It’s no secret that living in Fairfax County on less than $50,000 a year is difficult.
For those earning $8 or $9 an hour — approximately $16,500 annually — it’s virtually impossible.
With that in mind, Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors is exploring options to increase its ever-shrinking inventory of housing for low-income residents. One of those options includes changing the county’s zoning ordinance to encourage the development of residential studio units (RSUs), a type of housing that is relatively rare in Fairfax.
Predictably, talk of adding affordable units has drawn its share of criticism, largely from those who say it would have a calamitous effect on many residential neighborhoods. Some of the opposition dates back a decade, when county officials created zoning enforcement “strike teams” to crack down on illegal boarding houses and overcrowded single-family homes.
To address those concerns, zoning administrators might want to reconsider where a portion of these units are permitted. At the moment, that includes areas zoned for industrial, commercial and multi-family housing uses.
The ordinance, as now written, also allows future RSUs to go up in low density residential areas that are located on a major thoroughfare. That probably covers about 40 percent of the neighborhoods in Fairfax County.
County officials are quick to point out that before any apartment buildings are constructed in any district, the landowner would need to obtain a special exception permit — one that requires a public hearing before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.
That’s all well and good, but the county could make a significant dent in the affordable housing problem without having to tread on low-density residential neighborhoods.
Every other aspect of the proposal appears sensible. Under the ordinance, each studio unit would be about 500 square feet and include a bathroom and kitchen. The ordinance would allow for buildings housing three to 75 apartments, of which at least 80 percent are reserved for people earning less than 60 percent of the area’s medium income. In Fairfax, that translates to $45,000 a year for a single occupant.
Nobody disputes the fact that Fairfax County doesn’t have enough reasonably priced housing. It’s an issue that has plagued residents, hiring managers and local officials for the better part of 20 years.
For every person living in a 7,000-square-foot home in Burke or Great Falls, there are likely two others struggling to pay the rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Annandale or Falls Church. According to a report conducted by Fairfax County’s Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, the average rent for an apartment in Fairfax was $1,433 in 2011. That ranged from $1,010 for efficiency units to a high of $1,817 for a three-bedroom apartment.
Not counting the 1,350 homeless discovered during Fairfax County’s annual “point in time” survey last winter, more than 60,000 people in Fairfax County are living in poverty. Some of those folks are bank tellers, hairdressers and grocery store clerks.
Thousands of others, including teachers, firefighters and police officers, live just above the poverty line and drive to Fairfax-based jobs each day from remote towns in West Virginia or western Maryland.
Adding a few thousand residential studio units may not solve the issue overnight, but the goal should be to meet some of our most critical needs without disrupting Fairfax County’s residential neighborhoods with out-of-scale development.