Communities in Fairfax County have earned the “Not In My Back Yard” label. A county proposal to facilitate—through rezoning or a special exception process—the building of residential studio housing for low-income earners in nearly all types of zoning in the county has elicited controversy. That low-density suburban residential areas are included in the proposed zoning ordinance is the source of much of the contention.
The goal of the zoning change is enabling construction of buildings of studio or efficiency apartments only for rent by those with low incomes. It is an attempt to address the long-term countywide need to “enable a pool of mixed labour” against a scarcity of affordable housing for low-income people.
The root of the problem is that commercial developers have erected little housing for lower-income groups in the county. Fairfax County, it should be noted, has the second highest median household income of any local U.S. jurisdiction, after its neighbor Loudoun County. So this county initiative is an attempt to fill a perceived gap in the housing pool, one that the market hasn’t provided. Seven different lots around the county are currently being suggested as possible locations for such housing.
At least 80 percent of the units in such buildings are envisaged to be rent-controlled. The target market would be folk earning less than 60 percent of area median income, namely less than around $45,000 per annum for a single-person household. The other 20 percent could be for higher income levels and the rent would not be controlled. The aim is to attract lower-income earners such as nurses, first-year teachers, and non-teaching staff at local schools such as cafeteria workers. Targeted tenants are also those “just starting out”, like recent college graduates.
Such housing could potentially also be a stepping stone for those presently homeless. This type of single-room housing, coupled with support services like job counseling and substance abuse or mental health treatment, has been shown to help the homeless transition into durable living arrangements.
The zoning amendment permits up to 75 units per lot, while individual units can be no larger than 500 square feet. Although intended for single occupancy, each unit could accommodate up to three people, including two children. Each unit has to include a kitchen and a bathroom, and be allocated at least one parking bay. One washer and dryer has to be available per ten units—if these amenities are not included in the individual units. Additionally, there has to be either a resident or on-site manager, or off-site management that the county’s Board of Supervisors approved.
The owner of property where such a building is being considered for construction would have to appear in public hearings before both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to have a special exception granted to current zoning. In this process, consideration would be given to: compatibility with the neighbouring area, as well as location by a major thoroughfare to ensure the likely availability of public transport options. Adding yet other criteria for consideration, such as pedestrian access to shopping and other services, is still under discussion. Also still being debated is whether or not to allow the conversion of single-family homes into apartments, and the effect of such a decision on illegal boarding houses.
In recent weeks, I have attended two public meetings on the residential studio issue: the McLean Community Association hosted the first; the second was a Fairfax County Planning Commission hearing on the proposed amendment. I learnt much at both meetings and came away with some strong impressions.
The vocal and noisy majority of attendees at both gatherings were firm opponents of the proposed zoning ordinance amendment to encourage construction of low-income housing.
There is merit to homeowners’ unhappiness that this type of housing is being contemplated for low-density, single-family-home residential neighbourhoods. Typically, exceptions to present zoning limits in such neighbourhoods are granted for entities benefitting the general community, such as petrol or “gas” stations, churches, preschools, assisted living facilities, and so on. Supervisor John Foust, who was sitting in the audience at the first meeting, agreed that residential studio units made more sense in higher-density areas, saying, “this is a good product in the right zoning category, but I don’t think it’s the right product for low-density residential”.
The other worthy point is that no market research or feasibility studies have been conducted to test the county’s vision—apart from a George Mason University study published in 2006 at the height of the housing bubble and before the 2008 crash in the housing market. Would, for example, young professionals “starting out” even be interested in such studio accommodation? Might there not be more interest in one-bedroom apartments? Also, how would young professionals feel about living in buildings with many lower-income tenants, including formerly homeless individuals? All of these questions should be researched. The county is perhaps trying to target too many different types of tenants with one product. And, however well intentioned, it is not clear that there is market demand for this type of housing.
But these aspects seemed to be only a small part of the public’s negative reaction to the potential zoning change. There appeared to be an overall perception of buildings with such units and tenants leading to reduced property prices and a diminished quality of life for those currently living in areas where they might be located. Concerns were raised about the impact on already overcrowded schools and already acute traffic congestion; the perceived lack of enforcement of present occupancy restrictions; and fear of spikes in vandalism, crime, and general lawlessness around such multi-family, low-income dwellings. At the second gathering, a former owner of buildings in the District of Columbia, spoke—to loud applause—about the “negative synergy” that develops around buildings with a “preponderance of low-income people”.
A courageous woman stood up to address all near the meeting’s conclusion, knowing her opinion was in the minority. She was appalled at the tenor of people’s comments. She warned, very emotionally, about the slippery slope shown by history of thinking about fellow humans as being the “other”. It is hard to disagree with her heartfelt statement, but most present apparently did.