Following a decade of frustrations, despite considerable expenditures unable to move the City of Falls Church to back their affordable housing initiatives, the Falls Church Housing Corporation faced a crossroads after its latest setback last fall.
The organization could have retreated into a mere caretaker role, continuing to manage affordable units in Winter Hill that it currently owns, and it could have shuttered its operations, overall. Or, it could leave Falls Church in the dust to strike out with a bold new approach to achieving its goals not within the confines of the Little City, but regionally.
Under the leadership of its president, former F.C. vice mayor Dr. Steve Rogers, and inexhaustible executive director Carol Jackson, the FCHC went hunting for a partner, and scored a major agreement with an historic, New York-based affordable housing advocacy institution that will help it realize considerable new affordable housing units, if not in Falls Church, then throughout the region.
The FCHC board voted unanimously last week to wed its operations to the National Housing Partnership (NHP) Foundation, a remnant of “true believers” in the area of affordable housing that has survived since the “Great Society’s” urban renewal initiatives of the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration in the 1960s.
Jackson, FCHC board member Jack Wilburn, a Falls Church architect, and Michelle Krocker, executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, explained in an exclusive interview at the News-Press Monday how the new alliance between the NHP and FCHC could be a creative model for the future of such endeavors. It is a “first of its kind” alliance that weds a nationally-focused organization with strong financial stability and resources to a locally-based entity like the FCHC with institutional knowledge of the players and options in a local setting.
With a lot of community development efforts facing similar dead-end situations like the FCHC, the new alliance model could be a precursor of things to come.
“We are the kind of portal through which an organization like the NHP can be most effective,” Wilburn said. Effective affordable housing efforts, he said, are usually put together in a layered fashion, involving a number of funding, government and advocacy entities, resembling a “lasagne.”
He cited the example of what went into developing the Wilden Senior Apartments project in Falls Church that ended with a dead stall by the Falls Church City Council last summer, and was the final straw for the FCHC here. Such layered arrangements are the rule rather than the exception, he said, and the Wilden was cobbled together to be a major success story. It was the local government that killed it.
Still, efforts at effective affordable housing development has to start at the local level, where the knowledge of the playing field, so to speak, exists, and then the equity resources of the national group are added in. The new FCHC-NHP arrangement “will give us not only the heart, but also the muscle to get things done,” Jackson said.
With impending deep federal funding cuts imperiling entities such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and community block grant resources, a new public-private model like the FCHC-NHP alliance needs to be developed to take up the slack, she said.
Also, as Krocker noted, funds are drying up at the local and regional levels for basic human services, such as housing. The initiative launched by the Fairfax County chair (now U.S. congressman) Gerry Connolly to set aside a penny on the county’s real estate tax rate ended abruptly two years ago in the face of the sharp economic downtown. A lot of housing programs nationally “hit the wall” during the Great Recession of 2008.
On the other hand, the need for affordable housing has never been more acute, including in Northern Virginia, where the relative economic growth potential here could be threatened by the lack of a sufficient workforce. Lack out affordable dwelling options here could strangle economic development.
While leaders in Fairfax County say affordable housing is “no longer a priority,” and those in Arlington and Alexandria “give lip service only,” those in Loudoun County are figuring this out, Krocker said. There is a new push for “workforce housing” there as having to rely on workers coming in from West Virginia and points south simply can’t give the county’s aggressive growth plans what they need.
This follows another emerging post-Recession “new normal” trend, which is away from home ownership to rental living. The dicier economy requires more flexibility, especially by younger workers, and being tied down to living in outlying areas, where there is no culture and where high gas prices eat away at the family budget, is not longer seen as desirable, Jackson explained.
Krocker said that there are thousands of units of rental housing existing in high-development areas of the region around Bailey’s Crossroads and in the Columbia Pike and Beauregard corridors that could become priced out of the affordable range unless there are efforts made to acquire them to keep them affordable.
In explaining the novel nature of the FCHC-NHP alliance, Jackson said, “This is not the case of a typical rescue mission story, or a little organization rescued from withering on the vine by a larger, better resourced group. NHP has a different opinion of our local value, much of it established in the local social capital in which our organization has invested itself so faithfully over the last 30 years.”