A new report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) highlights some remarkable regional success in reducing homelessness. In Fairfax County, the numbers seemed to tell a different story, but county leadership says some of that is a result of the way the survey is conducted.

The annual study sends researchers across regional localities to collect a snapshot of how many residents are experiencing homelessness, and while not a comprehensive scientific count, it’s generally seen as a look at regional trends.

While neighbors like Arlington County and the City of Alexandria reported declines in their homeless population counts by 14% and 49%, respectively, Fairfax County is one of only two out of nine jurisdictions surveyed that saw its homeless count increase.

In Fairfax County, homeless population counts went from 1,041 in 2020 to 1,222 in 2021, a 17% increase. The only other D.C.-area locality to report a year-to-year rise in its homeless population was Prince George’s County, which increased by 19%.

Fairfax County claims on its website that the increase reflects an expansion of shelter capacity and services, rather than an increase in homelessness.

“The increase is primarily attributable to the increase in the community’s capacity to provide shelter with increased federal emergency funding associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the commendable efforts of service providers to care for unstably housed community members,” the Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness said.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay similarly credited the increase in the count to an increase in accommodations for people experiencing homelessness.

“This year’s data indicates an outstanding effort by our Housing staff and our community-based partners to respond to the unprecedented impacts of 2020,” he said in a statement. “By providing safe housing accommodations and a wide variety of supportive services to assist our most vulnerable neighbors along the path toward housing stability, we have been able to help our entire community.”

However, since at least 2017, the homeless population counts for Fairfax County have been gradually increasing, which McKay says is also indicative of an inadequate affordable housing stock.

Released in two parts across 2018 and 2019, the county’s Communitywide Housing Strategic Plan set a goal of producing a minimum of 5,000 net new affordable housing units within 15 years. 1,800 units are currently in the pipeline, according to McKay.

In his statement to Tysons Reporter on the homelessness point-in-time count data, McKay said:

Most importantly, it indicates that our work on the issue of housing — including emergency housing — must and will continue to be a critical priority for this Board. This is an essential component of our community’s crisis response system for those who need help in regaining a safe, decent and stable housing situation.

Housing is a foundational component in achieving positive outcomes in nearly every aspect of our lives and having thousands of our neighbors experiencing homelessness or struggling to remain in their homes is not something that we as a community will turn a blind eye to. This could be any of us. There are too many circumstances beyond our control which can cause that stability to be shaken through no fault of our own.

Photo via MWCOG

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Following in the footsteps of his Fairfax County counterpart, Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields is proposing a one-cent reduction in the real estate tax rate as part of the city’s advertised fiscal year 2022 budget.

However, because of rising assessed values, the average homeowner will still experience a $291 increase in their tax bill next year.

Presented to the city council on Monday (March 8), the advertised budget increases city government operating expenses by 2.3% (or $946,567) and public schools funding by 2.5% (or just over $1 million).

“With vaccines rolling out, and springtime in the air, we need to maintain vigilance but certainly have optimism toward the future — and hopefully, this budget reflects that as well,” Shields said.

Falls Church City School Board Chair Shannon Litton called the proposed $1 million funding increase for FCCPS “a bit better than we expected, given COVID-19.” The school division will also be receiving an additional $20,000 from the state and $31,000 from the federal government, she said.

Shields said the budget keeps revenues in line with forecasts from December without proposing a larger increase on residential real estate taxpayers. The city saw year-over-year increases in taxes on groceries and online sales, but a large decrease in revenue from hospitality taxes.

Highlights of the budget include funding for:

  • $145,000 for body-worn cameras and civilian positions to support the department, which is a first step in addressing recommendations from the Use of Force Review Committee
  • $200,000 in coronavirus contingency funds to address uncertainties, either revenue shortfalls or increased demand for services and assistance
  • $150,000 to develop a Parks Master Plan
  • $100,000 for the Affordable Housing Fund to supplement the $3.75 million Amazon REACH grant funds and leverage future developer contributions.

Shields has also proposed increasing stormwater management rates by 2%, or $4, for a median homeowner to pay for projects intended to address smaller-scale nuisance flooding. He anticipates that the city will need to increase rates by 10 to 15% for the next five years to fund six larger-scale stormwater management projects.

