“Across the country, the current stock of both market and committed affordable rental housing is at risk due to a competitive housing market, increasing costs of construction, restrictive zoning codes and profit-focused developers. Overcoming these obstacles necessitates intervention,” said a new report from the National Housing Trust unveiled to an online meeting of the Falls Church City Council and other local entities this Monday night.
At its work session Monday, the City Council joined with other City boards and commissions to review a National Housing Trust set of 11 recommendations for reviving an effective affordable housing policy, ending a decade of practical inaction in the City. The Council heard a report from the Trust and the Federal City Council, retained to complete a study by the City’s Housing Commission, that included recharging an affordable housing fund and establishing changes in single family housing zoning to allow for the construction of “accessory dwelling units,” also known as “granny flats,” in residential neighborhoods, an idea that won favor with most of the Council members present.
Recommendations also included a provision for an annual contribution to an Affordable Housing Fund, a dedicated portion of tax revenues to such a fund, a direct cash contribution to the fund by developers in lieu of providing a percentage of new units as affordable, the application for Virginia’s new $75 million so-called “Amazon REACH” funds for affordable housing in the region. It was particularly stressed that the City’s leadership must win over the citizenry of the benefits of new affordable housing because it helps spur the economy and also address the community’s values of diversity and equity.
“We are going to have to sell a new more robust policy on the idea that we are a community for all the people,” said Council member Letty Hardi, who has been a driving force behind the new revival.
She added that a new policy coheres with the recent thrust for social justice as “allowing more affordable housing is a tangible way to do more” in that area.
The work session included members of the City Council, Planning Commission, Housing Commission, Human Services Advisory Council and Economic Development Authority.
Priorities included a strategy for retaining the 96 affordable units in The Fields, a housing complex that currently provides affordable units based on a subsidy agreement with the City buy that is due to expire within the next decade. Introduced for the first time was the notion of exchanging a zoning change that would permit the owners of The Fields a special exception to a more dense development of their property in exchange for keeping 96 units there now as affordable.
Council member Phil Duncan told the News-Press after the meeting, “I have a lot of thoughts about housing affordability, why we must address this issue more aggressively and how we can do so in a fiscally responsible manner,” and he said “it was encouraging to hear everyone on the Council praise the National Housing Trust report and the several clear ‘to do’ policy options for preserving our existing affordable housing stock and adding new supply.”
As the City has “consistently shown a positive, can-do attitude about meeting big challenges, now we need to boldly and thoughtfully address housing affordability and simultaneously, stormwater management, and I’m hopeful we’ll pull the community together and make progress on both,” he said.
“For there to be real progress towards this goal, City staff must continue to educate and garner genuine buy-in and commitment to affordable housing from both the City Council and residents,” the report stated.
It is notable in this context that all three candidates running for the open seat on the City Council on Nov. 3, vacated by the death of Councilman Dan Sze in July, have made the need for affordable housing front-burner issues in their campaigns. Debbie Hiscott, Joshua Shokoor and Simone Pass Tucker have made the issue a primary focus of their campaigns, and as a member of the Housing Commission, Shokoor was in the meeting Monday and spoke up on behalf of crafting short, medium and long-term policies to address the need.
In light of efforts in Montgomery County, Maryland, by the elected officials there to adopt an accessory dwelling unit policy, and the strong resistance that it met from some citizens, the National Housing Trust report stressed the need to win over the public on the idea as a measure that can allow homeowners and ability to remain in their homes.
“A financial barrier often stops homeowners from constructing accessory homes. Providing incentives to homeowners who agree to designate an accessory home as affordable can include waivers for permitting fees, property tax abatements, or low-interest loans. The financial impact of these incentives is far lower than the cost to subsidize affordable housing through other existing programs.”