By Joshua Shokoor
While the physical landscape of the City of Falls Church has been reshaped by development, so have the demographics of its residents, especially how they are housed. Since 2009, presumably in reaction to the collapse of the housing market and a subsequent reluctance of developers willing to produce homeownership opportunities, there has been a doubling of rental units in the City, while homeownership units have remained static.
As of 2015, according to the Census Bureau, there were 2,135 occupied rental units in the City, and 3,031 occupied homeownership units. Absent of updated information related to the developments that have been completed since the last American Community Survey (ACS), when accounting for the West Broad and Tinner Hill complexes, which are close to entirely occupied, one can infer that renters may already make up a majority of Falls Church residents. Even when not including these recently finished projects, the transformation from a small town of homeowners to an urbanized community composed of mostly renters is on track to occur within the next decade. This prediction is based on the future development of mixed-use buildings that are currently in the pipeline and others that are being discussed (Broad and Washington, Mason Row, and the designated commercial land for the school development project).
At first glance, what these figures indicate may not be easily determined, but after weighing them against “cost-burdened” statistics, a concerning analysis unfolds. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), defines the term “cost-burdened” as households that spend over 30 percent of their income on housing, and in the City, over 40 percent of renters fall into this category. This figure is contrasted by the 25 percent of homeowners in the City that are “cost-burdened.” The act of only producing unequitable and unaffordable housing units demonstrates a departure from a small town comprised of financially invested stakeholders, with a strong desire to be more inclusive. However, by no means is this isolated to the City. Rather, it is representative of the current housing trends taking place across the nation.
As residents of the City of Falls Church, we know that our real estate and rental prices are some of the highest in the region, and our household median income ranks second in the nation. We also understand a higher than average income, doesn’t qualify one as rich or wealthy when adjusting for this area’s cost of living. The property taxes alone in the City of Falls Church have discouraged potential residents and motivated former residents to move to neighboring localities. With these widely established facts in mind, it should not be difficult to comprehend the economic hardships that lower income families face in Falls Church and the region. So, in an attempt to solidify the credibility of the progressive and altruistic sentiments we publicly espouse, we should analyze our motives in building a community, making it successful, protecting it, and then shutting it out to others.
With no new market rate homeownership developments in sight, and a dwindling stock of affordable rental units, we are looking at a community that prices out older residents, younger residents returning to the City they grew up in, and prospective residents who are enticed by a quality school system and unique amenities (walkability, safety, and high citizen engagement). It doesn’t have to be this way.
We can increase our stock of affordable rental units, by urging our elected officials and city management to negotiate a higher rate of affordable rental units per every new development in the City. Currently, our only gains in affordable rental units occur when six-percent of all units in a new development are designated as affordable, with a varying area median income (AMI) threshold. There is no reason why this number should not be negotiated at a rate of eight or 10 percent for every new development. This will enable the City to provide more affordable workforce housing to our teachers, police officers, retail employees, and government workers. Fostering a close and reliable community is important to us, and encouraging City employees to live where they work accomplishes this. We can also review our zoning laws, and adjust them accordingly to allow for and incentivize accessory dwelling units to be constructed or reconfigured on privately owned land where single-family homes currently exist. With our imaginations, and policy ingenuity, we can establish housing units which are as inclusive as we strive to be.
If we are going to be a Little City where the majority of residents are renters, and the minority are homeowners, then homeowners should not be able to reap the benefits of renters’ lack of equity and infusion of revenue to the City, while not instituting policies that create more affordable rental units, reducing the risk of increasing the number of overall “cost-burdened” City residents.