Local Commentary

Affordable Housing In the Spotlight

It was hardly a pretty picture painted by the panel of Falls Church experts Sunday during an informative, if not so pretty, virtual presentation on the history of affordable housing advocacy efforts in the Little City. The panel, presented by the Falls Church chapter of the League of Women Voters and moderated by Citizens for a Better City (CBC) head Hal Lippman, accomplished its purpose of presenting a thorough, if sobering, look at the history up to the recent period in Falls Church.

We specify “up to the recent period” because there have been more positive achievements on this front, inclusive of Sunday’s panel, in the last 90 days than in perhaps any comparable period in the City’s history. Currently there is a “united front,” so it can be called, between the City Council with Letty Hardi in the lead and the Economic Development Authority, with local developer Bob Young as its proactive chair, and the City’s appointed Housing Commission, with young homegrown activist Joshua Shokoor in its lead, who all share a passion for uprooting the region’s long standing discriminatory housing practices.

Far from diminishing property values, it has been demonstrated in numerous cases across the U.S. that the opposite is true, in fact, because it is now being realized that augmenting a community with a robust representation of lower income households makes it more robust and interesting, and more able to retain a higher quality workforce for its classrooms, health services and retail options.

So recently the City obtained its first voluntary concession from the developer of a large-scale project for an affordable housing component in excess of 10 percent of its total rental units. Since the City’s official policy is still at 6 percent, this milestone, achieved for the Broad and Washington (the Whole Foods) site comes in advance of negotiations still to be had with other large scale projects. This development, along with the acquisition of Amazon grant funds and a truly extraordinarily swift action last month to obtain an affordable four-plex to add to the mix, suddenly put the City in the middle of a renaissance of affordable housing initiatives unseen here in over a decade.

Sunday’s forum featuring the likes of former one-term mayors Alan Brangman and Brian O’Connor, both still City residents, and housing activist Katie Emmons, recalled how zoning laws dating back to the post-World War II era were drafted explicitly to exclude lower income and racial minority families.

In 2011 the City Council ditched the last concerted effort, the so-called Wilden House plan that had, including with the help of U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, amassed over $10 million for a senior housing building near the center of town.

Constantly, the contending forces were between “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) obstructionists, on the one hand, and the challenge of sufficient political will by affordable housing advocates on the other. Up to now, the former had always won.