Some in Fairfax Public Housing Make Six Figures

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

Hundreds of families living in housing subsidized by Fairfax County taxpayers exceed income caps designed to ensure that only the neediest receive assistance, a review of county records shows.

In the most extreme cases, Fairfax is underwriting rents for families making well into six figures: One household getting help makes more than $216,000 a year; another, $184,000. Dozens of others -- making $60,000, $70,000, $90,000 -- exceed eligibility caps. And they do so with the tacit approval of county housing administrators, who do little to encourage occupants to move on when their fortunes improve.

These tenants live in housing intended for families at the bottom of the county's economic spectrum. They are in the federally subsidized public housing program, the Fairfax rental program and the county's senior housing program. The county's Department of Housing and Community Development will spend about $4.5 million this year running these programs.

The fact that higher-income families choose to remain in subsidized housing illustrates the critical lack of affordable housing in Fairfax, named the nation's most affluent county last month by the Census Bureau. The median new-home price in the region's largest jurisdiction is $960,000, and the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,306, according to county data.

The incomes also reflect, critics say, a disconnect between county practices and its housing policies, which aim in most cases to help families making less than half of Fairfax's median annual household income of $94,500 for a family of four. Fairfax leaders have long put affordable housing at the tops of their priority lists: Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) helped establish an initiative in 2005 to funnel more than $20 million a year toward the preservation of lower-cost housing.

But that mission should not include subsidizing the rents of families making more than $100,000 a year, Connolly said.

"Clearly this housing was not designed for that," he said. "It's good that these folks have reached a point where they are now successful in their income level. But they need to move into market-rate housing and allow these units to be used for the people they are intended to benefit."

County housing officials emphasize -- and a review of county and federal housing rules confirms -- that they have broken no rules by letting tenants remain after their incomes rise. They say every household met eligibility caps when they entered the program. Officials also say that to turn families out would punish them for attaining self-sufficiency. And they note -- correctly, according to records -- that most tenants in the county's housing programs have low incomes.

"We are definitely fulfilling our mission here," said Paula C. Sampson, director of the housing department. "You have to look at all the numbers. The vast majority of the people we are serving are very low income."

Still, some housing experts say even a smattering of such high incomes is unheard of in most subsidized housing nationwide. This is particularly true of public housing, a program regulated and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and intended for the country's poorest families.

While many housing agencies allow families to stay after their incomes surpass initial eligibility requirements, many also impose income ceilings that require tenants to seek market-rate housing after their earnings cross a particular threshold.

HUD has allowed agencies to impose such a threshold for more than five years. The Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority adopted a policy last month to begin doing so. And its new ceiling is the area's median income -- $94,500 for a family of four -- meaning families fairly high up the economic ladder will be able to remain in taxpayer-funded housing.

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