Shelter That Fairfax Can't Afford to Deny

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Since the economic downturn began, requests for food, clothing and rental assistance have skyrocketed in each of our communities of faith throughout Northern Virginia. Multiply that by the 40 congregations in V.O.I.C.E. (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) and you'll understand why we and other leaders of this broad cross-section of the religious community are urging our elected leaders in Fairfax County to preserve programs for our most vulnerable.

Specifically, we want to save the county's bold "penny for housing" program, which devotes one cent of the real estate tax rate to buy low-cost rental apartments and other housing. The Fairfax Board of Supervisors is taking aim at this $20 million program in an attempt to close a $650 million budget gap. Budget hearings in Fairfax County began March 30, and more than 4,000 members of V.O.I.C.E. member institutions in Fairfax have signed postcards asking supervisors to maintain the affordable-housing fund so that the county can preserve critically needed rental housing in these difficult times.

Some are proposing to cut the penny fund in half, to maintain current programs. Over 2,200 units have been preserved to date. This not only denies the growing need but would also leave Fairfax County with no resources to acquire rental units that may be available at a lower price during the downturn. Fairfax has a strategic opportunity -- at a fiscally prudent cost -- to reverse a decade of decline in the available number of affordable rental units. The county may miss a chance to leverage federal resources if it cuts the penny.

Many of our congregations have just finished providing shelter and food to the homeless in a season where hypothermia is a risk, and every day we get calls from people on the street, asking for help with a night's lodging in a local motel for homeless people who are also ill. The $60 it costs to pay for a night for one homeless person in a hotel room is roughly equivalent to the average cost per household of a penny increase in the real estate tax.

We Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian members of V.O.I.C.E. want to preserve the "penny for housing" because we know that only the county has the resources to buy and preserve apartments for low- and moderate-income families. We will work with elected leaders across the political spectrum to make sure that the program is managed efficiently and effectively.

Some of us may have to pay higher taxes to preserve the affordable-housing program, but we can assure you that we will pay, one way or another -- even if it means a church paying $60 a night to put a sick, homeless woman in a motel room.

The writers are, respectively, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church and imam of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center. They are among the clergy leaders of V.O.I.C.E., an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation.

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