When Fairfax County spent $49.5 million to buy the Crescent apartment complex near Lake Anne in Reston, in 2006, it was with the stated goal of preserving affordable housing in the county as real estate values continued their upward climb. So it came as a surprise to the residents when they learned that Fairfax was already looking to sell or lease the property for redevelopment, as part of a bigger plan to revitalize the Lake Anne area. The county’s plan is to replace the 181 apartments in the 50-year-old, three-story buildings with up to 935 apartments overlooking the lake and close to shopping and a new Metro station.
The current residents love the place, not only because their rents are low ($1,150 for a two-bedroom place) but because it’s near two elementary schools and many bus lines. “There are good people living here,” said Andres Paz, a dental assistant who’s lived in the Crescent for 8 1/2 years. “We are somebody. We are poor, but we are good people.”
Fairfax officials say they are determined to keep the low-income residents in the Crescent, even if they’re ultimately surrounded by more upscale types. “The county has made it clear,” County Board Chairwoman Sharon Bulova said, “we don’t want to lose [affordable housing]…People who are living at the Crescent will be able to live at the redeveloped Crescent.”
The county’s request for proposals for the property requires developers to replace all 181 of the current units with similarly affordable units, and make arrangements for relocation while the construction is underway. In addition, another 151 units are required to be affordable under the county’s “workforce dwelling unit” policy, which means 332 of the 935 units would have below-market rates, according to the county’s documents.
“I know some people may be uncertain that the preservation of affordable housing will occur,” Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) wrote in a letter to the residents last month, and reaffirmed in a conversation with me. But she noted that other Reston communities reserved for low-income residents have been maintained and rehabbed, and added, “Rest assured: when it comes to affordable housing in Reston, I stand up for residents in this community.”
But there remains some uneasiness, both among the residents and with the activist group VOICE, Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. Free-market capitalism can squeeze out those at the low end, and people like Rabbi Michael Holzman of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston have been closely scrutinizing the criteria for those who qualify for affordable housing in this project and how that’s going to unfold once a developer is chosen.
“God’s in the details,” Holzman said. He and other VOICE members met with Huggins and Bulova and believe the supervisors are on their side, “but to make it happen is going to take a lot of complicated work, a lot of work with the developer, and they have to know that the residents, along with the community, are organized and we’re right behind them.”
They’re so organized that they put together a march through Reston last month, from near the Reston Town Center to the Crescent, to raise awareness of the possibility of displacement of the residents. The residents and the activists had the feeling they were late to the table because they weren’t aware that the property was put on the block by Fairfax in February 2012. “The whole deal has been shrouded in secrecy,” Holzman said. “There’s a real transparency problem.” VOICE organizers said when they began knocking on doors last summer, residents were unaware their community was up for redevelopment.
There is also the issue of who qualifies for “affordable” housing. In Fairfax, the area median income as defined by HUD is $107,500, and those who make 60 percent of that, or $64,500, are at the top of the affordable scale. “These issues of how you define affordable are all over Northern Virginia,” said Kathleen O’Toole of VOICE. “As taxpayers, we own this [the Crescent], we want to have a say in how the county spends it.”
Some would say the county shouldn’t be involved in owning and selling residential property. Fairfax owns nearly 3,000 public housing and family rental units, including 672 apartments at the Wedgewood apartments in Annandale and 195 apartments at Cedar Ridge, just down the street from the Crescent in Reston, as well as another 826 senior and specialized units around the county.
“The county shouldn’t be in the landlord business,” Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said, “and it certainly shouldn’t be one of the largest landlords in the county as it currently is…The fact that we are looking at selling or redeveloping these apartments only seven years after we first purchased them, I think, would be a recognition of the fact that this policy is neither working nor sustainable.”
Fairfax issued its request for proposals in February 2012, looking for either buyers or lessors, and also for developers interested not only in the Crescent but other properties around Lake Anne, including the Fellowship House senior citizen high-rise. The RFP requires that 10 percent of the 181 units would be offered to households earning up to 30 percent of area median income, 20 percent to households earning up to 50 percent and 70 percent to households earning up to 60 percent. The county has been negotiating privately with bidders, and officials said they hope to select one within the next month or so.
The process then becomes public, with standard land use review processes, public hearings and a vote by the Board of Supervisors. County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald estimated that the process could take another three years, or the same as the average household stay at the Crescent.
The goal is to revitalize Lake Anne, which was the creation point for Reston in the early 1960s, but has become dated and is no longer the commercial center it once was. At the same time, founder Robert Simon’s vision of Reston was one where all income levels were welcome, not just the stereotypical wealthy suburbanites. Simon recently wrote a letter to the residents saying that “the need for affordable housing is critical, not only for those who currently reside in the apartments but also to insure the economic diversity of our neighborhood. (Simon lives on Lake Anne.) This was one of the original objectives of the development of Reston and we need to see that it continues.”
Anna Carranza, who moved to Virginia from Bolivia, said she had read about Reston’s phillosophy of “live-work-play” all in one place, then saw the green spaces of Simon’s planned community and “I fell in love with this place.” She was able to take job training, take her daughters to school and move up the ladder economically. “We have peace here,” she said. “Justice with peace and progress.”
Paz said the neighbors join together to help those who might need a ride or temporary child care. There is almost no crime problem, which is a far cry from how the Crescent was viewed when I grew up not far from there in the 1970s and ’80s, when it was seen as a rough area, and even in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when police were there regularly, before the county bought it.
That Crescent is a distant memory. The current, peaceful Crescent will soon become a memory too. Will the current residents be part of the next stage of the Crescent? Fairfax County says yes. Many of us will be watching to see if that’s true.