Local Commentary

Editorial: Not McMansions, But ‘Granny Flats’

The inspiration for the now-famous Railroad Avenue Cottages in the City of Falls Church came in part from a housing solution developed during the Great Depression, that of low-cost bungalow clusters that became a huge fad in the greater Los Angeles area because they could be built for so little and the climate cooperated with an open-air feel of the units. Many a Hollywood movie was centered around a bungalow cluster in the 1930s and owning one, despite their small size and modest amenities, became very chic among the cultural elites of that time. Modern forms of such auxiliary units built on existing residential properties are called “Granny Flats.”

The Railroad Cottages are much more expensive, though more reasonable than the average single family home in Falls Church, and designed to be a “downsizing” option for the single family homeowners who are selling their properties for well over a million to developers who are constructing mega-mansions on them. The City already has more than 130 such mega-mansions, also known as “McMansions” in the spirit of mass-produced fast food, and more than 2,000 existing lots that could be converted in a similar manner.

Going that route, the City could become a tightly-framed assemblage of homes for the very rich, without serious regard for the consequences. It is encouraging, in the face of this outcome, that the current F.C. City Council seems unhappy with such an inevitability, and is looking for ways to avert it.

The market will determine the need for more “micro unit” apartments in the style of the 100 or so that the EYA, Hoffman and Regency team is planning for the Little City Commons 10.3 acre project at the City’s West End.

Those units would also emulate developments in the 1930s, when Great Depression conditions severely restricted the kinds of housing people could afford, often after being forced out of their previous homes and farms due to foreclosures. They moved to big cities, and the one-room with sink and shared bath facilities sprung up.

Hopefully we are not facing another Great Depression, but there is a serious disconnect between the wealth accumulation of the super rich and the struggling households of most of the rest of us. The famous statistic is that 80 percent of the American public is one paycheck from the street.

This places Falls Church (and the nation as a whole, of course) at a very critical crossroad, and the small size of the Little City gives it the advantage of greater dexterity to address it. In the back rooms at City Hall this very day we hope diligent City employees are crafting zoning changes that the City Council will take up later this fall for the purpose of enabling City residential landowners to build small auxiliary dwelling units on their property.