Affordable housing likely to be an issue at Fairfax polls

The debate over Fairfax County’s affordable housing policies will probably get louder still this election year, with Democrats and Republicans maneuvering for advantage and all seats on the Board of Supervisors up for grabs, members of both parties say.

“It clearly is an issue that distinguishes the majority and minority on the board,” said Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), who renewed his criticism of the county’s affordable housing policies in the wake of a report by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, which examined the county’s programs.

The report, written by Jefferson Institute chairman and longtime Republican supporter Michael Thompson, accused the Board of Supervisors of subsidizing “luxury” by placing aid recipients in residential developments that include swimming pools, gyms, billiard rooms and other amenities. With county subsidies, houses that cost as much as $860,000 are priced at a mere $145,000, the report says.

“It makes absolutely no sense to spend the amount of money we’re spending on these properties,” Herrity said. “This is just wrong.”

But Democrats, who hold a 7-3 majority on the board, fired back, saying the report was a thinly veiled political paper that distorted the array of policies designed to address the shortage of affordable housing in the county.

Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said that only 15 of the 41 condominium developments in which Fairfax County owns affordable housing units have swimming pools. Like other tenants in private communities, the county pays monthly homeowners association fees for some affordable units to cover basic services such as maintenance, utilities and snow removal.

Bulova said government officials at all levels have come to recognize the importance of an affordable housing strategy that integrates people of all income levels instead of creating pockets of rich and poor.

Although Fairfax County’s housing prices declined during the recent recession, many people still have trouble finding affordable housing in the wealthy suburban county, where the median value of homes is $418,440 and monthly rents average $1,383. By definition, affordable housing consumes no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. After severely slashing spending on affordable housing, the county adopted a “Housing Blueprint” last year that relies more on developers, nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups.

The Jefferson Institute report focused on affordable housing units in Stockwell Manor, a Falls Church complex of single-family homes and townhouses whose values can top $1 million, and in Bryson at Woodland Park in Herndon, whose condominium fees range from $150 to $395 a month. The report includes photographs of a billiards room, a gym, granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

“There are no data, no interviews, no sources. There are no statistics. I’m finding it very curious that a think tank would put out something less than scholarly,” said Michelle Krocker, executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance. “It seems to be just an opinion.”

Others found a patronizing tone in the report that suggested low-income residents would lose their incentive to better their lot if permitted to enjoy such features as granite countertops, tile floors and brick sidewalks.

“I think it’s a lot of misinformation,” said Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins, who chairs the board’s housing committee. “They would like to frighten neighbors to think their tax dollars go to people who are ‘unworthy.’ ”

Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said she thinks Republicans are hoping to gain political traction from Thompson’s report.

The Jefferson Institute, which is based in Springfield, bills itself as a nonpartisan think tank with a philosophy of supporting limited government and market-based solutions to social problems. Its board includes Democrats and Republicans, according to its Web site.

But the institute’s biographical profile of Thompson also notes his long-standing ties to the Virginia Republican Party. Federal Election Commission records show that Thompson has contributed thousands of dollars over the past decade to several Republicans for federal, state and local campaigns, including Herrity.

“I’ve never hidden the fact that, in my private life, I support Republicans,” Thompson said in an interview. “They can make of it what they want.”

Thompson said county leaders want to duck the argument and reflexively defend a policy that spends public money in excess of what’s necessary or wise. “The argument isn’t Stockwell Manor or pockets of poverty,” Thompson said.

Herrity, who is running unopposed, said it was wrong to dismiss criticism of affordable housing as a politically motivated election-year issue.

“I don’t think this is a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” he said. “It think it’s a common-sense issue.”

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