Local Commentary

Editorial: Affordable Housing Solution: Micro Units

The Broadfalls Apartments tenant-management meeting hosted by the Falls Church Housing Commission this week (reported elsewhere in this edition) underscores the glaring housing crisis that faces Falls Church and the entire region. The aging facility with its 113 rental apartments and seven ground floor retail units in the 700 block of W. Broad Street is aging fast, and its management company simply isn’t willing to pour the resources into it to do some fundamental repairs while continuing to raise the rents.

The City’s dwindling stock of affordable housing options, which its Housing and Human Services Division predicted half a decade ago was on the brink of extinction (due to rising rents and tear-downs), is indeed rapidly disappearing. The units at the Broadfalls house respectable, employed citizens who make important contributions to the community, but cannot afford the rental rates elsewhere in town.

In fact, in neighboring Fairfax County, when “Housing Choice” subsidies under Section 8 are provided, they no longer permit renters to supplement the subsidized amount with their own money to afford what’s available in this area. Without that, their options are restricted to the outlying, poorest areas of the county, adding to the transportation burden for anyone who works in this area.

The days when Fairfax County committed a full penny on its real estate tax rate to affordable housing went the way of the last great recession. Ironically, while the recession destroyed more robust affordable housing plans, it also plunged many more people into the need for it. Now, as the regional economy stalls out, the problem is becoming truly severe.

Our solution calls for a return to how this same problem was handled during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when into the pours of urban centers around the U.S., a new form of housing was introduced. For want of a better term, it can be called “micro unit housing.”

These are entire buildings with nothing but small efficiency-sized units in the range of 350-400 square feet. Thousands of them can be included in one project, and they offer the prospect of affordable housing with or without government subsidies.

The City of Falls Church could provide all the affordable housing needs for the entire community with one such large housing project that would need little or even no subsidy from the government, just a thumbs up from the City Hall bureaucracy. A church could offer a discount on property for such a project to a developer on condition that it be used for such a purpose.

In fact, Falls Church could set a shining example by such an undertaking that would resonate nationwide. There would no doubt be the usual naysayers, but with the government minimally involved, there would be little recourse to something approaching a “by right” project.

It would be a mix of workforce, senior and income-deficient housing and like the 1930s, it would be a solution to the only other option over time, Hoovervilles.