Fairfax Seeks Way to House Middle Class

By Bill Turque and Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 2, 2006

Fairfax County officials said yesterday that they have identified 18 parcels of vacant county-owned land that might be suitable for affordable housing to accommodate growing numbers of workers effectively shut out of the expensive real estate market.

The list of parcels, scattered across the county, includes sites also earmarked for other projects, such as the Kingstowne Regional Library and the Wolf Trap fire station in Vienna. It also includes swaths originally set aside for such improvements as the Springfield bypass and expanding Braddock Road.

The search for available public land is part of a push by county officials to expand the pool of moderately priced housing in Fairfax, where the median sale price of a single family home has grown 129 percent since 2000, to $479,200. The average rent in a new apartment complex is $1,461 a month, according to the most recent county survey.

Arlington and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria also are struggling to preserve housing for middle-income workers; Arlington officials are set to announce an expansion of their program next week.

High land costs have traditionally made low- and moderate-income housing unattractive to developers, who like to build large, high-end single family homes loaded with expensive amenities that boost profit margins. County officials hope to use the vacant land to spur investment in affordable housing and "workforce housing" -- price-controlled homes for teachers, firefighters, nurses and other professionals who work in Fairfax but can't afford to live there.

"If we can take the land -- the most expensive component -- out of the equation, we might be able to bring in some really nice [affordable] housing," Paula Sampson, director of the county's Office of Housing and Community Development, said at a conference of government and corporate leaders at George Mason University yesterday.

At the request of the Board of Supervisors last year, Fairfax staff members looked at all 741 parcels of county-owned land, totaling 3,914 acres. After eliminating sites already built out and those deemed impractical because of legal or engineering issues, the county was left with a limited set of possibilities. County officials are also studying a dozen surplus properties turned over by the School Board in April.

At least one supervisor said he doubted that any of the land in question would be developed. Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said that if the land were at all practical, it wouldn't be surplus to begin with. Most of the school properties, in residential neighborhoods, would have to be rezoned for higher density, an action that would probably spur enormous community opposition.

"I am very skeptical," Frey said.

The county's handling of the land survey reflects the political sensitivity of the issue. Board members were briefed individually to avoid a public airing of prospective sites, which include the Windsor Estates area in the Lee District and Balmoral Greens in the Springfield District. Frey said he was "assured by counsel" that the private briefings were permissible under the state open meetings law, which allows closed-door discussion of certain real estate matters.

Fairfax has taken steps to increase affordable housing stock. The board voted earlier this year to renew the use of one penny from the real estate tax rate for funding housing preservation, which will generate an estimated $21.9 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1. So far, the county's Affordable Housing Initiative has preserved 879 units. The county is also teaming with Inova Health System to build 15 units of housing for nurses and nursing students.

Alexandria and Arlington face a similar housing challenge for municipal workers. Just 27 percent of Arlington County employees live in Arlington, and less than 11 percent of Alexandria workers reside in the city.

Arlington officials are planning to announce an expansion next week of their workforce housing program, which now helps county employees and workers at Virginia Hospital Center and Marymount and George Mason universities obtain low-interest mortgages, discounts and down-payment assistance.

The county has worked with developers to sell homes at a discount to local workers. Three developers -- IDI Group Cos., KSI Services Inc. and the nonprofit AHC Inc. -- have sold 78 properties at discounted prices through the program over the last year.

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