Fairfax County focusing on neediest in more modest affordable housing program

Two years after economic woes forced Fairfax County to scale back its affordable-housing program, county officials have begun expanding aid for some of the community’s homeless and working poor while struggling to contain overall spending.

Even as state and federal funding for housing programs continues to shrink, Fairfax would commit at least $11.7 million to affordable housing for the neediest families in fiscal 2013, which begins July 1, county staff said. Nonprofit groups and other community sources would be expected to step up with $2.6 million in county-led programs to help assist more than 2,500 homeless families.

“This is a challenge,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D). “I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve adopted a goal of ending homelessness. At the very same time, we’re also seeing reductions from the state and federal level. All I can tell you is, we’ll just do the best we can.”

HUD funding cut

Last month, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department said it was cutting funding to the county by nearly $2 million, or 23.4 percent, to about $6.3 million. County Executive Anthony H. Griffin has not unveiled a formal budget proposal but has sketched some priorities for a tight fiscal climate that is expected to persist for several years.

In fiscal 2012, the county appropriated more than $30 million for housing, including nearly $15 million from a special fund that sets aside a portion of the real estate tax. Overall, the county spent about $113.4 million, including federal and state funds, on various housing programs.

As part of the county’s initiatives to concentrate scarce resources on the neediest, these families — three quarters of whom earn less than 30 percent of the area’s median income of $107,500 a year — would receive up to two years of subsidized housing aid through the Bridging Affordability program. Previously, they received help for about a year.

Some low-income families would also be able to secure dwellings with market-rate rents, according to Stephanie Berkowitz, a vice president of Northern Virginia Family Service, the lead agency in the network of nine nonprofit organizations that helps manage Bridging Affordability.

To meet those goals, the program will tap $1.6 million of the $4.1 million set aside for it.

Berkowitz, who outlined the Bridging Affordability program Tuesday for the Board of Supervisors’ housing committee, also said the program would give preference to working families or assist them in finding employment and increasing their income.

“The ultimate objective, at the end of the day, is permanency,” Berkowitz said.

Workforce funding criticized

Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said he welcomed narrowing the focus to low-income families through Bridging Affordability.

“There’s a lot of good in that program,” he said. “It’s designed to give people temporary housing and then move them off tax dollars. And it’s done by nonprofits.”

But Herrity criticized the county’s continuing expenditures on workforce housing, saying taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize housing for families that make as much as $120,000 a year.

“They have housing options in Fairfax County,” he said.

Bridging Affordability is part of the county’s Housing Blueprint, a plan to eliminate homelessness in 10 years, reduce waiting lists and meet affordable-housing demands for people who are members of its workforce or are elderly or disabled.

The plan came about in 2009 as a series of budget gaps forced the Board of Supervisors to cut its three-year-old Penny for Affordable Housing Fund by half. That fund, which had received the equivalent of 1 cent of the real estate tax rate, raised $104.9 million from fiscal 2006-11 and helped preserve more than 2,400 affordable dwellings. Last year, the county committed about $14.7 million from the fund.

Relying on partnerships

With the Housing Blueprint, Fairfax has shifted its focus away from acquiring and managing properties to a growing reliance on partnerships with the private, nonprofit community.

After poring over a slick-looking graphic of the Blueprint, Herrity said the program nonetheless obscures real financial costs. He urged staff to provide more data on the cost of capital investments, debt service and operating subsidies from county, federal and state sources. Herrity said the county also has failed to tally the costs, such as lost tax revenue, when requiring developers to set aside a portion of new dwellings for affordable housing in desirable areas such as Tysons Corner.

Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), chairman of the housing committee, said the county must continue to invest in affordable housing.

Besides ensuring a sufficient labor force, affordable housing addresses transportation problems, because people who live near work will not be on the road. For some low-income families, spending on housing and transportation eats up about 60 percent of their income, she said. “It does make sense for someone to live close to their job.”

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