Attention to Housing Issues Set to Occupy F.C. Leaders This Summer

THE PLANNING COMMISSION discusses housing policy Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)

While the issue of adequate housing in the City of Falls Church is not being addressed in the next fiscal year operating budget slated for adoption by the City Council this Monday, the subject has come up frequently in Council meetings with the promise that it will be addressed quickly through modifications to the City’s Comprehensive Plan.

The City’s Planning Commission took a big step in that direction at its meeting this week, identifying proposed strategies, operating principles, proposed actions, and measurable steps aimed at inching toward the revival of a program that was effectively killed in the City when the Council finally torpedoed years of tortured efforts at the building of an affordable rental housing building here in 2010.

The ambitions of the City have diminished to almost zero since then. Not only is there no money in a City affordable housing fund, but $2 million that had been there to be combined with state and federal money for the proposed 2010 project was removed and put back in the general fund.

Now, baby-step, limited efforts to set aside funding to hopefully preserve one of the new affordable housing locations in the City, The Fields, a 96-unit residential property on Ellison Street in the City, is currently enjoying an incentive from the City, in the form of tax credits, to remain affordable. But that deal expires in 2026, and the City is looking for ways to set aside $2.5 million by then to contribute to an extension of that, or a similar, arrangement beyond 2026.

But that rear-guard option does not address the need for a considerable amount of new affordable housing to meet the demands presented by the veritably exploding population growth in the City, an annual growth rate of 2.6 percent that has brought it to almost 15,000, which translates into the need for 650 to 720 new housing units every five years, based on recent trends.

Nancy Vincent, head of the City’s Housing and Human Resources department, told the Planning Commission Monday that currently, even with The Fields deal, that only 27 percent of existing housing in the City is deemed affordable for households at or below the median area income. The percentage should be close to 50 percent, she said.

Doubling down on this is the fact that median area income levels are higher here than almost anywhere else in the U.S., meaning that households with incomes which otherwise would be adequate to maintain a decent quality of life simply cannot afford the housing component of their monthly costs.

Vincent said the City has been going “backwards” on these matters in recent years. “You have to ask what kind of community we want to have,” she said. “Shall it be inclusive with a range of housing options so that people retiring can stay in their homes and people who grew up here can afford to move here? We have to keep the supply of housing growing.”

The Planning Commission deliberations on the subject — only four of the seven members were present due to the fact the meeting was held during Spring Break week — centered on options that include not only money, but regulatory incentives to encourage builders to invest profitably in the types of housing products that would be more affordable to more people.

Commissioner Rob Puentes said the housing situation is “a looming crisis.”

The proposed strategies developed by the City’s Planning Department and presented Monday by its Planning Director Paul Stoddard, call for prioritizing the development of residences for “all household compositions and incomes.”

It also called for tightening current regulations that incentivize the teardown of existing residences and their replacement with much larger, expensive homes.

It adds as a third priority an increase in the supply of affordable housing (plans for The Fields would not qualify here, since they would be focused solely on keeping existing housing).

It adds as a goal “to ensure a range of housing, especially for seniors and persons with disabilities,” and then, “to ensure that housing does not discriminate.”

The policy draft, which will come to the City Council for a final approval as a modification to the City’s Comprehensive Plan this summer, has examples of “discrete, measurable steps” to move forward. They include:

• Establish multiple income tiers for rental affordable dwelling units,
• Restart the first time home buyer program,
• Relax restrictions on accessory dwelling units,
• Strengthen protections for historical structures,
• Formally recognize civic associations, and
• Establish requirements for universally accessible housing units.

Stoddard suggested there may be a trade-off between the value derived from tear downs and the costs associated with a greater volume of housing. He said it is a matter of “what people want.”

Commissioner Lindy Hockenberry said that the City should expect more younger people looking to come and live here, and Puentes added that “if you want the City to look different, you have to change the underlying rules.”

Stoddard said it is a “good thing” that “people want to live here, but that with the focus on tear downs under City rules now, there is no net new housing as a result.”

No mention was made of the so-called “micro units,” up to 100 of them, that the prospective developers of the 10.3 acre west end development want to build.

More attention was given to the idea of “accessory dwelling units” that individual homeowners can build onto their existing properties. Stoddard noted that the City technically permits such things, but under restrictive provisions.

These are units often called “granny flats” that people can build as additions to their existing homes and that can be used to accommodate additional family members, like grandmothers, or rented to students or others seeking lower income housing options.

Resistance to this as a matter of policy come from homeowners, more generally, who view them as a threat to neighborhoods and home values, although if they were allowed more readily, the effect would be an increase in property values for those who built them.

Commission chair Russ Wodiska said he is concerned about the City “becoming homogenized” and therefore in need of policies to encourage more diversity, and Stoddard said that proposed regulatory actions “should be palatable to the majority of the City,” and commented that the Planning Commission’s input on the subject constitutes “fairly progressive ideas” that may face “some community pushback.”