The advertised budget gives Falls Church City employees a 3% merit compensation increase, and a 3.5% step increase to uniformed police staff, but Shields told the city council on Monday that this small-scale growth is not sustainable in the long-term.

“My budget guidance for six years in a row was to keep non-personnel expenses flat,” he said. “So, it is really important to emphasize that after six years in a row of doing that — in addition to cuts made last year due to COVID-19 — our budgets are extremely lean.”

The city has about $3.94 million in unfunded needs across all departments, he said. These range from adding positions, including police officers, IT staff, and economic development staff, to maintaining public amenities, such as basketball and tennis courts and athletic fields.

Other highlights include:

  • A $500,000 decrease in debt service, as due to the cancellation of planned debt issuance during the current fiscal year and refunding prior bonds from 2013 and 2011 at lower interest rates.
  • A $4.5 million transfer from the 10-acre land at the George Mason High School campus to capital reserves.
  • Anticipated concessions from Founders Row for $1.8 million, which will also be placed in capital reserves.

In addition to flood mitigation, other public safety spending includes investments in sidewalks, paving — which Shields said has been underfunded since the Great Recession — and neighborhood traffic calming activities. State grants will pay for improvements to the Park Avenue “Great Streets” project, the Oak Street Bridge and the Washington and Columbia intersection.

The city will also receive funding through the Biden administration’s American Recovery Act.

“That congressional aid [is] needed and necessary, and we will use it very well for infrastructure and capital needs,” Shields said.

Community members will get a chance to learn about the budget and share their comments at a town hall from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday (March 11). Budget meetings will be held on March 22 and April 12, and there will be a second town hall on April 15 before the city council is slated to adopt the budget on April 26.

Photo via City of Falls Church Government/Facebook, charts via City of Falls Church

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Updated March 2 to clarify that the funding is Amazon-related, not Amazon-funded.

The City of Falls Church is getting $3.75 milli0n in grants for affordable housing initiatives to prepare for Amazon’s arrival in Arlington County.

In response to concerns about the anticipated impact of its second headquarters in Arlington on the region’s housing prices, Virginia Housing is investing $75 million dollars spread out over five years in affordable housing.

“Ensuring affordable access to housing for all is a key priority for the City Council and our community as a whole,” City of Falls Church Mayor P. David Tarter said in a statement. “We are delighted that Virginia Housing has awarded this grant and appreciative to Senator Dick Saslaw (VA-35) for his efforts to bring this important program to the City.”

Falls Church will get $3.4 million for a new affordable housing homeownership program and $350,000 to extend the availability of nine committed affordable apartments at the Read Building (402 W. Broad Street).

“Homeownership has been increasingly out of reach for many, and this is an innovative first step to reverse the trend,” Councilmember Letty Hardi said, calling the grant “a major step forward for the city.”

The NHP Foundation will manage the homeownership program with support from the city’s Housing and Human Services Department. Once the program is established, the city says it will take about one year for NHPF to purchase, rehabilitate, and resell the homes.

With the $3.4 million, the city estimates that 18 qualified first-time home-buyers will be able to purchase rehabilitated homes between $425,000 and $525,000. The program will make use of Virginia Housing special lending programs and mortgage credit certificates, as well as local down payment assistance, according to the city.

“We’ve already received several calls from interested homebuyers, so we’re excited to get the program established,” Falls Church Housing and Human Services Deputy Director Dana Lewis said in a statement.

The city says it expects most qualifying homes to be condominiums, but single-family homes and townhouses could also be eligible.

NHPF currently manages the Winter Hill Apartments in the City of Falls Church.

The remaining $350,000 in grant funds will subsidize rent prices for nine workforce units at the Read Building until Dec. 31, 2032. These units are reserved for qualified renters, including Falls Church City Public School teachers and staff and City of Falls Church government employees.

“In the City, there is a gap between what many households can afford and available rental and ownership homes,” Nancy Vincent, director of the City’s Housing and Human Services Department, said. “These grant funds help address the diverse housing needs of the City’s current and future populations.”

