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Now is the Time to Think About Affordable Housing in Fairfax City

Higher end development could threaten the supply of affordable housing in Fairfax City. But we can mitigate this by acting proactively.

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.

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Rich Williams December 20, 2012 at 11:11 PM
A "density bonus" is the worst of all worlds here. This proposal for Layton Hall will super-size this apartment complex -- the existing proposal is already for high density far in excess of the surrounding areas, and that kind of density threatens to destroy the City's small town feel, which is the reason why people move here. Yet, a "density bonus" would replace only a fraction of the affordable units being lost, so it's ineffective from an affordability standpoint and destructive from a neighborhood-character standpoint. Just a question here: If Mr. Drummond is really serious about preserving affordable housing, why does he support tearing down this affordable apartment complex at all? Granted the current owner has neglected it for years, but it can easily get rehabbed, still be affordable, and keep the landscaping and lower-density that actually fits into the City's character.
Paul Nabti December 21, 2012 at 03:24 AM
The density bonus suggestion was part of a more long term policy discussion, so it wouldn't apply to this project anyway. The goal would be that a combination of affordable units provided for other projects would offset those lost in project such as Layton Hall. Even then, you are right that only a fraction of the lost units would be replaced and an Affordable Dwelling Unit, or "Workforce Housing" policy such as that in Fairfax County would be more effective. I want to point out, however, that if other council members wouldn't even consider discussing density bonuses, which is really like an ADU program, though it is optional, then they probably wouldn't consider an ADU policy either. Regarding your last question, I don't know if Councilman Drummond has specifically stated that he supports this project. I can't speak on his behalf, but I do think there is a benefit to bringing in more people with more spending power to help support downtown, and this may outweigh the loss of affordable housing, though this is obviously subjective.
Rich Williams December 21, 2012 at 11:06 PM
Thanks for clarifying the the City Council's affordable housing policy (or lack thereof). Regarding your last point, that a big rationale for approving this redevelopment is to add downtown spending power: I didn't realize that Downown needed "support" so badly to justify building a mega apartment complex a few blocks away. What do people think is so rotten about downtown as to necessitate such a huge development for "support?" Just curious, as I've never heard this argument before.
Dan Drummond December 27, 2012 at 04:27 AM
First, happy holidays to everyone. Second, let me state that I have not taken a position on this particular project. My point in raising the issue of having an affordable housing policy for the City of Fairfax is because we don't have a policy to guide us in this and future land use discussions. I think it is important that the public and the Council have a policy in place so that as we revitalize the City - or "retrofit" as I call it - we are guided by some basic principles when it come to affordable housing. I appreciate my colleagues willingness to explore the issue and I'm looking forward to staff providing important information that will contribute to the discussion. Feel free to email me directly, too, with questions or comments at dan.drummond@fairfaxva.gov. And Happy New Year!
Paul Nabti December 29, 2012 at 05:56 PM
Thank you Mr. Drummond for chiming in and also for raising this issue with the rest of the council. I also want to clarify to everyone that council has only had one informal review of the Layton Hall project, which too place back in July. My understanding is that the owner has only recently filed an official application with the city so the next council discussion on it will probably take place in the next two or three months. Mr. Williams, here is my somewhat abbreviated response to your question about whether a project like this would really be beneficial to downtown: You may recall the discussions about the Kitty Pozer Garden park project about a year ago where many downtown business owners came out feeling neglected by the city because of the loss of parking. To help mitigate this, the council decided to have a round-table discussion with the business owners to come up with ideas that would help attract more people downtown to shop- or at least avoid losing people. One of the many thoughts that came up during that discussion was attracting more housing in the downtown area. I don't think the Layton Hall site was exactly what everyone had in mind for this because it is really on the fringe of downtown, so we will see where the discussion leads. There may also be other reasons to support the project, such as the increase in the tax base it can bring, but to me the critical factor is whether or not it would help support downtown businesses.
Matt Rice December 29, 2012 at 11:04 PM
Paul, I always enjoy reading your articles, and thanks to Mr. Drummond for commenting. I'd love to see Layton Hall renovated, and this area could support higher densities with some effort to connect Layton Hall better with the Shopping Centers, Restaurants, St. Leo's, Sherwood Center, etc. . Layton Hall is clearly within the 1/4 mile walkability buffer of downtown and if the project were planned carefully, a density bonus would be feasible due to the benefits of having people downtown, many of whom would choose to walk instead of drive. Having more people downtown shopping, dining, attending civic functions, etc. . . would be great, and there are few places situated as well as Layton Hall. It is within a quick walk of the Library, Old Town Hall, Shopping Centers, Restaurants, St. Leo's, Sherwood Center, etc. . . . If Layton Hall were planned to accommodate a wide range of people (seniors, young families, students, baby boomers) that would be even better.
FairfaxMango December 31, 2012 at 05:25 PM
You raise good points on the need for a plan. Several of our neighborhoods have aging, dated housing stock, including post WWII floor plans of small, cut-up rooms, no traffic flow, inefficient windows/roofs/appliances, etc. Do these neighborhoods present opportunities for low-income housing needs of the future? Also, do the itinerant motels along Fairfax Boulevard fit into the long-term plan? Surely there's a creative use to be made with those nuisance properties. I applaud the city's efforts to put high quality, higher density housing within walking distance of the downtown. That strategy is not only great for Layton Hall, but also for the (hopefully) soon-to-be-redeveloped Safeway shopping center. The mayor and council should be applauded for encouraging renewed mixed-use developments throughout Fairfax.
Douglas Stewart January 07, 2013 at 07:00 PM
I too applaud the City's focus on redevelopment, but the writer has identified a critical balance we should be more attentive to. For the past 15 years City policy has focused on "move-up housing" and developed policies that regard neighborhoods like Ardmore as a negative rather than the assets that they are. As a resident and homeowner near Ardmore who walks through that area regularly, I disagree strongly with this policy. The properties are well maintained, and it has a lot of character. Nearby workers at CVS and other stores live there; we see them walking through our neighborhood frequently. We will only add to our traffic problems, and lose a lot of the diversity that makes this an interesting place, if we don't recognize these kinds of neighborhoods as assets.
Paul Nabti January 11, 2013 at 06:27 PM
Thanks for the additional comments everyone. FairfaxMango, I know some municipalities across the country have been taking advantage of the real estate market and buying up older homes to lease as affordable housing. But our local market is already well into recovery mode and home prices are pretty high compared to the rest of the country, so I don't know how viable that option is, even for older and dilapitated housing. Plus, I don't think neighbors would look to kindly on the idea either. Most of the places where this has happened have been so ditressed that the community has been willing to accept "affordable" housing rather than abandoned housing. Regarding the hotels along the boulevard, I don't think anyone has tackled the issue directly, buy they certainly would fall into the boulevard redevelopment area. The Breezeway site is one of the locations where the owner has expressed interest to the city in redeveloping, though last I heard they didn't have the details yet.

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