June 29, 2011

HOMELESSNESS and affordable housing shortages are traditionally urban problems, but as suburbs urbanize, they are becoming suburban problems as well. The number of people living below the poverty level in the District (about 110,000) is dwarfed by the combined number in Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties (192,000). In those counties, dwelling prices remain high — if still below their housing bubble peaks — and rents are at record levels. That, combined with shrunken local government revenue, has left suburban localities scrambling to house their neediest residents.

Fairfax offers a revealing snapshot of suburban housing struggles. In the depths of the recession two years ago, county officials gutted a program that provided millions of dollars annually to preserve and develop affordable housing. Federal stimulus dollars plugged some of the gap by helping poor people pay rent and utility bills, but those funds are now gone.

As a result, officials fear Fairfax’s homeless population of 1,550, which has fallen by 16 percent since 2008, may start climbing again. And the shortfall of housing that median-income families and individuals can afford is pegged at 63,000 apartments, condos and houses through 2025.

Today, the county’s annual spending on affordable housing is about $18 million, down 40 percent from 2008. As county and federal funds shrivel, the county has turned to partnerships with faith organizations and other nonprofit groups; it has also helped launch a foundation to raise private-sector funds for affordable housing. Those are creative and innovative steps. They are also probably inadequate to the task.

Amid the torrid housing market of 2005, the county devoted 1 percent of its residential housing tax revenue to housing programs, then the equivalent of more than $20 million a year. After that program was scrapped in 2009, officials sensibly drafted an affordable housing blueprint, setting goals for 2020.

Nonprofit organizations are helping, but in the absence of new public funds, the blueprint’s goals are unlikely to be met. The plan called for halving the waiting lists for public and subsidized housing. But more than 11,000 people remain on those lists, and officials are not confident the backlog will shrink significantly anytime soon.

The plan also proposed expanded affordable housing options for thousands of firefighters, police officers, teachers, nurses and other public-sector workers, perhaps half of whom can’t afford housing in Fairfax and have been been forced to live elsewhere. But dwindling county dollars have made it difficult to put a dent in that problem, too. While housing developers have been offered zoning incentives to make some new high-rise units affordable, those units remain out of reach for many lower-
income people.

The result is that in one of the richest counties of one of the world’s richest nations, thousands of people have been priced out of the housing market, forced onto the street or squeezed into overcrowded apartments with relatives or acquaintances.

There may be more novel approaches worth exploring, such as exploiting underutilized and county-owned land. An improving economy may generate more county funds but could also push housing prices beyond the reach of more residents. In the meantime, it may be time to rethink the popular notion of Fairfax as an affluent suburban wonderland.