Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: More Affordable Units for Whole Foods Project Would Be Historic

As a lifelong resident of Falls Church, a graduate of the public school system, and the Chair of the Housing Commission, I want to commend the effort of our City Council, School Board, and other citizen groups on changing the school names. Last December, in the face of unpopular opinions and backlash (local and national), they persevered with the knowledge that this decision, no matter the outrage, was the correct one. It was a great symbolic achievement which I and many others applauded. But now we have an opportunity to build on the momentum of this moment and follow through on the promises for change prompted by the events of this past year. We can turn heartfelt rhetoric into actions and create more inclusive housing policies.

In our City and in neighborhoods throughout the country, prohibitive zoning practices combined with unaffordable homeownership and rental housing costs continue to be a barrier to entry for lower income households and people of color. This is often by design and requires the intentional creation of diverse housing options to resolve, like affordable housing. But our City already has an affordable housing crisis. Over the past decade, the Falls Church affordable housing stock has observed an abrupt decline, from 470 units in 2012 to 283 units today. Within the next decade this number will shrink by an additional 47 percent or 132 units. This distressing outcome, solely affecting those in our community most in need, should have been anticipated. Fortunately, some have focused a renewed attention on this complex issue, and through their vocal support, coalition building, and a rightful sense of urgency, a significant policy is finally being considered.

Next week, the City Council will determine whether to increase the affordable dwelling units (ADUs) at the recently approved Broad & Washington mixed-used development, from the standard set-aside percentage of 6 percent to a historic 10 percent. This would accomplish what others have failed to do in the past, bringing the total at the project to over 30 ADUs with affordability commitments that never expire. It will also become the first modern development in the City with units that serve income levels at 40% of area median income, housing people with jobs that are critical to our community and economy but have been priced out of Falls Church. I strongly recommend the City Council approve the increase in the ADU percentage to 10 percent. This is an effective first step to solving an immediate problem with the potential to impact the lives of low income individuals and families with real measurable benefits.

Through purposeful planning and smart growth, our City has heavily invested tens of millions of dollars to develop a nationally ranked public school system, to construct parks envied throughout the region, and modernize our public library. The concentration of civic engagement devoted to maintaining and advancing these public resources is exactly what makes the City of Falls Church a community of ample opportunities, and why access can be transformative. With voluntary concessions from the Broad & Washington developer, it’s now time to turn our attention to housing.

I grew up in a relatively lower income household in the City and took full advantage of the wealth of resources that surrounded me. It provided me with the means to socialize and collaborate with well-informed peers and equipped me with the tools to be the first in my family to graduate from college. By obtaining my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I have generationally altered my family’s educational and financial outcomes. I will forever be indebted to Falls Church due in no small part to these iconic features. But I am also aware that others from a similar background as me, a mixed-race minority, raised by a single mother in a lower income family, will never have access to the City and those resources most of us take for granted.

That is why I have chosen to give back to my community and my home, by volunteering time and energy to create a more welcoming, accessible, and inclusive City of Falls Church. However, expanding more affordable housing options will not just open doors for lower income families and people of color, it will provide housing for teachers, City staff, essential workers who keep businesses open and safe during the current pandemic, and of course graduates of our public schools who wish to move back and start a life where theirs began.

Once again, I congratulate the City Council, School Board, and other citizen groups on the achievements of the past year. But I urge we go further, to not settle on symbolic achievements, and instead work together to make real change in the lives of those in need, by increasing the set-aside percentage of ADUs from 6 percent to 10 percent. I ask that you join me in support of this effort.