‘Residential Studio Units’ Now Being Mulled in Fairfax County

Northern Virginia is not immune from the well-documented growing gap between the rich and poor in the nation, and as the ranks of homeless continue to grow in the region – while Fairfax County’s lofty goal of dedicating a penny on the tax rate to affordable housing having long since gone by the wayside – an entirely new approach to low income housing has begun to catch hold.

Fairfax County has not hesitated to take up the controversial issue of allowing “residential studio units” in areas of the county that would provide affordable housing for the workforce expected to explode with the completion of the Silver Line through the highly dense Tysons Corner area, and also to address the wider needs for affordable housing and homelessness.

The county is exploring a change in its zoning to allow for the construction of housing of 500 square feet or less, even as little as 300 square feet, residences that go by various names, such as “micro-units,” or in the Fairfax County parlance, “Residential Studio Units” (RSUs).

They would take the form of “efficiency” units in an apartment complex, in the direction the county is now headed, and would require including separate bedroom, kitchen and bath spaces.

The county’s Planning Commission, which formed an ad hoc committee to explore the subject last fall, is due to receive a report and recommendation this spring, and when it has completed a study of the issues involved, will forward a recommendation to the county Board of Supervisors, probably later this year.

So what’s the biggest issue? It’s where to put them. Like any project having to do with expanding affordable housing, a matter of this type led to a storm of protest when first proposed as an ordinance last year from people worried that such a concept placed near their backyards would lead to crime and a plunge in their home values.

But it has been argued that the upsides far outweigh the downsides, including the fact that taxpayers will be liable for less to subsidize the traditional forms that affordable housing takes.

For those concerned about how new housing attracts young families and adding the burden of paying for the education of new children, RSUs would be too small to encourage family units, being barely large enough for two adults.

Fairfax County Supervisor Penny Gross said that among the benefits that such housing could provide are affordability, a means of transitioning the homeless into housing (such as through the services provided by Falls Church’s “Homestretch” program), providing housing for young women and men coming right out of college, and for older “empty nest” residents seeking to downsize their living quarters.

They can also be more efficient modes of housing for residents who might otherwise have group housing settings as their only option.

If they were permitted in the form of multi-unit complexes in Tysons Corner, for example, they could be located adjacent a variety of services, including grocery stores, and adjacent mass transit such that persons could live productive lives without such amenities as a car. In Tysons, they could provide a liveable option for legions of lower income service employees who would not have to take the extra time and expense to commute in from West Virginia or other outlying areas where the cost of living is cheaper.

The current RSU model under study in Fairfax does not include the use of such micro-housing for “granny flat” add-ons or other free-standing models to individual residences, but this is another efficient application being considered in jurisdictions across the U.S.

In the early years of the 20th century, such efficiency models were very widespread in the emerging urban centers. In those cases, a family bread winner could hold down a service job in a downtown area and send money home to a rural setting where his or her family lived.

In large apartment complexes composed of such tiny dwelling units, many were one room, only, with a sink, a small fridge and outlet for a hot plate and shared shower and toilet facilities “down the hall.”

Rent would be by the week or month, and as late as the 1970s, many went for $16 a week and up. Luxury for residents in such units often meant an upgrade to a unit with its own shower and bath.

RSU’s are an essential aspect of urbanization that are often hard for suburbanites to come to grips with as the urban model and lifestyle encroaches on them. However, they provide the opportunity for regions like Fairfax County to get ahead of growing problems like homelessness and shortages of less-skilled but essential labor, not to mention the fact that, increasingly for affluent regions, no housing is affordable even to entry-level college graduates.

So important to an area like what Tysons is slated to become, for example, the county is also considering special incentives for developers to build such housing.