The work group, represented during the work session by City of Fairfax Human Services Coordinator Louise Armitage and City Planner Eric Forman, consists of members from both the public and private sector, local nonprofit organizations, and citizens.
One of the main focuses of the work session was on how the City can encourage local developers who want to build apartment complexes in the city to volunteer to set aside a percentage of units as "market-rate affordable units."
The biggest challenge, it seems, is the fact that it has to be voluntary.
City Planner Eric Forman said drafting both a Draft Development Condition and Comprehensive Plan Amendment in the short-term would be one of the smartest things to do, since there seems to be a boom coming over the next few years for developers wanting to build apartments in the local area.
"The regional economy moves in waves and in cycles, and right now, the cycle is in that spot – rental apartments is the hot item in the regional economy, as far as what’s being built right now," Forman explained. "It’s the easiest to get financing for, it’s the strongest as far as demand, and that’s why we and other municipalities around us are seeing a surge of demand in rental apartments."
Forman said, in Northern Virginia, the trend right now with development seems to be apartment complexes of between 300 to 500 units.
Forman said there is currently the potential for applications to build a total of two to three thousand new apartment units in Fairfax City over the next few years, most likely in complexes of that nature - 300 to 500 units.
That brought to mind, again, the fact that the City is about to lose the Layton Hall apartments, which the Council approved back in May to be replaced with a 360-unit modern apartment complex. Whereas around 110 units are designated as affordable in Layton Hall currently, only 36 will be designated as affordable in the new complex.
Armitage said recently many of the current residents of the Layton Hall affordable units only make around $27,000 a year as teachers' aides, retail workers, truck drivers, home healthcare nurses and other professions.
Forman and Armitage said the arrangement for affordable units with Layton Hall was ideal, and what the City should be striving for more of - 18 units of the 369 were set aside for individuals or families that make 70 percent of the area median income (AMI), and nine were set aside for those who make 80 percent of AMI.
The area median income for the Fairfax City area is around $107,000 per year. So, these units are targeted for singles or families that make no more than between $65,000 to $85,000 per year.
Forman and Armitage said the City should focus on encouraging more arrangements such as Layton Hall's - and if a Comprehensive Plan Amendment or Draft Development Condition was in place, that would be easier to do when these developers who want to build new apartment complexes in Fairfax City come forward with applications.
Councilmember Dan Drummond agreed with that point.
"We want to fix this gap we have, where we don’t have a policy in place or even a statement that says we as a City want to embrace affordable housing," Drummond said.
Councilmember Steve Stombres asked if the work group had also considered a plan to allow developers to contribute cash payments to affordable housing funds or housing trusts, in lieu of offering to set aside affordable units.
Armitage said yes, but that the idea should be discouraged.
"What we need is affordable housing. It’s not as desirable as having that affordable unit," she said.
Councilmember David Meyer agreed.
"We want our educators to be able to afford quality housing, and not have to live in an apartment with five other people," he said.
Another challenge Fairfax City - as well as other local municipalities - seems to face these days is that older complexes like Layton Hall are being sold to developers who want to replace them with more modern, expensive complexes when they become run-down and are in need of renovations.
"The affordable housing that we do have is affordable because it's old - like Layton Hall," Armitage explained.
The task force's proposal looks to find ways for the City to work with the owners of such properties to encourage them to keep properties for affordable units instead of selling them to developers who will likely tear them down and build more expensive new units. One way the City can do that, Armitage said, is by offering the property owners low-interest loans to allow them to do needed renovations, and keep the units affordable.
Councilmembers Michael DeMarco and David Meyer expressed some concern over that proposal.
DeMarco said it concerned him because he tends to think "the market should be allowed to bear what the market will bear" as far as availability and preserving units.
Meyer said he thought each project should be evaluated on its individual merits - sometimes, the best thing for the city is to preserve it, whereas in other situations, the best thing for all might be to tear it down.
During the meeting, the group of councilmembers and work group representatives tackled the proposal bit by bit, discussing conditions for a potential comprehensive plan amendment and draft development condition the Council could task the Planning Commission with creating, hopefully by the end of the fall season.
Potential conditions include:
- Setting aside a percentage of a development's units as market-rate affordable units, which individuals or households who make no more than 60 percent to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) can qualify for discounted rent. For the average 400-unit complex, this would mean approximately 48 units set aside - 20 for 60 percent AMI, and 28 for 80 percent AMI.
- Agreements would be drafted in which the developer would agree to keep those units as market-rate affordable for 30 years. At the end of the 30 years, if the property owner decides not to continue to offer the units as affordable, he/she must offer relocation assistance to the tenants. The same arrangement would be made if the property goes co-op and is turned into condos.
Other options the group discussed were expanding the City's rent relief program and quadrupling assistance from $420 per year to $1,680 per year, or around $140 per month. Armitage said that would be a fairly minimal impact to the City since currently only six City residents take advantage of it, as the requirements are strict and only seniors or those who are significantly disabled qualify for it.
A housing trust fund, that the City would have complete control over the dispersement of, was also discussed, as well as an examination of City-owned land to see if there was any surplus land or unused buildings, such as the former Green Acres school, that could be transformed into affordable housing units.
The work group and City Council will continue to discuss the short-term options of the comprehensive plan amendment and voluntary conditions for developers and bring it to the Planning Commission for drafting soon. From there, the other options discussed could be explored more as long-term solutions.
TELL US - What do you think of the options the City discussed? Do you think any of the solutions could help the availability of affordable housing in Fairfax City? What other solutions do you think could help? Tell us in the comments below.
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