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Fairfax County could turn millions of dollars in vacant land into affordable housing

A Fairfax County-owned property along Balls Hill Road slated for a traffic improvement project at the intersection with Old Dominion Drive (staff photo by David Taube)

Faced with challenges from providing affordable housing to mitigating flooding, Fairfax County has its hands full, but it’s currently armed with vacant property assessed at tens of millions of dollars.

Currently tax-exempt, the properties could be used for commercial development, environmental preservation, housing projects, recreation, or stormwater drainage, among other purposes.

“There is a critical shortage of affordable housing options in Fairfax County,” Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said when asked about what the county should do with its vacant properties.

The total financial value of vacant, county-owned properties exceeds $50 million, as calculated based on a public records request and assessments in an online county database for over 100 parcels that could be used for commercial, residential, or other uses.

It wasn’t immediately clear if other restrictions, such as environmental issues, setbacks, and prior plans, limit the use of those properties.

The $50 million-plus figure includes at least $10 million in assessed property that was listed as vacant but nonbuildable, but it excludes properties in floodplains as well as parcels already in use, such as parking lots, parks, or school areas.

One of the largest vacant property acquisitions is across from the Fairfax County Government Center: a 2.6-acre property bordered by Legato Road and Post Forest Drive that cost around $50 million in 1994. It currently has an assessed value of around $11,450.

“One of the elements of the County’s Housing Strategic Plan is to utilize vacant parcels as well as to repurpose land, such as existing parking lots, to increase the supply of housing,” Foust noted by email.

Created in 2018, the Communitywide Housing Strategic Plan calls on Fairfax County to make vacant or underutilized, publicly owned land available for affordable and mixed-income housing “to expand housing options without direct public financial subsidy” through public-private partnerships.

Currently, the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority has three such properties that are slated to be developed through public-private partnerships:

The county’s more sizable vacant lots include five adjacent properties along South Van Dorn Street in Franconia that occupy around 3.7 acres located near Thomas A. Edison High School.

The county also has a 9.63-acre parcel near the Innovation Center Metro station that will eventually open in Herndon as part of the much-delayed Silver Line extension.

Foust says part of the property includes a community playing field, but its proximity to the Metro station could make it a candidate for future affordable housing.

“Placing affordable housing on the site could be a good use of the land,” he said. “If that came about, the playing field would need to be relocated.”

In McLean, the county has two properties in a residential neighborhood at 7135 and 7139 Old Dominion Drive that have been assessed at a combined $2.06 million. They are slated for a traffic improvement project at the intersection of Old Dominion and Balls Hill Road. The project is currently in the design phase.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said in a Washington Business Journal story about affordable housing that land is the county’s “single most useful tool.”

“Reallocation of Board-owned property can occur in a number of ways,” McKay said in a statement. “However it is often at the request of a County agency and is followed by an extensive review of the property. Within the last year, the Board was proud to authorize the transfer of two properties to the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority for the potential creation of affordable housing.”

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