Affordable Housing Changes Questioned

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

New demands by the county that developers include affordable housing when building high-rise units have run into objections: that, depending on who's talking, the county intends too much or not enough of this housing for the middle class.

Last week, supervisors approved a policy that requires 12 percent of new high-rise housing to be affordable units. The rule would apply only to new developments where applicants want to build more units than zoning allows.

Previously, high-rise developers were not required to provide such units because the cost of multistory buildings, which typically require elevators, sprinkler systems and structured parking, made it too costly to accommodate affordable housing. To offset the cost, supervisors agreed to give developers a density credit; for each affordable housing unit built, a contractor would be allowed to build additional market-rate units.

Supervisors also increased the household salary that would qualify for affordable housing, from up to 70 percent of the area's median income to 120 percent. For a family of four, 120 percent of the median is $113,400.

Supervisors who voted for the measure said it furthers their goal of providing more "workforce housing" in Fairfax County: homes for middle-income professionals such as teachers, firefighters and police officers who otherwise could not afford to live in the county they serve. The obvious barrier is the cost of housing. Fairfax was recently named by the Census Bureau as the nation's most affluent county; its median new home price is $960,000, and the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,306.

"What we did Monday night is prompt the private sector to do what they wouldn't normally do, and this is to provide a range of affordable housing at no cost to the county," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee). "We need to have a mix of incomes. Otherwise the high-rises would only be for middle-income and high-income folks."

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) objected to the policy for two reasons. First, he said, it could significantly increase the density that high-rise developments would add to the county. Fairfax, with more 1 million people, is the region's largest jurisdiction and is largely built out. As a result, new development is likely to take the form of multistory structures, much of it near Metro stations. Such developments will increase traffic as well as demands for such county services as police, fire, libraries and schools, Frey said, so there should be a limit to how much density the county should allow.

He also objected to the new definition of workforce housing to include families earning as much as 120 percent of the area's median income.

"I just think that's absurd," Frey said. "I've never met anybody who thinks it appropriate for the county to be subsidizing people who make 120 percent of the median income. . . . We have a huge waiting list of people who are making 50 percent of the median income. It just seems to me absolutely misguided to be spending money on this."

Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield) also objected to the new policy, but her concern was the opposite of Frey's: that it doesn't ensure that the affordable units go to middle-income professionals as opposed to poorer families. McConnell's district includes the County Government Center, and she objects to a proposal for affordable housing there that might be open to lower-income families, particularly those with drug-abusing or criminal pasts.

"I want to be sure that this is not what we're talking about, that you have some assurance of what's coming in there," McConnell said. "This is what people in my district were very upset about."

Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said it would be difficult to prohibit lower-income families, as McConnell wants to do, without breaking federal laws.

"That's economic discrimination," he said.

Under the county's affordable dwelling unit policy, qualifying households should have to pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent nor more than 2 1/2 times their annual income to buy. For example, a household of four with income of $66,150 (70 percent of the median income) would pay a rent of no more than $1,654 (including utilities) for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, and would pay a purchase price for a home of no more than $165,375.

Developers would be required to sell the units at those prices and would recover their costs by selling other units at market rates.

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