With its yellow wood siding and wraparound country porch, the apartment building near Mount Vernon evokes the quiet suburban charm that has long drawn families to Fairfax County’s neighborhoods.
Its tenants, however, are recovering drug addicts, ex-cons and drifters who used to be homeless.
And the studio apartments they are housed in are part of a debate across the rapidly growing county of 1.2 million people over how to manage the demographic changes sweeping through one of the richest communities in the nation.
A proposed zoning ordinance that grew out of an effort to create more transitional housing would make it easier for developers to build hundreds more studio or “efficiency” apartments that, officials say, are in increasing demand as Fairfax grapples with a mounting homeless problem and as more low-salaried workers arrive in search of cheaper housing.
Those forces have in recent years gnawed at the suburban character of the area that is home to such neighborhoods as Great Falls and the “planned community” of Reston. In the woods near regal mansions, homeless transients curl up at night inside makeshift tents, officials say. Along quiet cul-de-sacs, as many as a dozen renters at a time share space inside squat brick ramblers and newer “McMansions” that have been illegally converted into boarding houses.
Gail Nittle sighed at one of the houses in her Springfield neighborhood that, because of the number of cars parked in the driveways, she and her neighbors suspect are illegal boarding homes.
“When you look at your house and then you see these others, it just makes you want to weep,” she said.
County officials hope to address those problems by allowing single-occupancy apartments in areas that are not currently zoned for such housing, under an ordinance that was initially conceived as a solution to homelessness but has evolved to include housing for young professionals and low-income workers. The units would be no larger than 500 square feet, and most would be affordable to people making at least $45,000 a year, although some would be virtually free as part of supportive housing programs aimed at fighting homelessness.
With new luxury high-rise apartments going up in Tysons Corner and more growth expected to follow the $6 billion Silver Line Metrorail extension, county officials also see cheaper studio apartments as a tool for luring more hotels, restaurants and other lower-salary businesses to Fairfax.
The idea is part of an effort underway in Fairfax and other “urbanizing suburbs” to manage growth while keeping communities family friendly.
In an area where the annual median household income is $107,000 and average rents for one-bedroom apartments approach $1,300 a month, affordable “workforce” housing is increasingly hard to come by, said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
“When you talk to the business community . . . they’ll tell you that the biggest impediment to growth in Fairfax County is a lack of affordable housing for the workforce,” she said. “We’re really talking about creating a community in Fairfax County that provides for housing in all ranges so people can live and work here.”
The zoning ordinance is before the county’s Planning Commission and is not expected to be voted on by the Board of Supervisors until early next year.
But an effort is already being mounted to kill the idea or dramatically scale it down. Many residents say they are already overwhelmed by congested parking and crowded schools and argue that the plan would exacerbate the problem.
They are particularly incensed by one option being considered: allowing developers to build apartment buildings with as many as 75 studio units in areas zoned for low density.
County officials say the option is required under federal fair-housing laws as a way to prevent income discrimination. They stress that all projects would be relegated to arterial roads and streets that connect them and that community input would be a major part of the approval process.
Resident groups are, nonetheless, wary that the effort will lead to group homes and other boarding-house arrangements in their midst.
“There’s a feeling that this would open up a can of worms,” said Bruce Waggoner, head of the Springfield Civic Association.
“The big concern is that whatever is intended today will continually give ground and there would be more surprises down the pike.”
That worry stems from recent history in Fairfax, where lax code enforcement led to several hundred illegally converted houses being rented out to boarders, many of them Asian and Latin American immigrants whose arrival has helped reshape the region.
During the early 2000s, the turbocharged housing market attracted unscrupulous investors to Fairfax who bought large houses and then divided them into one-room apartments, said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who based his initial run for office in 2007 on addressing the problem.
“I’ve visited a few of those houses where there were fires, and the fire department would show me that some of them are deathtraps,” McKay said, describing one house where two families of four lived in basement bedrooms.
“There was a fire in one, and the whole corner of the room was burned next to two baby cribs.”
The problem drew headlines in 2009, when federal and local law enforcement officials busted a $24 million mortgage fraud scheme in the county that used straw buyers for dozens of large houses that became boarding homes.
County officials say such conversions are less common today but still a concern. This year, the county has received 630 complaints about possible illegal conversions, officials said. Roughly nine out of 10 of those complaints are likely to be real violations, they said.
“It is a fight for the future of our suburban neighborhoods,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), who, like several other supervisors, supports limiting studio apartments to industrial areas of the county and near Metro stations. “When you move into a single-family neighborhood of Fairfax County, you don’t expect to be near illegal or legal boarding houses.”
Affordable-housing advocates argue that the ordinance would help fix the problem of illegal conversions while biting into a problem with homelessness that, in January, amounted to 1,350 people sleeping in the woods, cars or friends’ couches.
Those advocates began pushing for the ordinance about 10 years ago, initially as a way to create supportive housing programs that mirror fixes sought in New York, Chicago and other major cities with chronic homelessness, said Pam Michell, executive director of New Hope Housing, a nonprofit group based in Alexandria.
The idea has since morphed into an effort to address several housing challenges in the county, but with a suburban mind-set, Michell said.
“Yeah, we have urban problems, but geographically we’re different and the challenges are different,” she said. “We can’t just cookie-cutter what other communities are doing.”
Michell and other advocates point to the house with the yellow wood siding and wraparound porch as an example of how large studio-apartment buildings can meld into the surrounding community.
The Mondloch Place apartment building, which recently opened in the Groveton neighborhood in the southern part of Fairfax, was built for $3.5 million on county land where a former homeless shelter operated.
It looks more like a bed-and-breakfast — complete with a maple tree in the front yard and a sitting room inside where coffee and pastries are served.
Run by New Hope Housing, the building is home to 20 people who used to live on the streets or at other homeless shelters.
The studio apartments are small. But with new kitchens and room for a bed and a TV, they are sanctuaries for stability for those who have moved in.
Rochelle Burks, 36, outfitted her apartment with framed art posters and Halloween decorations.
She became homeless, she said, after her father died in 2005 and a cyclone of pain in her heart drove her to drugs and nights sleeping in her car.
Today, she is clean, looking for a new job and proud of her new home, she said.
“I call this my miniature mansion,” Burks said, smiling near a sign on her front door that declared all new guests would leave as friends. “It’s small, but it’s all mine.”