F.C. Council Slowly Begins to Take On Dire Affordable Housing Shortage

Falls Church’s Senior Planning Director Paul Stoddard (left) presented a draft of portions of the Comprehensive Plan update to the F.C. City Council Monday night. City Manager Wyatt Shields is to the right. (Photo: News-Press)

Monday’s work session of the Falls Church City Council became a little testy when Councilman Dan Sze challenged an otherwise innocuous proposed update to the City’s Comprehensive Plan for not taking into account adequate ways to achieve a lot more affordable housing over the next 20 years.

Sze announced he’d not be supporting a proposed projection showing that the City would have a housing stock mix reflecting uncommonly high regional median income numbers and not taking into account the cost burden on the entire community of major projected increases in affordable housing demand. It caught the City Planning Department director Paul Stoddard a bit off guard.

But it reflected some of the difficulties caused tackling intellectual compartmentalization of City values, needs and goals resulting in disconnects between demographic, income projections and housing need factors.

While some lip service to affordable housing began to arise among a certain number on the Falls Church City Council in the recent period, there was no new money for the City’s Affordable Housing fund in the budget that goes into effect on July 1. In addition, the sum held in the account a decade ago — over $2 million — is almost entirely gone (estimated at $200,000 now), while the number of housing units deemed affordable by current formulas have been in steep decline in the last decade. For the lower income households, the total number is now at 244 out of over 5,000 total dwelling units in the City.

A local developer told the News-Press this week that he took a proposal for building some affordable housing to City Hall recently, and found “there was no interest, none at all,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the City Planning Department, revisions to the Comprehensive Plan continue to be focused on places where incentives might work, for things such as accessory housing units (small secondary dwellings on existing housing properties to allow for inlaws to move in, or for rental to college students or lower income persons).

The draft Comprehensive Plan includes, for example, proposed strategies that “incentivize the maintenance and provision of more workforce, moderate and low income housing, increases entry-level home ownership opportunities, supports ‘aging in place’ and relaxes development regulations to allow for a wider variety of housing types.”

It projects that while today, 27 percent of the existing housing supply is deemed affordable for households at or below the area median income, that number will rise to 45 percent by 2045, when the City’s population is expected to grow above the 20,000 level.

It was noted by Del. Marcus Simon, speaking to the joint monthly luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce and Greater Merrifield Business Association this Tuesday, that while the impact on population numbers of the Amazon HQ2 in Crystal City may not be that significant for a number of years, it is still immediately impacting the real estate market.

That’s because property owners here are now unwilling to part with their holdings on the hopes that they will appreciate in value over the next years as Amazon completes its construction and begins hiring what will eventually be as many as 25,000 new employees, some earning $150,000 a year or up.

So, the Amazon development is already driving up real estate values, according to Simon, as the region experiences a housing shortage caused by property owners who might normally have entered the market simply sitting on their hands.

In the proposed “vision” statement of the housing chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, the reference to strengthening the City’s “small town character” drew a lot of comment from the Council, asking what the term actually means in the context of projected housing needs.

“What little diversity we have now will be going out the window if our affordable housing stock continues to decline,” Councilman Phil Duncan offered.

Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly added that issues of affordable housing need to be addressed more practically, and not as vague goals. “We need to ask the question about what incentivizing or subsidizing specific affordable housing options will cost,” she said. “I, for one, am happy to contribute to making affordable options available, but I don’t know what that cost actually might be.”

Council member Letty Hardi said that there is a need to address the housing requirements of the “missing middle” of working families that have to live 45 to 60 miles away to afford their dwellings.

Finding more ways to provide affordable housing should become a priority for the City in the next one to three years, she said.

On transportation issues for the City, it was noted that 20 percent of all automobile trips taken are less than one mile, and alternative modes need to continue to be developed to take more and more of those short trips out of the traditional gas-driven vehicle mode and into walking, biking and battery-operated modes.

A public forum on the proposed Comprehensive Plan, overall, will be held on Saturday, June 8, and the Council is expected to take final action of proposed revisions to the plan on July 22.