Resolute F.C. Council Moves Ahead on Affordable Housing

Preliminary OK Given for 174-Unit Building

The Falls Church City Council Tuesday gave a preliminary approval for one of the region’s most ambitious affordable housing projects, a new stand-alone 174-unit building adjacent the recently-approved City Center South redevelopment project.

Over the next months, advisory boards and commissions, and the public, will review the project and its tax and other implications for Falls Church. It is not expected that a vote for final approval will come before late September.

While there was dispute over how much the project would cost taxpayers in the City, everyone agreed it would cost something. “Affordable housing cannot happen anywhere without a public subsidy,” Howard Herman, general manager of the City’s Human Services Division, reminded the Council Tuesday.

But an array of speakers who testified at the meeting, which continued until nearly midnight, spoke of the benefits of such a project, especially its proximity to the new City Center in terms of affordable housing for the 1,500 new employees projected to work at the center once completed.

Two former mayors of Falls Church, Dan Gardner and Carol DeLong, were among the strong supporters of the project to speak up Tuesday. Others warned of the loss of the existing pool of affordable housing in the City, noting that 200 units have been lost to higher rents or renovations since 200, and another 600 are currently at risk.

Current Mayor Robin Gardner was also among its strongest proponents on the Council. “This is a new concept for us,” she said, “and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. It’s dynamic. It’s not perfect. But it’s time to put your money where your mouth is.”

Another enthusiastic supporter on the Council was Dan Maller. “To say I support this doesn’t do justice,” he said. “This is a rite of passage for Falls Church as a city and a community. I am proud to support it.”

On the other hand, Councilman David Snyder, who was the only council member to vote against two of the four pieces of enabling legislation Tuesday, expressed his concerns about the overall fiscal challenges facing the City in coming years, noting that the proposed affordable housing project would cost City taxpayers $1 million per year.

But City Manager Wyatt Shields clarified the cost by distinguishing between out-of-pocket cash costs — including the cost of annual debt service, of waivers on real estate taxes and of the loss of $75,000 per year currently received in taxes on the property — on the one hand, and general service costs that are absorbed by the budgets of various City agencies, on the other.

The cash cost is $508,000 per year, he said, which equals 1.39 cents on the City’s residential real estate tax rate. While that is higher than surrounding jurisdictions, where the rate is closer to 1 cent, it is costing Falls Church $13,200 to subside an affordable housing unit here compared to the cost of $50,900 per unit in Arlington.

These numbers remain “worst case scenarios,” it was also noted. The actual numbers may come in lower.

A rift between the Falls Church Housing Corporation and the City Council that developed at last week’s work session was resolved Tuesday, when it was reported that the Housing Commission was going ahead to take the risk of developing architectural plans for the project prior to official Council approval.

Last week, Housing Corporation Chair Dr. Steve Rogers argued that his group could not proceed with detailed planning without the Council’s final approval, and that timing demanded approval by the end of June. But Mayor Robin Gardner said that was unrealistic.

So, the Housing Corporation decided to push ahead with plans, on faith that the Council OK will come. Now, the Council will have ample time to vet the project before boards, commissions and the public before having to cast a final vote, slated tentatively for Sept. 22.

That deadline also gives the city manager ample time to hammer out the details of the financial arrangements between all the parties involved, which include the City, the Housing Corporation, Atlantic Realty and Homestretch, Inc.

The Housing Corporation will then have until Jan. 2, 2009 to make a formal submission to the Virginia Housing Development Authority in hopes of qualifying for its role in financing 75% of the project. Ultimately, everything will ride on the project qualifying in the rarified environment of stiff competition for that subsidy at the beginning of the new year.