F.C. Council: Final OK to Affordable Housing Plan

The Falls Church City Council gave final approval to the complex funding package that will pay for the construction of the 174-unit City Center South Apartments (CCSA) affordable housing project, once again working past midnight to generate the same 5-2 and 5-1-1 votes it did providing a preliminary OK in August.

The ball is now back in the court of the City’s Planning Commission, which shocked and angered many by rejecting the project’s site plan last week. According to sources, City Hall staff leaders and the trio of organizations involved in the project continue to work with some on the Planning Commission on new site plan modifications in hopes of reversing that body’s vote this coming Monday. Principally at issue is the fact the project falls 19 parking spaces short of meeting City code requirements.

The project, principally moved by the Falls Church Housing Corporation along with fellow non-profit Homestretch and Thomas E. Sawner of EdOptions, is facing a rigid Jan. 1 deadline for application of an effective submission to the Virginia Housing Development Authority for essential tax credits. To be successful in a highly-competitive environment, the submission must be early and include a site plan approval.

The financing deal OK’d by the City Council Monday included primarily $2 million in City funds already designated for affordable housing, and a tax exemption for the 174 affordable housing units. The two Council members opposed to the deal, Nader Baroukh and David Snyder, said that they could not support the expenditures in light of the tough economic times.

But the five supporters on the City Council reiterated the grounds of their staunch support. Councilman Dan Maller said that while opposition is based on “small issues,” the “big picture” creates a “different view.”

“This project makes incredible sense, it creates a city that reflects our values. I am honored to have the opportunity to vote for this,” he said. “Approving this means our community stands up for what it believes and puts its money where its mouth is.”

Councilman Hal Lippman said opponents of affordable housing favor an “economically gated community,” and said the project is “a fantastic opportunity to break that trend.”

“This is not a close call,” he said, noting that the “disbursed approach” to affordable housing, imbedding a small number in each new large-scale mixed use or residential project, produced only 38 new affordable units in the City, despite the boom in such projects since 2001.

Mayor Robin Gardner chimed in that the CCSA project, including the 174 apartments and an expansion of the services of Homestretch, which works to place homeless people in housing and jobs, “helps those who are hardest hit by the current economic crisis.”

“We are talking about $2 million in City funds for this, compared to $25 million we may eventually need to spend for a new government center, of $30 million for a new school,” she noted, adding that while schools and public safety still operate in tight budget times, affordable housing has been on a steady decline in Falls Church, and will disappear without help.

Citizens also chimed in during the public hearing component of the deliberation. Mike Curtin, a City resident who is the executive director of the D.C. Central Kitchen, noted the similarity of arguments opposing the project to those used elsewhere to kill social services programs people don’t like. He said, “They say things like, ‘We can’t be all things to all people.'”

He cited data showing that for every $1 given to a non-profit, $8 in value is generated for the community of which it is a part. “This is not about pity,” he intoned, “It is about being smart, and not dumb.”

The Rev. Davies Kirkland of the Dulin United Methodist Church and former four-term Falls Church Mayor Carol DeLong spoke in favor of the project. City resident Jim Waters spoke of “an infrastructure of values” benefiting from the project, and of the “rich diversity it will bring to the community.”

Ed Henderson of the African-American history-based Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation and local teacher Susan Sullivan both assailed the Planning Commission’s rejection of the project’s site plan last week. Henderson said, the Planning Commissioners “went through the motions as if they had their minds made up. It was a dysfunction. Something was terribly wrong last week.”
Sullivan wondered with “something else was going on, a hidden agenda,” in the Planning Commission’s action, saying she could not fathom a project of the magnitude and benefit of the CCSA being killed over 19 parking spaces.

Bob Burnett, a Planning Commissioner from 2002 to 2006, said that, at the national level, there is a growing recognition of the benefits to local communities coming from affordable housing.

Christopher Faye, executive director of Homestretch, outlined the many services provided by his non-profit, including help with tax returns, financial literacy, child tutoring, G.E.D. classes and employment counseling, all of which will be open to the general Falls Church public, and not only the organization’s own clients.

“This will be historic for Falls Church,” he said. “I want my life to mean more than just the job I do. I want to give more than I take.”

Vickie Bingham, new to Falls Church, said that as a beneficiary of affordable housing, “Watch me become an asset to your community.”