Even through the recent economic downturn, the cost of housing in the DC region has been a major burden on the middle class. According to a recent study, housing costs in the DC area are the highest in the country. As we continue to climb out of the depths of the recession (assuming we don’t fall off the “fiscal cliff” on the way up), this crisis is bound to get worse.
When Councilman Drummond raised this concern at a recent work session, several of his colleagues pushed back. The work session was about future development in Fairfax City, and Mr. Drummond’s suggestion was allowing density bonuses for developers to include designated affordable units in their projects. Such a policy would be less intrusive than those in other area jurisdictions, such as Fairfax and Montgomery Counties, where designated affordable dwelling units (known as ADUs) are required. Still, it was dismissed as “a solution looking for a problem”.
I can see where that reaction would come from. Relative to the surrounding areas of Fairfax County, Fairfax City has more modest single family homes, older and cheaper apartment units, and motel rooms that are used as homeless shelters. Don’t we already have our fair share of affordable housing?
Consider the fact that the work session where this was brought up was a reaction to a recent influx of developers expressing interest in high end apartment units in the City, with two applications submitted and more expected. This is a good thing because high end rental housing is a sector that is lacking in the city. It can boost our tax base and bring in people with a lot of disposable income who will support businesses within the city. But it could increase surrounding land values and create an incentive for owners of other apartment complexes to redevelop into more higher end housing as well, meaning we could start to diminish our supply of lower rent units.
This is happening already. One of the applications submitted is the redevelopment of Layton Hall Apartments and property owners of two other complexes have mentioned that they are considering redevelopment. Douglas Stewart posted a critique of the Layton Hall proposal on the CFCSG website a few months ago, supporting it for good design and bringing more spending power close to downtown, but raising the concern about the loss of 110 lower cost apartment units.
On the up side, the developer is offering to relocate displaced tenants to another apartment complex. On the down side, that complex is in Springfield. Keeping local affordable lower rent housing is important because people who work here should be able to live here too. Fairfax City’s employment base is more heavily weighted toward retail and services than the region as a whole. These are usually lower wage employees who can’t afford single family homes or luxury apartments on their own. Without lower rent alternatives, they will be forced into “doubling up” with friends or relatives, or long commutes.
Beyond the rental market, some existing policy in the city thumbs it’s nose at lower cost owner-occupied homes. On example is the description for Ardmore in the comprehensive plan. Many consider this to be a good neighborhood of affordable homes with ample yards; something almost unheard of in Northern Virginia. The current comprehensive plan says it is “a neighborhood of inefficient homes that have not aged well” and “designates this area Medium Density Residential to encourage consolidation and redevelopment of this neighborhood”.
We should consider these neighborhoods and apartment complexes as an amenity that provides opportunities for all walks of life and without public subsidies to boot. If the local economy continues to improve then we are bound to see our supply of affordable housing drop. With a re-write of the comprehensive plan coming up, now is the time to look at policies that can help ensure that people who want to live here can live here. With increasing interest from developers in our city, we can preserve some of this supply though density bonuses or other tools that do not require public subsidies.