2024-07-22 12:17 PM

A Penny for Your Thoughts – News of Greater Falls Church: June 27 – July 3, 2024

The house I grew up in had three bedrooms and one bathroom, a wood stove for heat, a wringer washer for laundry, and a long double clothesline in the backyard for drying. Lilacs and camellias were in the front yard, a peach tree, rhubarb, and loganberries in the back. The square footage of the house was slightly under 1200 square feet, larger than the Levitt-style bungalows of the 1950s, but smaller than the 1970 average of 1500 square feet. Today, the average size of a single-family house in the United States has nearly doubled, to 2273 square feet. Many newer houses in Northern Virginia neighborhoods top out at 4500 to 5000 square feet, and some custom homes are even larger.
Regardless of size, homeownership is out of reach for many, whether young professionals or retirees. The 2024 Area Median Income (AMI) in Fairfax County, a gauge used to determine qualifications for rental or purchase of affordable housing owned or managed by the county, is $108,300 for an individual; $154,700 for a family of four. A recent workshop for first-time home buyers revealed that the median price of a home in Fairfax County is about a million dollars, and a buyer must have an income of $302,000 just to qualify for a mortgage. That is prohibitively expensive for a young couple seeking to purchase their first home, and doesn’t account for taxes, insurance, utilities, and all the other costs of owning a home. Higher mortgage interest rates, higher asking prices, and a dearth of “product” have combined to put the American dream of homeownership on hold.
The problem is getting worse, not better.
A Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) forecast predicted that the region will add 1.5 million more people and one million more jobs by 2050. That means more housing will be needed in a market that already is behind in housing production of all types – apartments, condominiums, townhouses and detached homes. The COG board of directors, in 2019, determined that more than 300,000 housing units would be needed in the region by 2030. The Covid-19 pandemic intervened and slowed building even more, but even without a pandemic, housing development can take a very long time. A developer’s proposal must “pencil out,” which means meeting the requirements set by their financial backers, essentially a very large construction loan. Community opposition to new construction, the length of time needed to get zoning approval and building permits, and availability of qualified labor make reaching housing goals, like those set by COG, very challenging. What is now the Alta Crossing multi-family development on Columbia Pike near Bailey’s Crossroads, that will lease in 2025, was first proposed in 2005. And it’s been more than ten years since the First Christian Church of Falls Church proposed developing some of its excess property for affordable senior housing. If time is money, these decades-long journeys to housing development means that the end product will be much more expensive, for the builder and the buyer/renter, than originally planned.
Does size matter? Can our housing problems be resolved by building smaller homes, like those “starter” homes that created so many of our neighborhoods decades ago? If we want to inspire, and aspire, to make housing both affordable and attainable for current and new residents, smaller homes may be just the ticket.

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