Fairfax County voters have been hearing a lot about affordable housing in the run-up to Tuesday’s election: Democrats argue that one of Virginia’s wealthiest suburbs should devote resources to affordable housing, while Republicans say the average taxpayer can no longer afford to pay for it.
In a recent debate between candidates for the Board of Supervisors’ Braddock District seat, Supervisor John C. Cook (R) raised the issue when asked which single policy he would change.
“I think we need to reform our housing policies to do more to help the homeless,” said Cook, 48. “Instead, we spend millions of dollars a year subsidizing housing for people making over $50,000 a year.”
Cook criticized the board’s purchase of the 672-unit Wedgewood Apartments in Annandale four years ago for more than $107 million, saying its price tag rivaled the cost of a school renovation.
Carey C. Campbell, 55, chairman of the Independent Greens of Virginia who is running for Braddock supervisor as an independent, said police officers tell him often they would like to live where they serve but can’t afford to. Noting that the $50,000 household figure Cook cited was for a four-person household, he said Cook’s remarks were a “cheap shot at the poor folks by the borrow-and-spend incumbent.”
The issue of subsidizing housing has divided the 10-member Board of Supervisors and the community. The nonpartisan Fairfax County League of Women Voters has publicly defended affordable housing, noting that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has encouraged such programs.
Democrats argue that affordable housing programs are not only the right thing to do but are the practical thing to do. Businesses are reluctant to move to a place employees can’t afford, and local roads cannot handle more commuters driving between their jobs in Fairfax and their homes farther away. They note that the board, in the face of the recession, scaled back affordable housing by halving the Penny for Affordable Housing Fund, which used 1 cent of the real-estate tax rate to preserve affordable housing.
“No longer are we purchasing apartment complexes that are on the block for sale. That’s just not where we are right now,” board Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D) said.
Republicans have hammered affordable housing on the campaign trail, especially since the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy put out a report this year called “Subsidized Luxury in Fairfax County.”
The report said the county’s affordable housing program was paying as much as $4,700 a year in condo fees for some families. The report said taxpayers make up the difference when a $860,000 townhouse set aside by a developer as affordable housing must be sold for $145,000.
Michael J. “Spike” Williams, a Republican challenging Bulova for chairman, has raised affordable housing as a key difference between their views. In an interview, he acknowledged that as a child he lived in rent-subsidized housing in Herndon when things were “hand-to-mouth.”
“It’s not like we had a flat-screen TV hanging on the wall,” said Williams, 43.
Williams said the county should sell 80 percent of its more than 3,600 units. At $150,000 each, that could generate more than $430 million that could be used on transportation or other projects to benefit everyone.
“It’s my opinion that we could retain our compassion and meet the needs of the needy, and not the people who want cheaper housing, but actually need it,” Williams said. “If you don’t draw the line, you just perpetuate the nanny state.”
Bulova said Williams was being unrealistic.
“If we were to sell all of those, we might be able to pay for an interchange,” said Bulova, 63. “But we would also have people out on the streets looking for affordable housing that’s not available.”
The Department of Housing and Community Development has a budget of about $113 million and operates three affordable housing programs that use publicly owned dwellings, rentals and rent vouchers.
Thomas Fleetwood, a spokesman for the agency, said there were 12,113 people on a waiting list for housing assistance as of September. And the need is expected to grow. Studies by George Mason University and Virginia Tech say that jobs and population growth outstrip the supply of affordable housing so that as many as 50,000 units will be needed to meet demand in coming years.
Dean Klein, director of the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, said 60 percent of the people in homeless shelters have jobs. What’s missing are apartments and housing they can afford.
“We feel strongly that we need more housing opportunities for people,” Klein said.
Dennis Husch, a Republican challenging Supervisor John W. Foust (D) for the Dranesville seat, said that government should focus on core duties and that owning public housing shouldn’t be one of them unless it’s for the neediest. He opposes efforts to create workforce housing, such as by requiring developers in Tysons Corner to set aside 20 percent of their units for affordable housing.
“That’s the most expensive dirt in Fairfax County, maybe the most expensive property in the State of Virginia, and you have to wonder if that’s where you want to put affordable housing,” said Husch, 65, who served 16 years on the Herndon Town Council.
Foust, 60, who has tried to steer a moderate course in a district that tilts Republican, said Thursday that the county has narrowly crafted an affordable housing strategy whose average client is a three-person household with an annual income of $25,905, or what classifies as “extremely low income” by federal law.
“It in fact does serve the neediest members of our community,” Foust said, adding that Republicans’ estimates of the taxpayers’ cost, particularly in Tysons Corner, are “wildly inflated.”
Chris Grisafe, a Republican seeking to oust Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D) in the Providence District, said the affordable housing program turns fairness upside down by forcing all taxpayers to subsidize homes for a few.
“The county’s in the business of picking winners and losers, and I don’t think that’s just,” said Grisafe, 31. “There are a lot of people who are commuting in from other places, but they’re making it work.”
Smyth, 62, said availability of affordable housing is important for the health of the business community, citing a report by the county’s Economic Advisory Commission that businesses want to set up shop in areas where its workers can find affordable homes. She said affordable housing also has a bearing on transportation because if people cannot live in Fairfax County, they will be adding more vehicles to crowded roads.