Rob Puentes. “This is a crisis, and now much more aggressive steps are being taken across the U.S. and here. What we have here simply won’t solve the problem.”
“The tip-toe approach we’ve been taking has been building up frustration for years,” Duncan said. He suggested a plan to build a free-standing, subsidized affordable housing building, in conjunction with non-profit partners, may need to be advanced again as it was a decade ago when it came within one vote on the City Council of proceeding.
The issue of how to maintain a sustainable fund to advance such an idea was also discussed (the City had $2 million a decade ago to put toward such a project, but it has since depleted that fund).
A fund to preserve The Fields as an affordable housing project in the City needs to be developed, with only seven years to execute a new agreement with the owner, while other existing affordable sites are also being lost to rising property values. “It is sad to say that we may have to find ways to preserve a $700,000 rambler as ‘affordable’ from becoming a $1.5 million mansion,” Hardi said.
Councilman David Snyder said a “pathway to ownership” instead of subsidized rentals needs to be encouraged, and that he would favor an increase from 6 to 8 percent the number of new units of rental housing mandated by the City. “That would be the least painful approach, although its impact on the overall tax rate would need to be considered.”
The problem of parking associated with auxiliary units, and the idea of first time tax credits were also raised.
Planning Commissioner Melissa Teates pointed to the potential of the four-plex units at the Virginia Village being replaced with a much more dense project in that space.
“The data speaks volumes that we need an action plan to address this crisis,” Hardi said. She said she felt it is reasonable to begin implementing changes in time for the next annual City budget cycle that begins in January.