By Allison Brown and Hal Lippman
For decades our City has faced a severe shortage of affordable housing – a situation that became even more troubling given the current racial reckoning and lack of diversity in Falls Church. Prompted by this confluence of past history and present developments the League of Women Voters-Falls Church and Citizens for a Better City recently organized and held three public forums.
How We Got Here: In the first forum, panelists explained that over the decades, Falls Church City citizens had organized in support of projects to increase affordable housing. Yet, other citizens opposed these efforts, leading to the failure of numerous proposed projects over the years and exacerbating the shortage. Panelists also emphasized that some investments made over the years are coming to the end of their lives. A key example is The Fields, which is currently the City’s largest stand-alone affordable apartment building, with 96 units.
Recent Developments: Our City has experienced a number of encouraging developments in the last year – the focus of the second forum. Recent building approvals will add more than 60 affordable apartments in the next three years and affordable apartments in the Founders Row and Broad and Washington projects will be “permanently affordable,” rather than time-limited, per previous practice.
The City obtained a $3.75 million Amazon grant that will be used to preserve existing affordable units in the Reed building and support home ownership opportunities. It also purchased several quadplex properties in Virginia Village, which will preserve their affordability and could facilitate the building of a dedicated affordable housing development on that site in the future. Finally, the City has acted to facilitate affordable housing projects by allocating $100,000 into its Affordable Housing Fund in 2021 and budgeting another $100,00 for next year.
What Lies Ahead: In the third forum the discussion indicated that the City needs to be proactive in its affordable housing efforts, with zoning and planning changes, as well as dedicated funding, being critical.
Zoning and Planning: Panelists pointed out that most land in our City is designated for single family development, which encourages large houses that are out of reach financially for most people. In fact, panelists asserted, local officials initially created these zoning restrictions to preserve racial segregation. Yet, these restrictions remain. They cited the need to enact changes to our land use plans and zoning codes, for example, to allow multi-family homes in areas that are now zoned single family and to ease restrictions on accessory dwelling units.
Additionally, panelists said making affordable housing a priority in the planning process is important, pointing out that the City has recently updated its Comprehensive Plan and Affordable Living policy. Near-term work, they added, must ensure that site plans include policy goals for affordable housing; such as in the case of the forthcoming Eastern Gateway (Seven Corners) project. Also mentioned were changes to the planning process to provide regulatory relief for any standalone affordable housing project, which could result in an increase in the hundreds of units.
Funding: Multiple panelists emphasized the need for a long-term, dedicated funding stream; for example, by allocating some of the $18 million the City has already received from federal and state recovery and relief legislation. Other nearby local jurisdictions, panelists added, have created dedicated affordable housing funding in different ways. Arlington puts money into its affordable housing investment fund every year and Alexandria implemented a meals tax in 2019, which has raised millions of dollars for this purpose.
Strategies for Increasing Diversity: Panelists highlighted several strategies to ensure that housing policy initiatives bring more racial and economic diversity to our City. Providing affordable units targeted on lower income households (40-60% of area median income), should be a key part of any such strategy. Pointing out that our City is the least racially diverse community in the region, panelists emphasized the importance of changing its policy of prioritizing allocation of affordable units to those who live and work here. Preserving existing housing stock, including small single-family homes, panelists added, should also be part of our strategic thinking.
Conclusion: The City of Falls Church is growing and changing and affordable housing opportunities are a key part of promoting this growth and managing change in a sustainable way. At the same time, the legacy of its early history of segregation and long-term failure to respond to affordable housing needs have been leading factors in its being the least racially diverse community in the region. In effect, to continue to meet the challenges of sustaining growth and promoting a more economically and racially diverse community, a significant expansion of affordable housing opportunities in our City is essential.
Allison Brown is President of the LWV-Falls Church, Hal Lippman is President of CBC.