City officials suggested these solutions during a city council meeting on Nov. 9, building on a consultant’s report that outlined ways for the city to expand its affordable housing supply.

Virginia Housing is managing these grants through its REACH (Resources Enabling Affordable Community Housing in Virginia) program, which supports affordable and accessible housing as well as revitalization and preservation efforts.

Gov. Ralph Northam first announced the investment by Virginia Housing in 2018.

Image via Google Maps

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The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is aiming to formally update its Workforce Dwelling Unit (WDU) policy to provide more affordable rents for local workers as rents continue to increase across the region.

The proposal, which will come before the board for a public hearing and a vote today (Tuesday), offers greater flexibility to developers and has a particular focus on the Tysons Urban Center.

Under the proposed policy, developers in Tysons would have two options for meeting their workforce dwelling unit requirements:

  • Make 13% of the units WDUs, with a breakdown of 2% at 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI), 3% at 70% AMI, and 8% at 80% AMI
  • Or make 10% of the units WDUs at 60% AMI

Adopted in 2010, Fairfax County’s current Tysons WDU policy gives developers a 20% density bonus if they commit to making 20% of their rental units affordable at various income levels for at least 50 years.

Fairfax County Housing and Development Director Tom Fleetwood says expectations for WDU commitments in Tysons are higher than in the rest of the county “because of the density available in the Tysons Urban Center.”

The Board of Supervisors initiated a review of the county’s workforce dwelling unit policy last July after a task force convened in March 2019 found that the policy was, in effect, allowing market-rate units to be considered WDUs by including units at 100 and 120% of the AMI, which is currently $126,000 for a family of four in the D.C. area.

The task force recommended amending the policy so that it can more effectively serve its purpose, which is to provide more affordable housing in the county’s urban and mixed-use centers, like Tysons.

“We conducted a housing strategic plan process over the last two or three years, which identified, sort of these lower incomes as being in the greatest need,” Fleetwood said. “While at the same time, the higher income tiers that were served under the original version of the WDU program really were closer to the prevailing market rents here in Fairfax County.”

About 1,600 WDUs have been introduced in Fairfax County under the current policy, according to Fleetwood.

Based on a county staff report released in Janaury, the proposed amendment lowers the household income levels included in the rental WDU program from a maximum of 120% AMI to 80%. It also now includes households at 70% and 60% of AMI in the program.

It also updates the policy to allow developers outside of Tysons to get a 12% density bonus by offering 8% of their rental units as WDUs, a drop from the current 12% threshold. 4% of the units should be at 80% AMI, 2% at 70% AMI, and 2% at 60% AMI.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission unanimously recommended that the proposed policy changes be approved when it met on Feb. 3.

The amended policy that the Board of Supervisors is voting on today also includes revisions to update data, rework outdated terminology, and remove references to programs that no longer exist.

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Falls Church City is acquiring a Virginia Village apartment building on Shirley Street with the goal of preserving the units as market-rate affordable housing.

The City of Falls Church Economic Development Authority unanimously voted on Feb. 17 to enter into a contract to purchase the property at 302 Shirley Street for $925,000.

According to a presentation given to the EDA, there were nine other bidders for the property, which is 2,560 square feet in size and has four one-bedroom apartments. The competition required that the city act quickly to take advantage of the opportunity, Falls Church EDA Chair Robert Young says.

“The EDA has taken a strong position in the last year or such that its members believe that Affordable Housing is key part of economic development, especially in a small city like Falls Church,” Young said in a statement to Tysons Reporter. “This opportunity arose over a weekend and it quickly became clear it would be necessary to move quickly if the city/EDA was to have any chance of acquiring this asset.”

Young is also president of the property developer The Young Group, which he says put the building under contract to give the EDA and Falls Church City “sufficient time to properly consider the purchase.”

The building is currently fully leased, but three out of the four tenant leases are scheduled to terminate on May 31. Once the sale is complete, the existing tenants will be allowed to remain until the end of their leases, and the city will consider options for future property uses with a commitment to maintaining the units as affordable housing.

According to the presentation, the current rents for the one-bedroom apartment units are below 60% of the area median income.

