Local Commentary

Editorial: Affordable Living’s Boost in Fairfax

As part of a sweeping revamp of its zoning code, Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors Tuesday made a major revision in its conditions for homeowners to add secondary living units on their properties. It marked a major step forward for advocates of affordable housing in the region, and hopefully the City of Falls Church will follow suit quickly.

According to Jeff McKay, chair of the Fairfax Board, the changes to the “affordable living units” (ALU) provisions in the code make it so that they “allow people to house additional residents in their existing home while still adhering to County regulations, so long as no exterior changes to the home are made and parking can be accommodated.”

He explained in a Tuesday release, “With our previous ordinance, permitting for ALUs was financially unobtainable for most people, costing over $16,000 a permit, and only allowed with residents over the age of 55.” But the change to the county zoning ordinance now “allows residents the flexibility to make changes within their own home, while protecting neighborhoods, simplifying the process, and lowering the cost.”

As a result, he said, “Homeowners take on tenants to offset their mortgage, or help them earn some extra income during hard times. To be approved, a homeowner must reside at the property with an ALU, they may not be distant landlords. ALUs will also be important to meeting our affordable housing goals because increased housing availability helps lower the cost of housing.”

This follows a similar move taken in Montgomery County, Maryland, last year. While the board there was 100 percent for it, it was over the very noisy, organized opposition of residents claiming to represent single family homeowners who argued, essentially, that such an option would ruin their neighborhoods and destroy their property values.

In fact, studies have shown that the opposite is the case. In well run communities that allow ALU’s, the addition of a second living unit on a property results in an appreciation of property values, not the opposite.
Still, while McKay puts the reference to affordable housing at the end of his explanation for the new policy, for many affordable housing advocates in Falls Church it belongs right at the top. This is a win-win way of bringing new households into the City at a fraction of the rents they might otherwise have to pay even for a studio or small one bedroom apartment.

Actually, you see, opponents to this ALU policy are more likely to be multi-unit residential developers, who could see ALU driving down the value of their units. But there is room for a multitude of options that will make for a more diverse and interesting community that will be able to enjoy higher quality services because good employees of local businesses will be able to afford to live here and be part of the community.