Fairfax Pushes Affordable Housing

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fairfax County's push to provide more affordable housing in one of the nation's wealthiest jurisdictions includes a commitment to spend nearly $23 million in the coming fiscal year and complete 2,200 units over the next four years.

In a county where, according to a government report, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,286, generating affordable housing to try to meet the demand is a tall order. To fulfill that, a new set of county recommendations includes the goal of using at least half the money to produce housing that is affordable to families earning no more than $47,250 -- half the area median income.

Advocates for affordable housing also want to preserve and create more single-room and studio units, a tricky goal because neighborhoods often balk at proposals to build such projects nearby.

Such housing -- small efficiency apartments for the county's lowest-income residents -- can be ideal for the homeless by providing stability and costing the county less than it spends on the typical bed in a homeless shelter, advocates say. But it is also useful for individuals on disability income, such as returning veterans.

"We have to meld these units into the community in a compatible, acceptable way," said Conrad E. Egan, chairman of the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The county's affordable housing push is tied closely to its campaign to end homelessness; advocates say Fairfax's recent count of the jurisdiction's homeless ranks, which at 1,800 is slightly up over last year, can be linked directly to the dearth of affordable housing.

But Fairfax intends to provide a range of affordable housing, Egan said, from single-room occupancy units to subsidized apartments to houses and townhouses for sale at below-market costs. The goal is to meet a range of need, from that of the lowest-income residents to the working middle class who still might need assistance to find housing in expensive Fairfax. Typically, households earning up to 70 percent of the area median income are eligible to live in such housing.

Last month, county supervisors approved a $3.3 billion spending plan for the year beginning July 1 that dedicates a penny of the real estate tax rate each year -- the resulting sum would be $22.7 million -- to affordable housing. The board launched the "penny for housing" program in 2005, and because rising property values have meant that a penny on the tax rate generates more money, the dollar amount of the commitment has risen steadily each year. Since the launch of the "penny" program,the county has preserved or created 1,372 units of affordable housing.

The effort continues. On May 21, supervisors approved a flurry of affordable-housing initiatives, including the purchase of a handful of condominiums and townhouses that the county will subsidize ($1,228 including utilities for a three-bedroom townhouse) and permission to issue $35 million in bonds to purchase 40 affordable units at Reston Glen.

In addition, the county is preparing a request for proposals to develop a major complex of affordable housing on the property of the county Government Center, just south of the Fair Oaks shopping mall. The project is expected to include the gamut of housing options, from single rooms to workforce housing to more heavily subsidized units.

County leaders also want the project to serve as a model for how to blend subsidized housing into existing communities. The government center is rapidly becoming surrounded with townhouse, condominium and single-family neighborhoods as well as a successful new mixed-use district called Fairfax Corner.

"We want to see excellent design," Egan said. "We want to see neighborhood compatibility. And we want to see maximum service to low-income families."

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