If the sale is completed, this will be the second Virginia Village property owned by the City of Falls Church, since the city already owns the apartment building at 208 Gibson St. near Big Chimneys Park. That building is managed by a property management company for use by a nonprofit, and the rents are around 40% AMI, according to Young.

The city’s plans for the Shirley Street property will be in line with its South Washington Street Small Area Plan, which states that the Virginia Village neighborhood should either be preserved or redeveloped with replacement affordable housing incorporated into the new development.

To cover the purchase and operating costs, the EDA is utilizing $1.3 million in land banking funds, including $100,000 in transferred coronavirus relief funds.

Falls Church’s land banking program allows the city to sell a property to a developer for redevelopment. Previous purchases made through the program include a property in the mixed-use Rushmark development that now contains the West Broad apartments and Harris Teeter.

“Opportunities to acquire property consistent with the EDA’s land banking program are rare,” EDA Vice Chair Brian Williams said. “In this case, the City will be able to preserve affordable housing units in what is an important part of the South Washington Street small area plan. The EDA is pleased to help the City make progress in this area.”

Photo via Google Maps

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City of Falls Church community members will soon get an opportunity to share their thoughts on how the city should address the issue of affordable housing.

The League of Women Voters-Falls Church and Citizens for a Better City are co-sponsoring a series of public forums to discuss the state of affordable housing in the city called “Affordable Housing Falls Church: Problems & Prospects.”

The first of three forums will be held on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 4 p.m. A public Zoom link will be posted on the LWV-Falls Church website.

A panel of four longtime Falls Church leaders will be speaking at the forum:

  • Former Mayor H. Alan Brangman
  • Former Mayor Brian O’Connor
  • Former Falls Church Housing Corporation leader Katharine Emmons
  • Developer Robert Young, president of The Young Group

The panelists will discuss the efforts that have been made over the last 40 years to address the availability of affordable housing in Falls Church.

The other two forums will focus on current developments and possible options for the future. The dates of those discussions will be released at a later time.

“At this pivotal time, we look forward to engaging with an expert panel to understand past efforts to build affordable housing in the city, as we work toward offering more affordable housing options here,” Allison Brown, the co-president of the League of Women Voters-Falls Church, said.

The need to create more affordable housing has become a priority for Falls Church and other Northern Virginia communities since Amazon announced in 2018 that it would build its second headquarters in Arlington, leading housing prices to rise throughout the region.

The City of Falls Church commissioned and published a study in October 2020 that outlined possible options for creating and sustaining affordable housing. Some of the proposed options include financial incentives for landlords, utilizing Amazon REACH funds to extend affordability, and encouraging the production of accessory homes.

“With a decades-long record of only limited success in affordable housing efforts in our city, and now faced with the added question of more diversity in such housing, a public discussion to promote citizens’ awareness of the need to increase the supply is timely and long overdue,” Citizens for a Better City President Hal Lippman said.

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The Falls Church City Council took a notable step earlier this week in its effort to increase affordable housing.

The city council unanimously approved a resolution on Monday (Feb. 8) to reduce some of the voluntary concessions attached the city’s Broad and Washington mixed-use project in exchange for a commitment from the developer Insight Property Group to provide more affordable housing.

“I’m very excited about this project,” City of Falls Church Mayor David Tarter said. “The possibility of having increased affordable housing and raising the bar in that area is one I think is very exciting for our community.”

In its initial voluntary concessions agreement, Insight said that 18 of the 339 residential units planned for Broad and Washington would be available for below market value. Nine studio efficiency units would be at prices affordable for households making 40% of the area median income (AMI), and the remaining nine would be two-bedroom units for households making 60% AMI.

The voluntary concessions agreement also included an option to trade off other cash proffers that were proposed for schools, stormwater funds, and Bikeshare facilities, as well as a concession for libraries and park and recreation.

The newly approved resolution permits city staff to ask for 15 additional affordable studio units at 80% AMI, making 10% of the units in the Broad and Washington project available at some level of affordability below market rate, according to City Manager Wyatt Shields.

“What we’re getting in Broad and Washington is probably the richest mix and largest contributions in [voluntary concessions] across the board,” Councilmember Letty Hardi said. “So, while we can always do better, I do want to make sure people understand that we are getting a lot from this project.”

