More Money for Fairfax Affordable Housing — to What End?

Want more affordable housing in Fairfax County? Allow developers to build more of this.

The Fairfax Board of Supervisors is adding $5 million to its affordable housing budget next year, raising the total expenditure to $15 million. The Washington Post report of the budget action provides few details other than the fact that the money will fund an extra affordable-housing staff position and two positions for a new Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination.

The sum is a drop in the bucket for Virginia’s largest locality. Unless Fairfax is serious about increasing the supply of housing across the county — not just in Tysons, where residential growth will be choked by traffic congestion issues — the board action represents nothing more than virtue signalling. It’s a way of saying, “We care,” without really doing anything.

According to Zillow, the median home value listed in Fairfax County today is $619,000. An extra $5 million could subsidize the cost of 100 middling-cost houses — maybe 200 lower-priced houses — a year in a locality of 1.15 million people.

One way to create more affordable housing in Fairfax County would be to permit smaller lot sizes or, heaven forbid, more multifamily housing. Another way would be to permit homeowners to rent out basement or garage apartments. Yet another way would be to encourage redevelopment of land zoned for retail, office and industrial space as mixed-use (which is happening in places). There are two main obstacles in Fairfax to the natural transition from suburban to urban densities (as there are almost everywhere in Virginia): fear of traffic congestion, and fear of changing the nature of the neighborhood.

Developing housing in mixed-use districts addresses the traffic congestion issue in two ways. First, by making more destinations accessible on foot, it reduces the number of car trips per household. Second, by increasing the number of dwellings and destinations within walking distance of a mass transit line, it diverts people from cars to buses and rail. Does more mixed use magically solve the congestion problem? No. But intelligent integration of mixed use development, higher densities and mass transit can dampen congestion, as anyone can see in neighboring Arlington County.

Fairfax County planners are well conversant with the principles of Transportation Demand Management, but execution of those principles requires exacting attention to detail and does not yield immediate results. A single mixed-use project doesn’t accomplish much. Seamlessly connect a few dozen mixed-used projects, though, and you can transform the urban landscape in way that materially reduces the number of car trips per household along with the attendant congestion.

It’s a lot easier, though, to throw an extra $5 million into the affordable-housing pot, sponsor a few token projects, and pretend you’re making a difference.

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8 responses to “More Money for Fairfax Affordable Housing — to What End?

  1. This is not just a Fairfax problem. This a problem in most urban areas and especially so for housing for service workers.

    But the question is – are the things that Fairfax is said to be not doing that if they did do – it would help the problem – are there other places that have done those things and as a result there is more affordable housing?

    Here’s the problem. We focus blame (which is justified) but we really don’t go forward and say “Fairfax should be more like ___, who HAS instituted these measures that increase the supply of affordable housing” and then go on to rank the cities according to the ones that have taken these measures and as a result do have more affordable housing.

    It just seems that hammering over and over on Fairfax is not very productive.

    And I WOULD say this – if we claim the “market” will provide what is needed if the govt configures regulations properly -then we SHOULD highlight where this has happened and has worked. There sure are a lot of places that have the same problem as Fairfax and worse.

  2. The alternatives presented, particularly the mixed use district may reduce traffic congestion, but I don’t think they will do anything to address the affordability problem. Any residence built within walking distance of a Metro station commands a high price.

    I would say that affordability is hopeless in Fairfax, but, on my visits to my daughter in Vienna, I frequently see immigrants at day labor sites. So, they are able to live somewhere. I suspect that they are putting (illegally) two or three families into what is supposed to be a single-family residence.

    • Sure, the new dwellings will command a premium price. The well-to-do will move in, vacating older, less desirable, less expensive houses; others will move in to those dwellings, vacating even less expensive houses, etc. Trickle-down, migration chain, whatever you want to call it.

    • Dick – you are correct in that most mixed use districts in Fairfax County don’t produce affordable housing, absent the mandatory 12% for affordable or workforce housing upon rezoning or the 20% in Tysons.

      Before the County adopted the revised Tysons Comp Plan in 2010, we heard years of lies from the Chamber of Commerce to the effect that an even bigger Tysons would produce lots of lower-priced housing. But the closer we got into negotiations that led to the final compromise, the faster the developers ran from the promises. Essentially there is very little affordable housing but a decent supply of workforce housing.

      Lots of people are living in over-crowded conditions (many of which are simply dangerous). And generally the County closes its eyes to the situation. I’ve seen County photos of padlocks on doors to keep the illegal renters in their basement or bedroom quarters at night.

      I’ve long argued that if the County enforced the occupancy code, residents would be more supportive of county involvement in affordable housing. But Fairfax County leaders want to be viewed as woke and turn a blind eye to anything that involves illegal immigration including the perpetuation of overcrowding in dangerous situations.

  3. Naw.. I’m not buying the “trickle down” thing. Most service workers, day labor folks cannot afford to buy a home and the 600K median price tells me that it’s not the lower echelon that is the recipient of the “trickle down”. Besides – are we saying that some folks are buying million dollar homes and the “trickle down” is the 500K home they moved out of?

    geeze.

    so where do service workers and low-skill labor folks live ?

    Ironically – they do NOT live near METRO! That’s for high-dollar renters!

    What we need is more information because I feel that right now – we have a lot of speculation about how service workers and low-skill folks live when the median price of homes is more than 500K. Hell, entry level professionals – especially those with education loans can’t afford it either. That’s why we have thousands of exurban commuters every day to places like Fredericksburg.

    Yet – Fairfax and places like it – seem to have successful and robust economies ……. despite all those incompetent “planners”……. unlike RoVa and even the exurbs… which basically employer retail and trade folks to serve the needs of the commuters who live in the exurbs.

  4. Jim:

    Your point about affordable housing in Fairfax County is legitimate. Our BoS loves to virtue signal by allocating insignificant amounts of money and then crowing about their progressiveness. However, your point about land use decisions is outdated ….

    You should take a pill to control the incredible anxiety you must feel when leaving the friendly confines of Greater Richmond and come up to Fairfax County for a tour. We can start in my old neighborhood of Huntington Ave, work through the Mosaic District, visit Tysons and then finish up in Reston. What you’ll see in every case is dense, mixed use environments that weren’t present 20 years ago. You’ll also see a lot of traffic congestion in those areas but …. that’s more on the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond than the virtue signaling FC BoS.

    • Don, You are correct. There is more mixed-use development in Fairfax County than there used to be. As I wrote: ” Yet another way would be to encourage redevelopment of land zoned for retail, office and industrial space as mixed-use (which is happening in places).

      However, based upon my travels to and from, and in and around, George Mason University the past couple of years, I feel safe in saying that vast tracts of the county remain the same.

      • And mixed use development is supposed happen only in certain places – activity centers, per the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. That is places like Tysons, Reston, Baileys Crossroads and Metrorail stations. Why would one expect low-density residential areas to turn into mixed use areas?

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