Local Commentary

Achieving Racial Equity in F.C. Starts with Housing

By Multiple Authors

Last year, Falls Church updated its vision statement, declaring: “In the year 2040, the City of Falls Church is a welcoming and inclusive community.” In the midst of a national reckoning with systemic racism, it is clear that, despite our aspirations, this vision is far from our reality.

Research shows that the Washington, D.C. area is one of the least racially equitable and economically inclusive in the country. Within this region, Falls Church has the smallest share of black residents, and the second-lowest share of residents who are foreign-born. Conversely, Falls Church has the highest incomes and the highest share of white residents in the region.

How did this happen? And what can we do to work towards a more inclusive Little City? How can we channel the energy of our Black Lives Matter signs, our petitions, and our protest marches to learn from and redress the effects of past racist decisions here at home?

We don’t have all the answers. But we are publicly committing, as private citizens and as individual members of several elected and appointed boards and civic organizations, to doing this work.

Since the City’s inception, political and racial gerrymandering, as well as a set of entrenched policies, programs, and planning have excluded minority and low-income households.

Take housing and land use.

About two-thirds of the City of Falls Church is zoned for single family residential housing. After the Supreme Court deemed race-based zoning unconstitutional in 1917, this type of zoning emerged as one of several tools used by white communities to effectively enforce segregation. Visit the Tinner Hill Historic Site to learn how this played out locally.

Single family zoning excludes those who have not accumulated enough wealth to buy into these neighborhoods. Due to generations of structural racism, people of color are far less likely than white Americans to have accrued the wealth necessary to live in places like Falls Church. Nationally, in 2016 white households had a median net worth 10 times that of Black households and eight times that of Hispanic households.

Falls Church housing remains the most expensive in the region. Through our current practices, we have lost workforce housing or homes that are affordable to families that are not in the highest income brackets. Other cities are experimenting with granny flats, duplexes, tiny houses, and other forms of missing middle housing in place of single family homes. In contrast, Falls Church has the highest share of “very low intensity” developed land in the region.

We have also failed to provide low income affordable housing, a key opportunity for historically marginalized people. Due to market rate increases and the expiration of committed affordable units, Falls Church lost most of its affordable housing stock over the past decade, with more on the chopping block if nothing is done. The Fields of Falls Church, a largely Hispanic community, is the City’s last affordable housing property, with subsidies slated to expire in 2026. That’s 96 families with nowhere else to go in the City.

But we can change this together.

Ask City Council to charter a new Racial Justice Commission. It should be charged with identifying systemic barriers to racial equity across the City–from housing to transportation to more Black and Brown authors at the library–and advising leadership on how to root out those barriers.
Get involved with grass-roots organizations working on racial justice issues locally, such as the Social Justice Committee of Falls Church or Welcoming Falls Church.

Consider what you are willing to change to achieve a racially diverse community, because the status quo will not get us there. Changes in housing policy will require real trade-offs, with impacts on property taxes, services, and neighborhoods. In a resource-constrained world, how would you advise City Council to fund affordable housing? Could you imagine the next tear-down on your street being replaced with 4,000 square feet for two families instead of 4,000 square feet for one?

Urge City Council to expand our stock of truly affordable and workforce housing. Ask them to 1) allocate funds in the annual budget for affordable housing (currently $0 each year), 2) request a larger share of affordable units in new mixed-use developments, 3) support zoning changes that allow for alternatives to single family homes, such as granny flats or duplexes, and 4) thoroughly examine the City’s housing, building, and zoning codes to remove barriers to our vision of being an inclusive community.

Show up. Participate. Listen. Volunteer. Vote. We know that where children grow up has a profound impact on their health, education levels, and job prospects. Falls Church is a wealthy and privileged community. Let’s open our doors. That’s what it means to be welcoming and inclusive.

Andrea Caumont, Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation Chair; Letty Hardi, Councilmember; Erik Pelton, Economic Development Authority Vice Chair; Robert Puentes, Planning Commissioner; Joshua Shokoor, Housing Commission Member; Kathleen Tysse, Library Board of Trustees Member and 2019-2020 Elementary PTA President; Cory Weiss, Planning Commissioner and Andrew Young, Environmental Sustainability Council Chair