F.C. Council Hails Diversity in Pro-Affordable Housing Vote

OKS Project for 174 Affordable Rental Units

Citing the City of Falls Church’s vision statement, charter and comprehensive plan, all affirming diversity as an important community objective, the Falls Church City Council voted in the wee hours of Tuesday morning to approve an ambitious plan to build a new, seven-story building with 174 affordable housing rental units in downtown Falls Church.

Virtually the only item on the agenda in what became a six-hour marathon until 1:20 a.m., the City Center South Apartments project was approved and will now press forward toward hoped-for Virginia Housing Development Authority approval next year.

It could represent the proverbial “third time is a charm” for Carol Jackson, executive director of the Falls Church Housing Corporation, who has been working tirelessly for most of the decade to get a significant affordable housing project built in the City.

The need for such a project was underscored amid the hours of public petitioning, City staff and Council comments at Monday’s (which became Tuesday’s) meeting. Even with all the new mixed use development approved in last 10 years, there have been only 36 new affordable units added to the City’s stock.

That is compared to hundreds of units already lost to renovations, rate hikes or demolition, with almost all of the City’s 600 remaining affordable dwellings at risk.

It was also stressed that affordable housing is not the same as low-income housing. In the case of the City Center South Apartments (CCSA), they will be available to individuals or families with incomes at 30% to 60% of the regional median annual income. That translates into incomes from $20,000 to $40,000 for individuals, or $29,000 to $58,000 for families of four.

The multi-faceted project approved this week also brought with it the approval of a “memorandum of understanding” between the City, the Housing Corporation (FCHC) and its partner, the non-profit Homestretch, Inc., and Thomas E. Sawner, chief executive of EdOptions, Inc., a educational support company.

Under terms of that deal, Sawner will provide structured parking on property he owns next to the CCSA building, relieving the FCHC of the need to build highly-expensive underground parking. Sawner will get to use $2 million already set aside by the City for affordable housing for up to a year to purchase and renovate two adjacent office buildings.

The plan is for that money to come back to the FCHC to be added to $4.4 million proffered by the Atlantic Realty Company in exchange for the approval it received earlier for its $317 million City Center project. Then, the FCHC is counting on getting tax credits worth $12 to $16 million from the Virginia Housing Development Authority and another $5.6 million from the renovation of 83 Winter Hill apartments it owns to pay for the construction of the new CCSA building.

The calculation of the cost to the City’s taxpayers includes debt service on the $2 million, provided in a 15-year bond, and indirect costs of property tax waivers for the units in the building and the cost of educating children who might occupy the apartments and attend City schools.

All that taken together was calculated at a cost of up to $1 million a year. But out of pocket costs to taxpayers are half of that, City Manager Wyatt Shields noted Monday, or only 1.4 cents on the real estate tax rate.

About 1 a.m. Tuesday, the Council proceeded to the four votes required to approve the plan. The only Councilman to vote “no” on all four provisions was new Councilmember Nader Baroukh. David Snyder voted “no” on two, and abstained on one.

All the five other Council members voted “yes” on all four, including Mayor Robin Gardner, Vice Mayor Hal Lippman, Dan Maller, Dan Sze and new Council member Lawrence Webb.

While it awaits final approval from the state for financing, the project is the first of its kind ever approved for the City of Falls Church.

Jackson, on behalf of the FCHC, had been frustrated in earlier efforts to build an affordable housing structure on City property adjacent the State Theatre, and in another effort to build a senior housing project on property adjacent the West End Park.

The latter plan had been so downsized by the City Council, in response to complaints from neighbors to the site, that when it limped to Richmond for approval it was rejected out of hand.

But Jackson persisted, and got a boost when she recruited former Vice Mayor and Chamber of Commerce president Dr. Steve Rogers to chair her board of directors.

Council members who favored the project at this week’s meeting followed the lead of Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester, who noted it reflected the sentiments pertaining to promoting diversity and “a variety and mix of housing levels,” expressed in seminal City documents, including its vision plan, charter and comprehensive plan, as well as an affordable housing policy statement adopted in 2000 at the initiative of Former Vice mayor Merni Fitzgerald.

