Affordable housing proposal riles Fairfax County


Fairfax County has an affordable housing shortage but a new proposal has Supervisor Pat Herrity (left) concerned about illegal boarding houses and gangs. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Fairfax County has an affordable housing shortage. An analysis commissioned by the county six years ago and produced by George Mason University called it “a serious problem” and the county says it likely needs to create 50,000 affordable units by 2030 to enable the likes of teachers, firefighters, hotel clerks and cops to afford to live there.

To address the issue, county officials recently proposed a zoning change that would invite the construction of apartment buildings comprised of efficiency units of less than 500 square feet, most of which would be rent-controlled.

A member of the board of supervisors, however, said he doesn’t think the proposal would benefit the people it’s supposed to and called it the newest in a string of threats to Fairfax neighborhoods.

Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), has made “Protecting Our Suburban Neighborhoods” a key part of his platform since being elected in 2007. He wrote to constituents this week: “Since then I have been working hard to protect our suburban neighborhoods from challenges including fighting illegal boarding houses, gangs and sexual predators, promoting public safety and keeping our schools the best in the nation.”

He follows with a detailed critique of the housing proposal.


Units of under 500 square feet would be permitted in many parts of Fairfax County under a proposed zoning amendment. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

But wait, did Herrity just equate the construction of affordable housing with gang violence and sexual predators?

In an interview Herrity said he has concerns about such connections but isn’t sure there is evidence.

“This is a new threat on our suburban neighborhoods,” he said of the housing proposal. “I’m not going to tie gangs to this, I don’t think that you could. But I think you can connect it to boarding houses. If you can split a single family detached house into four units, that’s basically a boarding house. I don’t think that I have any proof that this would increase gang issues. It may, but I haven’t said that.”

Herrity isn’t alone in trying to stir things up. There have been enough ugly responses to the proposal that the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, an advocacy group, has been trying to temper some of the anger.

“Citizen groups in the County have responded to this proposal with strong emotion and concerns,” the organization wrote in a recent update. “Some of these concerns are legitimate and deserve to be considered, and some are based on unfounded fears and misconceptions regarding the design and scale of development, and the kinds of people who might live there.”

Here is what is being proposed: the construction of buildings that consist of between three and 75 residential studio units, each with a maximum of 500 square feet and 80 percent of them rented at rates that are affordable to a person making less than $45,000 annually. Every proposed project would require staff review and individual approval of the planning commission after a public hearing.

“Permitting residential studios is an excellent way to accommodate lower income rental units and provide more housing choices for our residents,” said Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova (D) in a statement when the proposal was announced. “RSUs can be a great tool for providing efficiency apartments for our younger entry level workers, for seniors and others who may not need or want a lot of space.”

There are legitimate questions about whether the idea will work. Herrity, son of former board chairman Chairman Jack Herrity, points out that many county workers earn too much money to qualify for them. “They are basically out of the reach of our teachers, firemen, police officers and other young professionals,” he said.

Herrity also argues that many exclusively residential neighborhoods ought to be left out of the proposal. “People did not buy into those neighborhoods thinking there would be that kind of density and parking issues,” he said. If there were no cap on earnings and a restriction on the areas where the units could be built, he said he might support the idea.

Last month, the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations issued a list of 15 changes they would like to see to the proposal, among them allowing the units only in planned, commercial and multi-family-residential zones and banning the conversion of single family homes or town houses.

The planning commission plans to hold five committee meetings on the proposal this year and next. Herrity is holding his own meeting Dec. 4.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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