News

Fairfax Co. Votes to Start Talks On Allowing ‘Efficiency’ Housing

Long overdue but in response to an impending commercial development boom in Tysons Corner and environs (including the City of Falls Church), the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last week set in motion a process to permit construction of “efficiency apartments,” known as “residential studio units” (RSUs), of no more than 500 square feet in designated residential, commercial and industrial areas throughout the county.

In a statement last week, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chair Sharon Bulova hailed the move saying, “Permitting residential studios is an excellent way to provide more housing choices for our residents…providing efficiency apartments for our younger entry workers, for seniors and others who may not need or want a lot of space.”

The proposed amendment to the county’s zoning code would establish that such RSUs would include in-unit kitchen and bathroom, be no more than 500 square feet in size, and with no more than 75 such units on a given lot.

Such RSUs would serve the high-rent districts around Tysons Corner, in particular, as a viable option for workforce housing, being affordable and proximate to public transport – including the Metro’s new Silver Line – to accommodate the needs of a skilled labor force to meet the needs of the area.

The county board will hold its

first public hearing on the subject on Nov. 19 at 4 p.m., according to current plans. Contention is most likely to come from concerns for the allowable locations of such “urban model” housing, and whether or not the ordinance would permit the conversion of a single family home into multiple RSUs. That issue ran afoul of conflict on the county board last week and was left unresolved.

“The RSU amendment was prompted by a number of county efforts to address the issue of affordable housing for all income populations,” Bulova said in her statement. “Specifically, the proposed use is consistent with the Board’s efforts with regard to ending homelessness, facilitating the 50-Plus Plan that will accommodate the area’s aging single population, and increasing affordable housing for a workforce earning less than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI).”

Asked to comment on the proposal, Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields told the News-Press that such units are already not prohibited in the City’s zoning code and that a handful have been approved for inclusion in large-scale mixed use projects that are dominated by one, two and three-bedroom apartments.

However, the option has been maintained very much on the “down low,” perhaps because City Hall fears that single family residential home owners would object to a growing number of this “urban model” of housing.

On the other hand, the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce has often reflected the concerns of its business members that there is not enough affordable housing proximate to their businesses to allow their employees to live near where they work.

In order to afford housing, they complain, their employees often have to commute at great distances. The same concern has also been expressed regarding City and school employees. As real estate values are now shooting back up in this well-heeled region, the cost of the kind of housing stock currently available here will become more and more price prohibitive, even while the demographic trend in the region is toward greater racial, ethnic and income diversity.

Then there is the case of those who grew up in Falls Church, went through the school system, who upon completing college discover they can’t come back to their home town because they can’t afford to live here.

Studies by the Falls Church Housing Corporation have shown that, through redevelopment alone, the City may lose all of its currently-qualifying “affordable housing” options. While the severely under-funded Housing Corporation focuses its efforts on retaining some of them, it was crippled by the 2010 City Council decision to torpedo a decade-long effort to construct a modest senior affordable housing project.

A solution may be to encourage, in the commercial area development planning now underway at City Hall, developers to build projects loaded with RSUs. Such projects would be like senior housing, but not limited to seniors. They would be like workforce housing, but appealing mostly to retirees and young singles and couples getting their careers off the ground before moving to larger homes for raising their families.

How the process begins to play out in Fairfax County this fall may be important, if not critical, to the future sustainability of Falls Church.