Whipple to F.C. Council: Maybe Some Affordable Housing Gains in Richmond

Some innovative options to improve the chances for retaining affordable housing may make through the Virginia state legislature when it goes into session in January, State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple told the Falls Church City Council this Monday night.

A new law could allow senior citizens whose rental properties are converted to condos to transfer their “right of first refusal” to buy to a non-profit agency. Therefore, if they could not afford to buy, a non-profit affordable housing agency could come in and buy the unit and continue to rent it to the senior.

That proposal, which would not cost the state any funds, would enhance efforts being stepped up all over Northern Virginia due to the high home values here to build inventories of properties designated for affordable housing

Sen. Whipple, whose 31st District includes Arlington and the City of Falls Church, said there will also be a push to provide designated funding for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, aimed at addressing the same problem.

“I am not tremendously optimistic, but something may be possible” for progress on Northern Virginia transportation solutions, the lawmaker added. She noted that while the State Senate voted 37-3 in favor of Virginia matching $150 million in federal matching funds for transportation last winter, the measure was blocked in a House committee and never came to a floor vote.

Falls Church Council members expressed frustration over the state legislature’s unfunded mandates, placing requirements on local jurisdictions that it then won’t pay for.

Councilman David Snyder reminded Whipple that Northern Virginia gets back in services and program funding only a small fraction of what it sends in taxes to Richmond every year. Whipple explained that was due in part to Virginia’s “Aid to Localities” policy which designates funds for education and other programs on a means test basis. Therefore, jurisdictions in the poorer regions of the state take the lion’s share of the available state revenues.

Councilman Hal Lippman queried Whipple about options to negate the Dillon Rule in Virginia, the state government’s special Constitutional authority to dictate what local jurisdictions can or cannot do. The Dillon Rule is a remnant of the old Byrd Machine days in Virginia and Virginia is one of only four states in the U.S. that operates with it. It limits localities to policies only explicitly permitted by state law, and frequently frustrates the ability of local governments to provide good service to their constituents. “It makes it hard to craft solutions at the local level,” Whipple noted.

While Whipple said there are no provisions for public referenda or recall in Virginia (another Byrd Machine legacy), the Dillon Rule gets “chipped away at” every time a jurisdiction makes a special request of the legislature. When the request is granted, then other jurisdictions can also come in under that exception. “Incremental change is happening,” she said.

Otherwise, the rule can be repealed only by consecutive two-thirds votes in the legislature that would put a referendum on the statewide ballot. She said that since so few legislators bring backgrounds in local governing, like she has, they fail to see the problems presented by the Dillon Rule, and at the same time “they enjoy standing in for local officials” by governing top-down.

Later in the meeting, the Council adopted its legislative package for 2007 which it will present to Whipple and State Del. Jim Scott. Crafted by Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester, it includes 17 pages of desired changes in state law to speak to needs and policies of the Falls Church city government.

The priority issues include: 1. a restoration of the law permitting photo red light safety measures, 2. help with post-employment benefits, 3. opposition to unfunded state mandates, 4. funding for court services, transportation, water quality improvement, schools and libraries, 5. incentives to encourage sustainable energy.

The legislature convenes on Jan. 10 for a 45-day session.