A quiet conflict is bubbling underneath the surface of Falls Church’s small-town civility.
Long-term, and occasionally, lifetime residents are entering old age and finding themselves pinched by the City’s escalating fiscal demands that run counter to these seniors’ often static budgets. To both the seniors experiencing the increased financial pressure and to the City government aiming to assist them, affordable housing and tax relief resolutions may be clear, but the path to get there is far from it.
That resolution is simple: help keep seniors in Falls Church. It works in the favor of the elderly citizens who intend to spend their remaining years in the community they helped build and the City has no objection to that. Diversifying the tax base among residents of varying age groups and economic statuses is preferred as it keeps Falls Church appealing to a range of people.
The City’s tax relief and deferment programs are a go-to option to take the edge off expenses for seniors. However, deferring can induce anxiety among residents who view the growing pot of back taxes as an unpaid bill (with interest), and relief programs can’t afford to be as generous as other jurisdictions due to Falls Church’s smaller population. In short, the programs do aid seniors, but they aren’t the cure.
A true remedy comes from a top-to-bottom affordable housing structure, though the steps taken to achieve such a development have received lukewarm support at best. The clock is ticking for all residents who fall below the City’s Area Median Income, especially the seniors who feel they’re dwelling on borrowed time.
“Falls Church is such a high-end place that [the City Council] doesn’t stop to think about lower income people who just barely make it from month to month,” Ruth Kaufman said. “There are good people that come from low income backgrounds and are trying to live on Social Security…or a pension, [but] the pension has to pay for medical needs, so anything left over is just nil.”
Even seniors with means are feeling the burden. Jack Gordon is a transplant from San Francisco who’s owned a condo in the Broadway of Falls Church since 2010. The Bay Area’s high property values and taxes seemed to follow Gordon east as the financial upkeep between his new home and his old one are near identical.
Lydia Gorman and Lois Eister have lived in Falls Church since their twenties and have paid off their homes, making the City’s taxation more manageable for them than most. Still, both acknowledge that Falls Church has gone from a middle class settlement to an upper-middle class enclave that lacks the sociability and affordability it once did, specifically in terms of housing.
“I’ve seen no signs that affordable housing is possible,” said one senior who requested anonymity as their involvement in this story could spark disputes with their landlord. “I’ve told a couple of people on the City Council that there are big demographic problems developing right now for housing people over 55. It’s really a crisis because we don’t know what to do.”
This challenge isn’t exclusive to Falls Church. It’s been a growing problem throughout the U.S. for the last decade as Baby Boomers have reached retirement age and began going on fixed incomes. But what is unique to the City is its tight space available to build an affordable housing project and the public aversion to the ripple effect they fear it would have on surrounding property values.
Currently, the City offers over 100 Affordable Dwelling Units (ADU’s) sprinkled throughout new and old developments in Falls Church with plans to add 150 more units by 2022. City Housing Program Analyst, Dana Lewis, explains that, while helpful, ADU’s aren’t a permanent solution to affordable housing as they are limited in supply and eventually time out. The notion of an affordable housing complex leaves residents aghast as stable development costs aren’t covered alone by the rents of would-be tenants, putting the onus on other residents to help bridge the gap. Asking residents to willingly up their tax load while potentially risking value on their homes is a tall order, which is why the City’s focused on commercially developing the area in order cajole tax-fatigued citizens into keeping their wallets open.
“We know that the costs of government go up over time. So you either tax people more or you grow the pie — more revenue from other sources,” Commissioner of Revenue Tom Clinton told the News-Press. “That’s what the encouragement of mixed-use is [attempting], to get more money from our tax base. Now, we’re only 2.3 square miles. We don’t have whole corridors we can revitalize like Fairfax County…[They] can make a mistake here or there; we can’t. With these projects, it is important that they appease the neighbors and generate additional revenue over their service cost.”
Some residents perceive the City’s development direction is more reactive than proactive, where the City bends to developers’ demands rather than having developers abide by pre-ordained guidelines. But Clinton contends that to win over developers in a competitive market and shed a reputation of being unfriendly toward business, Falls Church has to grant exceptions to developers so that the City can remain relevant in a commercial sense. As time wears on and as the commercial investments mature, the dividends are paid back to the community. In fact, the City has already witnessed returns and facilitated tax dispersion from its recent economic development.
Yet some older residents fear it’s not unfolding fast enough and current trends present serious roadblocks to the City’s end goals. Working-age professionals’ infatuation with mobility can make Falls Church into a pit stop until their children get an education. Furthermore, the growing influence of online retail and the propensity to work from home threaten to undercut prospective commercial and office development in the future, challenging the economic outlook for the City and feeding a higher resident turnover rate. For seniors relying on bonds with long-time neighbors to help champion the cause for affordable housing, a more transient citizenry puts their interests in jeopardy.
“We have some people that are very passionate for affordable housing, and then you have other people that probably won’t admit it, but don’t feel like subsidizing it,” Clinton continued. “It’s like any [public good] – it costs money and someone’s got to pay for it.”
The path to a satisfactory resolution continues to be out of reach. Ideally, commercial development will boom with revenue, lessen the tax burden on all residents and make people more willing to pony up for affordable housing. But the current situation isn’t remotely ideal. Just ask the seniors.