City Manager Shields introduced the subject by underscoring his staff’s recommended approval, citing the “courage” of the FCHC while saying the various, seemingly confusing components of the plan made it “one of the hardest we’ve ever dealt with.”

Support for it was cited from the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, Architectural Advisory Board, Human Services Advisory Committee, the Environmental Services Council, and the Falls Church Chapter of the League of Women Voters, among others.

Clergymen present in support included the Rev. Thomas Schmid of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church and the Rev. C. Davies Kirkland of the Dulin United Methodist Church.

Ed Hickey, a young City resident, was successful in reading all three letters of support from regional elected officials Del. Jim Scott, State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple and U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, within the three-minute speaking limit.

Christopher Fay, executive director of Homestretch, Inc., devoted to training homeless families to earn their way into homes, cited his group’s collaboration in the project. It owns one of two buildings at the S. Washington St. site that will be demolished to make way for the new CCSA structure, and will be provided new operating space on the ground floor of the new building.

Homestretch, Inc., he noted, was recently honored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce with a “Blue Diamond Award” as the finest non-profit operating in the county. A Homestretch employee, Saul Adams, said the CCSA project “is not about money, it is about homelessness, and getting families off the streets to help society as a whole.” A project like it “makes me have hope,” he said, “that I have a chance.”

Sawner’s organization, as also a part of the CCSA project, could tout similar credentials, being named the Best Small Business of 2006 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It provides on-line and other educational services to support and enhance public and private education programs.

Sawner’s plan is to demolish the building there that he owns and build a new one with structured parking beneath office space. He’ll then close on the purchase of two other office buildings there that he will renovate and use for his own company with over 100 employees, among other things.

Another eloquent statement in support of the project came from Mike Curtain, a City resident who is the executive director of the D.C. Central Kitchen, the District’s largest program to feed and train homeless people.

“You can’t measure this project in dollars,” he said. “To view it solely as a financial transaction is irresponsible, without concern for its social currency. We’re a different kind of community than those who say they don’t want to be inclusive.”

Affordable housing and homeless advocate Ron Brousseau, Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation’s Ed and Nikki Henderson, who home is adjacent the site, also spoke in favor.

On the other side of the issue, Maureen Budetti, chair of the Planning Commission, explained her group’s 2-2 vote, a tie which represented non-support. Lou Olom opposed “segregating” low income people into a large building. Ira Kaylin opposed it by citing projections of deep budget shortfalls in the future and “chronic budget difficulties.”

Most other opponents gave Gundry Drive addresses, stronghold of the Winter Hill Community Association, which opposed the plan. (Councilman Baroukh also resides on Gundry Drive and is a member of the association, but announced that he’d consulted with the city attorney, and felt he could be objective in voting on the matter).

Councilman Maller said, “I want to live in a city that wants to do this project.” He said he preferred calling it “spectrum housing,” rather than “affordable housing.”

Webb said he lives in “affordable housing” himself, and that opposition to the CCSA was a “socio-economic issue.” He said it is “unfair to tag people” as “others, with low income,” because affordable housing is not designed for low income, but middle income people.

Baroukh and Snyder said the project was not ready to go forward, with too many details not buttoned up and not enough opportunity for deliberation or public input. Two motions they made to delay were defeated before the final vote.

Lippman said the project prevails against tendencies of Falls Church to become “a gated city of the rich,” and stressing the City welcomes people “of all means and backgrounds.” He also blasted the circulation of an anonymous flier in Falls Church that provided disinformation about the project, claiming its approval would cost taxpayers $1,500 a year more. “The actual average amount is $150,” if it winds up at the “worst case” cost, he said. “Shame on you,” he said of the flier’s author and supporters.

Mayor Gardner concluded Council comments by acknowledging that “affordable housing costs money,” but the CCSA project “has a synergy with other buildings going up in that area.”

“I want to wake up in the morning with a happy heart that I did the right thing,” she said.