Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: A Housing Affordability Crisis in Northern Virginia

By City of Falls Church Housing Commission

Housing affordability has reached a crisis level in Northern Virginia and will only intensify with the anticipated economic and job growth that is expected to further accelerate over the next several years. Since 2012, the stock of affordable housing in the City of Falls Church has decreased drastically from 470 homes to 287 homes. The loss of 183 homes in only seven years is largely due to market-rate rentals becoming unaffordable. In short, Falls Church is simply too expensive for the average wage earner. Not only is affordable housing a moral obligation, it is essential for a local community’s social sustainability; to attract people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to live in close proximity to where they work in a range of professions, including teachers, school administrators, first responders, and local government employees.

As the City Council considers how best to address the affordable housing crisis within the City, the Housing Commission has identified policies and programs it believes will address the continuing decline of affordable housing in Falls Church. Specifically, the Housing Commission proposes the following:

1. Allocate funds to the Affordable Housing Fund. Currently, there is an estimated $300,000 in the Affordable Housing Fund In the past several years no new money has been budgeted for affordable housing in the City of Falls Church. The City’s Affordable Housing Fund (AHF) could be funded through additional property taxes, reallocation of the hotel and occupancy tax, or a modest increase in the meals tax. Possible uses of funds include: establishing a down payment assistance program, providing gap financing for an affordable housing development, and expanding the Falls Church Homeless Shelter. The City Council recently adopted guidance for the FY21 budget and, for the first time in many years, it directed the City Manager to fund affordable housing. There is no shortage of worthy causes, so let’s hope the amount funded will have a significant impact on addressing housing needs in the City.

2. Revise local zoning ordinance to allow for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADs). Allowing ADs on single-family properties will incentivize the provision of more affordable housing which will enable “aging in place” by allowing in-law suites or “granny flats,” and support the “missing middle” by providing rental options for persons entering the workforce for the first time and lower wage earners.

3. Prioritize Affordable Dwelling Units (“ADUs”) in negotiating voluntary concessions with multifamily market rate developers. Not only has the City lost 183 affordable housing units in the past seven years, but unless the City takes action, an additional 120 committed affordable units will be lost in the next eight years due to expiring affordability restrictions. Included in the expiring 120 committed affordable units is The Fields, a 96-unit development, which has affordability restrictions due to expire as early as 2026. The only way to ensure affordable housing in Falls Church is to impose affordability restrictions for an extended period of time (or for the life of the building, which the City has recently done). The Falls Church Affordable Living Policy recommends that all new multifamily developments set aside at least 6 percent of units as income-restricted affordable units. Even a 6 percent set-aside (which is not mandatory) will not replace the lost housing stock, let alone keep up with the increased demand. The City Council, in negotiating voluntary concessions with developers, should prioritize additional units (above 6 percent), with an emphasis on two-bedroom and three-bedroom units or homes affordable to families at lower wage levels.

This housing affordability crisis is not simply a problem for a few among us, but is a cause of anxiety for half of all renters and one-quarter of homeowners. It is a barrier to the City becoming the diverse and welcoming community we advocate for. By ignoring this problem, we are ignoring our neighbors, our children’s peers, teachers that want to live and be more invested in the City where they work, lifelong community engaged citizens who desire to age-in-place, and families attempting to escape poverty by breaking through the economic walls our City has built.

The Housing Commission believes the foregoing proposals are minimum steps that are highly achievable and will meaningfully address the most pressing issues of housing affordability facing the City. We urge the residents of Falls Church to contact their City Council members, share your stories with others in the community, and listen to others’ as well. Let them know your housing priorities and press them to act decisively and boldly before it is too late.

The City of Falls Church Housing Commission is comprised of Peter Davis, MT Gutmanis, Brenda Heffernan, Jordan Hicks and Joshua Shokoor. Members are apointed by the City Council for three-year terms.