Bitter Division on F.C. Council On Affordable Housing Policy

A four-vote majority on a sharply-divided Falls Church City Council Monday night approved, 4-3, a modification to a new draft affordable housing policy that signals to the entire region that the City “prefers” a “scattered site” approach to new affordable housing units.

The modification was introduced into the motion to send the draft policy off to a series of local boards and commissions for review, and it caused Councilman Ron Peppe, who opposed the modification, to suggest that the Council “is telling the public what they have to think before we put it out there.”

The “scattered site” approach involves inducing developers of new projects to provide up to six percent of their residential units as “affordable,” in exchange for zoning modifications and other benefits from the City.

It specifically does not include the idea of a free-standing affordable housing structure, which three of the Council members adamantly opposed when it was last on the table in 2010.

By contrast, the draft new policy document, hammered out at numerous meetings of an “Affordable Housing Policy Workgroup” over the past year, made no mention of a preference for one or another mode of achieving its affordable housing goals.

However, the three Council members, Mayor Nader Baroukh and members Johannah Barry and Ira Kaylin, were strident opponents of the F.C. Housing Corporation’s 66-unit senior housing plan in the summer of 2010, and they led the charge to introduce the new language into Monday night’s motion.

Vice Mayor David Snyder went along with the three on the new language, even though he voted for the senior housing project in July 2010, because, he said, the new language it still allows for that option.

The new wording reads, “It is important to consider all options for increasing the supply of affordable housing in the City. The preferred strategy is to develop committed affordable housing that is inclusionary and distributed within developments and throughout the City.”

Councilman Phil Duncan took issue with the new language, citing data provided in a report from the City staff that was prepared to answer some of his questions from an earlier work session. He noted that a scattered approach delivered only 41 affordable units among five large scale mixed use projects built in F.C. since 2000, and making the approach in sharp contrast to the new policy’s stated goal of 150 new affordable units in 10 years.

According to the math in the report, he noted, the City would have to commit to 2,500 new residential units in the next 10 years (beyond projects already in the pipeline) to reach the policy’s goal that way. “Why prefer an approach that won’t take us where we say we want to go?” he asked. “The model that is ‘preferred’ is not a model that will work.”

Duncan’s request for a follow up comment was not granted by Mayor Baroukh, who moved the matter to a vote.

Duncan, Peppe and David Tartar voted “no” to the new ‘preferred’ language, and Baroukh, Snyder, Barry and Kaylin voted ‘yes.’

Commenting on the issue the next day, Duncan wrote on the News-Press website, “Creating new affordable and workforce housing is a tough issue for most communities. The folks who benefit directly typically don’t have much political clout, because (of course) they usually don’t yet live among us. After much deliberation, a task force of Falls Church citizens has proposed a new housing policy with numerous goals, including creating 150 new affordable dwelling units in our City by 2022. Council is now taking public comment on the proposed policy, with a hearing and final action set for Feb. 11.”

A primary misconception addressed in the report is the notion of what kind of income a person or a family has that qualifies for “affordable” housing, which is far from homeless or truly needy.

For example, it is noted in the report that “nearly half of all low income renters are ‘housing cost burdened,’ that is, paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing.” It adds that “one out of every 10 renters in the City is paying more than 50 percent of their monthly income for housing expenses.”

It adds that “average rents in the City range from $1,645 per month for a one-bedroom to $2,129 per month for a three-bedroom. A one-person household with a moderate income ($57,520 a year) is not able to afford the lowest average rent in the City.

Also included is a section dedicated to the “business case” for affordable housing. “Several studies,” it notes, “have shown the connection between affordable housing, transportation and economic development,” including an Urban Land Institute study on the negative business impact of “long distances between housing and jobs on business operations and workers’ quality of life.” A State of New Jersey study indicated that the availability of viable housing for employees “plays a role in where businesses decide to locate, noting that a lack of affordable housing can put a local economy at a competitive disadvantage. A New England Public Policy Center report linked unaffordable housing to slower economic growth.

An Urban Land Institute report is cited, stating “most of the homes in the central and inner suburbs, particularly in adjoining Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland are far beyond the means of the median income family.” noting that region-wide, households spend an average of nearly $23,000 per year on housing and $13,000 on transportation.”