Fairfax County can make further progress on its affordable housing goals without a significant financial investment, according to a new report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee.
“Unfulfilled Promises: Affordable Housing in Metropolitan Washington,” which examined affordable housing needs and policies throughout the D.C. area, says that the lack of affordable housing has become a crisis for low- and middle-income people throughout the region.
While area jurisdictions have developed a variety of tools for generating more affordable housing options, the efforts have not kept pace with the need, said Megan Whyte de Vasquez, project director for the committee’s fair housing project.
“All of the jurisdictions are talking about affordable housing … but, for the most part, they’re not using the tools as effectively as they could be,” she said.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee views the lack of affordable housing as a civil rights issue, de Vasquez said.
In Fairfax County, the existing need for low- and moderate-income families is about 28,400 units for renters and 49,100 units for owners, according to the report. Those figures include families earning 80 percent or less of the area median income.
“There are people behind those numbers,” de Vasquez said. “That is really 77,000 families that don’t have housing that is affordable.”
The report gives credit to Fairfax for its creativity in addressing the problem.
“A lot of the tools they have tried and used on a smaller scale have worked very well,” said Joanna Huang, of Hogan Lovells, one of the report’s authors. “If we could just use those tools on a larger scale, that would be a huge boost to creating and preserving affordable housing.”
For example, the report praises Fairfax County for pursuing public-private partnerships that allow county-owned land to be developed with affordable and workforce housing, such as the Founders Ridge community, developed in the early 2000s in Alexandria.
The county could, for example, swap small parcels of unused, county-owned land for a consolidated piece of land for locating additional housing, Huang said.
The report also gives high marks to the county’s “penny for affordable housing” fund, which dedicates the money generated by one penny of the real estate tax rate to affordable housing projects. de Vasquez also highlights the fact that the county didn’t raid its housing trust fund when money got tight during the recession, as other jurisdictions did — although the Board of Supervisors did cut back on the amount of new funding going into the program in fiscal 2010 to help balance the budget.
The report advocates seven different types of affordable housing policies, all of which can be implemented with little or no investment of scarce public dollars, according to de Vasquez.
The policies, such as establishing trust funds, using public land and pursuing public-private partnerships, are primarily things that Fairfax County already has in place, but they can be tweaked and built upon to help boost the resulting number of units, according to the report.
For example, the report examines the county’s affordable dwelling unit ordinance, a type of policy known generally as inclusionary zoning.
The policy applies only to developers that are going through a special exception or rezoning process for projects that include 50 or more units of housing. Developers receive a density bonus for setting aside a certain percentage of units as affordable.
While this policy has helped generate about 2,500 affordable units since 1990, the report’s authors suggest that the county could generate higher numbers if the policy were adjusted to apply to more types of projects. They also say that the county should review the control period — that is, the amount of time that the units remain rent-controlled — so that the benefit will last for a longer period of time.
“It’s a regional problem but there isn’t any clear regional solution,” de Vasquez said. “Each jurisdiction has the opportunity to get this right.”