2024-07-15 2:27 PM

Falls Church Forward Looks To Make F.C. an AARP Livable City

Last Sunday, the newly-formed Falls Church Forward held their first public event at the Falls Church Community Center, co-hosted by the Falls Church League of Women Voters and the Falls Church Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC). An estimated 75 persons attended, a far bigger turnout than organizers had anticipated.

 The program featured AARP Virginia Community Ambassador Jane King, who discussed AARP’s “Livable Cities” program, suggesting The Little City should seek recognition as one, and what changes might be necessary to qualify..

 Author and Falls Church local Pete Davis, one of the leaders of Falls Church Forward,” kicked off the event by introducing the group, a citizen group of activists advocating for the future of The Little City, and the five pillars of focus the organization has identified as foundational to a vibrant community: affordable and diverse housing, community businesses, people-first streets and spaces, climate resilience, and a welcoming culture.  

“The ticket to being a part of our city is being able to [afford] a house or a unit in our city.” said Davis of the first pillar while explaining how becoming an AARP Livable City aligns with the group’s advocacy work.

 King began her presentation by providing a brief overview of key Falls Church demographics related to her presentation: an extremely low 2 percent poverty rate, $147,000 median income, $811,000 median home value, and a commuter breakdown with over 60 percent driving alone to work. 

Community members break out into small groups to discuss how the Little City ranks across AARP’s “Livability Domains.” (Photo: Brian Reach)

 King explained that AARP’s Livable Cities program aims to make communities more livable and accessible for people of all ages and abilities.  There are currently 732 communities in AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities (NAFSC) across nine  states and one territory.  If the City of Falls Church were to be accepted, it would be the sixth AARP Livable City in Virginia, with nearby Arlington and Alexandria currently accepted, as well as Roanoke, Grayson County, and Albemarle County (Charlottesville) to the southwest. 

AARP rates communities across eight “Domains of Livability” across physical and social infrastructure: outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, civic engagement and employment, communication and information, respect and social inclusion, social participation, health and community services, and housing.  

Throughout the presentation, the program’s goals were introduced within the context of their alignment with the five pillars of Falls Church Forward.  Housing was identified as the most difficult barrier to overcome, which readers will likely agree is our biggest challenge as we look to the future.  According to AARP, an aging U.S. population combined with more seniors choosing to stay in their homes is creating a challenge for communities. 

 King added that investments should be made in early stages of development to, for example, ensure that outdoor spaces and buildings are accessible and safe for older residents.  “We’re looking at building codes, zoning, etc.,” he said of the variety of possible ways a community can accommodate seniors, “so as people hit their older years they can either stay in their homes or have someplace to live in the community.”

 This includes accessible and affordable housing, reliable transportation, walkable streets, and green spaces.  King also emphasized the importance of community engagement and the need to build a strong social fabric to support people in their later years, referencing a recent report that shows a loneliness epidemic sweeping the country with similar health effects to smoking.  “Loneliness can lead to death; it is that simple.”  King said.

After King’s presentation, the attendees were split into small groups to discuss and rate Falls Church in each of the domains.  Groups generally agreed on several points.  First, they love the culture of Falls Church and rated civic participation extremely high.  Second, the proximity of Falls Church to DC and highways was positive, but the ability to get around locally was negative, with narrow, blocked, or missing sidewalks criticized, and many suggesting bringing back “The George” shuttle of the past.

Though a brief detour, some invoked the dissatisfaction many had with the City’s communications during the T-Zone discussions over the winter.  Otherwise, communication was ranked highly, with the News-Press being mentioned as one factor.

 Most consistent, however, was the extremely low ranking of housing affordability and diversity.  Between a lack of inventory, eye-popping home sale prices, soaring inflation, and an already high cost of living, most feel the city has become too expensive for most families to live in.  One noted that most current residents likely purchased their homes for a small fraction of their current value, and speculated that current rates would have kept many out. 

 Another mentioned that, though smaller units are technically becoming available, they are mostly extremely expensive rentals.  Most expressed strong disinterest in transitioning from owning to renting, with many uninterested in leaving their homes at all.  “Could the city set up a grant fund to make [existing] houses more accessible?” asked one resident, an idea that organizers said was worth considering. 

 The AARP Livable Cities program provided a framework for discussing the community’s future, and created an opportunity for residents to voice opinions about how to make Falls Church a more livable, equitable, and inclusive community.  The impressive turnout showed how dedicated our residents are to the Little City being inclusive in a big way, and made it clear that Falls Church Forward has tapped into a desire among residents to be more proactively involved in the decision-making process.

 Falls Church Forward will need to engage with residents and city government further to pursue inclusion as one of AARP’s Livable Cities.  This includes exploring solutions to make housing more affordable and diverse, improving local transportation options, increasing green spaces, and perhaps even establishing endowment funds to prioritize shared values moving forward.  This meeting was an excellent step towards expanding the livability of Falls Church for people of all ages and backgrounds.

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