Local Commentary

Editorial: Development & Affordable Housing

Two public events in the City of Falls Church last weekend underscored a creeping sense of urgency associated with the future direction of the jurisdiction as we’re into the annual budget season, on the one hand, and regional pressures are impinging. The first was the five-hour planning session the City Council held in the Jefferson Elementary School library that included an invitation to participate that almost two dozen citizen leaders of volunteer advisory boards and commissions responded to. The second was a F.C. League of Women Voters forum on Sunday at the Community Center on how revenue is generated in the City to pay for things. It was also more heavily attended than expected for a bright weekend day.

While a lot of things were put on the table, our take-away centered on two ends of a wider socio-economic spectrum – the pressure for continued economically-driven development, on the one hand, and the need for a serious consideration of the affordable housing question on the other.

The word is going around Falls Church now that the City is in a pickle because the real estate taxes in neighboring Arlington are so much lower than in Falls Church, even as the City Council may be pressured to raise its rates here again this spring. It was notable in the Council planning session that “keeping the tax rate low” was not listed by any Councilman as a priority for the coming two years, and that may be because the simple answer to the Arlington comparison is to suggest citizens take a closer look at Arlington, and see the incredible density of commercial and retail that it has engendered over the years. That is the straightforward answer to the Arlington question, and in Falls Church this may mean that current height limits, at least in selected parts of town, may need to go considerably higher than considered feasible so far.

This goes for the City’s recently acquired campus property, the added 36 acres that is supposed to go mostly for new school facilities. There is no reason, other than what the market will bear, for any height limit to be observed there, at all, especially next to the West Falls Church Metro station.

On the affordable housing question, this is no longer simply an issue of altruistic good will. It is an absolute necessity for the government’s charge to serve the needs of its people. At the Council planning session, a survey of City staff showed the prevailing opinion that the City’s worst performance is in the area of affordability issues. Yet, no one on the Council listed it as a priority, until near the very end of the marathon session.

The affordable units now available at one of the City’s two new mixed use projects are flat-out unaffordable. Open to households with 80 percent of median regional incomes, their asking prices are astronomical. Affordability issues are flatly a question of political will.