Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Can the Little City Be YIMBY Instead of NIMBY?

By Letty Hardi

As we celebrate Welcoming Week in Falls Church, I have been reflecting on how we can truly be “welcoming to all.” Welcoming Falls Church, a terrific grassroots organization of big-hearted citizens, has been leading the way with speakers, dinners, and service opportunities — sparking important community conversations and encouraging action. As a first generation immigrant, this cause has been close to my heart. When we talk about Falls Church’s values of being welcoming and inclusive, it’s not just a moral statement for me — it’s part of my personal story that has shaped my work ethic, ideals, and priorities.

I was five years old when my family immigrated to the United States — as many immigrants and refugees do, seeking better opportunity. I took the required ESL classes in San Francisco public schools until I could prove my English was good enough. My parents worked multiple, long-hour jobs and took English classes of their own, so I was the latchkey kid who went home to our basement apartment after school. No one drove me to after school enrichment programs, sports practices, or helped me with my homework. Eventually my parents took the gamble to become small business owners and worked long enough to save up for a down payment for a two bedroom townhouse in the suburbs. We then moved to Northern Virginia in the 90s when housing prices had not yet skyrocketed.

As I think about how I got from that first basement apartment my parents rented to the home I own today — besides a lot of hard work and sacrifice by my parents, I am indebted to my public education from kindergarten to college and the types of housing in which I spent my childhood — both giving me a secure, equitable start in the U.S. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I continue to be amazed at my privilege today given my much more modest upbringing.

I wonder whether future families with a similar story as mine will have the same opportunity. And I fear they won’t if we don’t open our hearts and eyes — first acknowledging our privilege and then recognizing we all have the power to do more.

Falls Church is uniquely positioned to give everyone a fair chance, regardless of where you come from, because of our progressive ideals. This community has proven that we are willing to invest in public education — from the new high school we are building to the families with kids who have long graduated, yet willing to pay it forward. Our small, intimate school system is stellar as a result of this social contract. With academic performance closely tied to socioeconomic status, many of our kids will be just fine. But what about the rest of our community? Kudos to my School Board colleagues and Superintendent for acknowledging that we have gaps to close with our economically disadvantaged and non-English speaking student population. Given our track record, I know we’re up to the task.

As for housing — we have a bigger challenge. National wages haven’t kept pace with rents and home prices. Housing affordability and shortages are serious issues that could undermine the region’s future economic health and prosperity. The latest Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments report finds that the region needs 374,000 additional housing units by 2030. We feel the market forces acutely here in Falls Church because we are a desirable place to live with top-notch schools, convenient location, walkable suburban-urban hybrid, and unique community character — all driving up housing prices.

Every year, it means more are priced out of Falls Church and we risk becoming more homogeneous. For a new immigrant, a recent college graduate, a teacher, a police officer, or a fixed income retiree — it’s difficult to afford to live here. For all the talk about walls in the national rhetoric, when will we realize the invisible wall of housing costs around our city is growing? The diversity — racial, socioeconomic, and generational — that we espouse and value is at risk.

Housing is not purely a social equity issue of the haves and have-nots. Economic development, workforce hiring and retention, transportation, unsustainable sprawl, and the environment are all interconnected with housing. As such, government and citizens can play a big role. In Falls Church, we have started by expanding our tax relief program for low income and disabled seniors, so our most vulnerable can afford to age in place. We continue to negotiate affordable units in every new development and have extended their affordability periods from 20 years to perpetuity.

There is no silver bullet, but as leaders, we need political courage to be open-minded to new solutions. There is a national movement of housing zoning reforms and while exotic, we should learn what can apply in Falls Church. We need to be open to the idea of more housing and different housing. We can consider zoning that would allow more diverse housing types like cottages, microunits, accessory dwellings, condos; a reliable funding source to create more workforce and affordable housing; creative policies to incent the preservation of smaller single family homes; and address existing communities so we don’t lose what’s already here. As citizens, it is natural to be fearful of changes to our neighborhoods. But if thoughtfully tackled with the shared goal of being “welcoming to all” in mind, instead of NIMBY — can we turn into a community of YIMBY?

We are a Little City with big hearts, and we have a choice to turn those big hearts into truly welcoming arms.

Letty Hardi is a member of the Falls Church City Council.