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Fairfax Revenue May Go to Housing

County's Goal Is Affordability Of Rental Units

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page B01

A proposal for Fairfax County to subsidize affordable housing directly through real estate taxes appeared to have broad support yesterday among county supervisors.

The plan, called "a radical proposal" by board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), was devised by a panel of top planning and housing officials from the county and the private sector. Released publicly for the first time yesterday, it calls for dedicating $17.5 million annually -- equivalent to a penny on the real estate tax rate, which is $1.13 per $100 of assessed value -- to keep 1,000 units of housing at affordable rental rates.

Connolly said drastic steps are necessary to address what he called a crisis over affordable housing in the county. The escalating cost of housing is pushing teachers, firefighters and other county services to seek cheaper alternatives far from the county, which in turn creates long commutes and further clogs roads.

Only 22 percent of the county's police officers live in Fairfax, mainly "because they cannot afford it," Connolly noted.

"The more we force people who work for this county and who serve us to move further and further out . . . the more we are going to be all living in the type of congestion that we all say we need to avoid," he said.

Stephen Wade of the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities, an advocacy group for affordable housing, praised Connolly for taking up the issue.

"Its a good first step for Fairfax," he said. "However, one penny [on the tax rate] per year is only enough to preserve the affordable housing that is there. They should have two cents -- the other one for the production of affordable housing."

He said Fairfax's proposal would lag behind similar efforts in Montgomery County, which raises about $18 million a year, and the District, which raises $40 million.

Connolly said the affordable housing plan would not necessarily force the county to raise the tax rate.

The supervisors intend to lower the rate this year, he said. The proposal would merely limit that reduction. The plan still must be reviewed by the county staff and voted on by the board.

Traditionally, Fairfax has generated affordable housing by requiring developers to build inexpensive units as a condition of getting projects approved. But that has not been enough, county officials said.

Since 1997, the county has lost 1,300 affordable units, which had been subsidized by the federal government or other grants and have been turned into luxury housing or become market-rate apartments.

What's more, the pace at which affordable rental units are being converted to high-priced condominiums is accelerating as owners try to take advantage of the hot real estate market, said Paula C. Sampson, director of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.

In 2001, there were 178 rental properties in Fairfax that were not subsidized by the government but were considered affordable for a family making $59,000 a year. Now there are 104, she said.

One high-rise apartment building in Tysons Corner, for instance, sold recently for $92 million to an owner who wants to renovate the units and sell them as luxury condominiums, said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence).

Many of its elderly residents have been calling her office, saying they were given several months to find a new place to live but cannot afford to rent elsewhere in Fairfax, she said.

The county would use real estate tax revenue earmarked for affordable housing to purchase apartments outright or provide financial incentives to property owners to preserve affordable units, said Conrad Egan, head of the county Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The committee also recommended that the board create and fund an ombudsman to look out for apartments that are being converted to condominiums before the properties are sold.

"One problem is that we are finding about these deals too late," Egan said. "We are competing . . . in a hot real estate market."

Staff writer Peter Whoriskey contributed to this report.

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