Fairfax County's housing authority, which has encountered stiff opposition almost every time it has tried to bring subsidized housing to middle-class neighborhoods, is spending $52,600 to find out how to make friends of its critics.
The survey of public attitudes toward subsidized housing was proposed by authority member Harold D. Murray, a part-time real estate agent who says he himself was among the critics until he was "exposed to both sides of the issue."
Murray, who works full time in Navy Communications, said the survey's findings will be incorporated into a public-education program that could cost an additional $100,000.
The housing authority's spending was attacked by John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and a frequent critic of the authority.
"It's a total waste of money," Herrity said. "I've done polls of the whole community for $3,000 to $4,000 in my campaigns. They (the authority members) have been taken to the cleaners."
Herrity said the housing authority would be more likely to win public support if it "would stop trying to bulldoze projects through, and weren't so secretive."
Herrity nonetheless acknowledged "there is a basic opposition to public housing in Fairfax County."
Murray said the survey could help reverse at least some of that opposition: "If people could become aware of the need for public housing in Fairfax and of the housing that's already been developed, I think they would be much more receptive."
Murray, who sells real estate in the Rose Hill area of southeastern Fairfax, said his attitudes began to change after he was appointed to the authority four years ago.
"I used to think it would be detrimental and unjust to the owners of $100,000 or $150,000 houses if public housing were put in their neighborhoods after they had invested so much," he said.But Murray said his apprehensions were not borne out.
Furthermore, he said, his real estate work has shown him "there is a desperate need for cheaper housing in the county. I get so many people who come to me and can't qualify to finance a home purchase."
The authority's commissioners were unanimous in their decision to finance the survey, which will be done by Winsor Demaine and Associates of Alexandria. Even John C. Kershenstein, the newest member and a frequent critic of what he calls the agency's lack of openness, said he voted for the proposal.
"I have mixed emotions about supporting something which we probably already know the answer to," he said. "But I'm willing to support anything that will make the product (subsidized housing) saleable to the tax-paying public. To be a defensible program, it has to be acceptable not only to the people using it but the people paying for it."
But many of the people paying for it -- white, middle-class homeowners, for the most part -- have packed meeting after meeting to denounce subsidized projects that the authority wants to build in their neighborhoods.
The two most frequent arguments are that the projects are too big (and would thus overwhelm established communities) and would lower surrounding real estate values. But lately, the critics have changed their approach, arguing that the proposed housing is not close to public transportation, jobs and public services, and therefore violates federal guidelines.
Supporters of public housing say many of the critics simply don't want poorer people living near them, and sometimes claim there are racial motivations for the opposition. On at least one occasion, however -- in the Wolf Trap neighborhood between Vienna and Tysons Corner -- both black and white residents voiced opposition to a housing authority project proposed for their neighborhood. The project was eventually approved.
Frequently, the authority's administrative arm, the Department of Housing and Community Development, has tried to enlist the support of ministers from the affected neighborhoods. But those efforts have failed as often as they have succeeded.
The authority's chairman, Gerald W. Hopkins, a Protestant minister himself, says ministers "often don't want to cause a schism in their congregation and rock the boat.I find that the more common attitude."
Hopkins, attempting to answer critics who say his agency acts secretly to bypass an unaware public, says often it's impossible to pinpoint where subsidized housing will be built in long-range plans. The timing, he said, depends on the availability and price of land.
Deirdre C. Coyne, community liaison specialist with the housing and community development department, says there have been repeated efforts to mollify critics "but nothing seems to work. They always come up with a new argument against the housing."