Lester Hamm wakes up at 4 a.m. every weekday. He puts on his green work clothes, sometimes eats breakfast, and then drives 10 miles through the darkness to a stop in Marshall, Va., where he catches a Fairfax County-owned bus to his job.
Hamm spends his day hauling trash for the county. He usually returns home by the same bus around 4 p.m. "I used to get tired, but I'm used to it now," he sad. "Besides, I can't afford to move to the county."
Hamm is among a large number of Fairfax County employees who live outside the affluent county because they cannot afford the rising cost of housing in the county.
Union officials in Fairfax estimate 25 per cent of the 12,000 county employees live outside the county's boundaries.
A recent housing report states that half of the county's residents cannot afford the majority of the Fairfax housing units.
The median value of a home in the county is $64,600. The median family income is $22,800, meaning half of Fairfax families make more and half less.
The report warns: "If the trend toward increasing housing values continues, particularly in the lower price ranges, families with lower incomes will find themselves with less and less affordable housing in Fairfax County."
Lester Hamm is already in the predicament.
A county laborer for eight years, Hamm and his family live on a farm in Marshall, in a four-bedroom white frame house, which he rents for $60 a month.
"I wouldn't be able to find anything near that price in Fairfax County," Hamm said as the county bus taking him home passed pastures and woodlands along the two-lane highway heading toward Marshall. "The rent and taxes (in Fairfax) are too high," he said.
Like Hamm, Clarence Bushrod rides the same bus back and forth to work. "I'd rather go and come each day rather than pay those high bills in the county," said Bushrod, who lives in Warrenton.
There are about 35 county public works employees who catch the bus in the small towns of Gainesville, Broad Run, The Plains, Marshall and Warrenton during the early morning hours to go to work in Fairfax County.
The $9,000 bus was paid for by the 33,000 customers of the county's refuse collection system.
The bus operation began 15 to 20 years ago when county officials tried to recruit trash collectors and found that they couldn't find many applicants within the county. The trash haulers they did find couldn't afford the transportation to Fairfax. So, the County public works department began providing free transportation to the workers, who mostly live in Fauquier, some as much as 40 miles from Fairfax.
Fairfax union leaders said the increasing cost of living in the county is one of the main reasons Fairfax employees live elsewhere.
Ed Anderson, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the county teachers' professional group, said about 40 per cent of 6,700 county teachers who belong to the group live outside of the county.
A former leader of two now-defunct county policeman's union said 50 per cent of the 325 county police officers who formerly belonged to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters lived outside of Fairfax County.
"The average custodian makes $8,000" said Peter Moralis, another county union leader. "Where are they going to find housing in the county?"
Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity said he is concerned about the escalating cost of housing in the county and that some county employees can't afford it.
However, he said the demands that housing meet certain county environmental standards and that contractors be bonded to protect the home buyer cause the prices of homes to increase.
Of the lack of affordable homes for county employees. Herrity said, "This has been something that has been talked about the last 12 years. Some people thought public housing would solve the problem, but I really don't think public housing is the answer."
Besides, he said, most of the county employees, even the lowest paid ones, earn too much to qualify for public housing.
Herrity said he is waiting for a report from a county committee that is studying ways to reduce the cost of housing in Fairfax.
But even if housing prices are reduced. Herrity said, "I don't think you can force people to live in the county."