The resolution reduced Insight’s funding obligations to school capital costs by $2.3 million and to libraries and parks and recreation by $153,000 to allow for the increase in affordable housing.

While the project received unanimous approval, Councilmember David Snyder voiced concern with the manner in which the additional affordable housing was procured.

“My preference had always been that we not rob Peter to pay Paul, that we would add this on and use our leverage with developers,” Snyder said. “I want folks to understand that, yes, I support an increase in affordable dwelling units. This is not at all my preferred or desirable approach to funding them. I think we had other opportunities that were not taken.”

The Falls Church Planning Commission gave its support to the Broad and Washington project on Dec. 2 after a public hearing, but the group encouraged the city council to explore options for adding more affordable housing to the mixed-use development.

The city council voted on Jan. 25 to approve a comprehensive plan amendment, special exception, and the sale of a parking lot on Park Place to pave the way for Insight’s project.

The development plans call for a 56,000-square foot grocery store — likely Whole Foods — on the ground floor and mezzanine levels. At least 6,500 square feet of ground-floor space will be dedicated to other retail, sales, and restaurants, while 5,000 square feet has been set aside for the arts group Creative Cauldron.

A site plan for the development is expected in June, according to Shields.

Image via City of Falls Church

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Thursday Morning Notes

Ribbon Cutting Held for New Scotts Run Trail — “Fairfax County leaders on Feb. 4 cut the ribbon for the new Scotts Run Trail, which with serpentine curves connects the Pimmit Hills neighborhood with the McLean Metro station on the eastern edge of Tysons.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]

Sunrise of McLean Residents Get COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic — Residents and employees of the assisted living community Sunrise of McLean “received their first doses at a clinic hosted by CVS on Jan. 28. Sunrise Senior Living is working to schedule a clinic for second doses within the next few weeks in coordination with CVS Health.” [Patch]

Vienna Inn Prepares 61st Anniversary Celebrations — “To mark the 61st anniversary, Vienna Inn is hoping to achieve a new goal with a 1960 meal challenge. The restaurant hopes to provide 1960 meals for front-line workers and first responders by the end of February.” [Patch]

School Board Criticized for Delaying Decision on New School Holidays — “Religious leaders in Northern Virginia are criticizing the Fairfax County Public School board after some members signaled they won’t back a task force’s recommendation to add…four additional days off to observe Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Hindu festival Diwali and the Muslim celebration Eid al-Fitr.” [The Washington Post]

Fairfax County Seeks Community Input on Affordable Housing — A public comment period has opened on the one-year and five-year plans that guide Fairfax County’s housing and community development goals and how it spends the roughly $8.5 million in federal funds it receives annually to address community housing and human services needs. [Fairfax County Government]

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The City of Falls Church is currently looking at possible projects to submit for a slice of the funds that Virginia has pledged to support affordable housing around Amazon’s planned second headquarters.

Building off a consultant’s report on ways for the city to expand its affordable housing supply, Falls Church City Human Services Director Dana Lewis and City Manager Wyatt Shields laid out some of the options being considered during a city council meeting on Nov. 9.

Proposals include purchasing both owned and rental units that would be sold to city residents and workers at a lower price and buying units at a new development in the city to make them more affordable.

Lewis says Virginia Housing, the state agency that allocates the funds, has shown a particular interest in projects that involve homeownership, as opposed to rental units, because that is a major need throughout Northern Virginia.

“When we’ve talked with Virginia Housing, it seems like they’re really leaning toward innovation and creativity and something that can be duplicated in other jurisdictions,” Lewis said. “They seem to be pretty favorable on the ideas that we’ve shared with them.”

Previously known as the Virginia Housing Development Authority, Virginia Housing committed to investing $75 million in Northern Virginia over five years in response to Amazon’s November 2018 announcement that it will build a second headquarters in a section of Arlington County rebranded as National Landing.

The online retail and tech giant’s anticipated arrival has fueled rising housing prices in Arlington and surrounding jurisdictions, raising concerns that the region’s housing affordability challenges will only worsen in coming years.

The Amazon-related funds come through Virginia Housing’s REACH Virginia (Resources Enabling Affordable Community Housing in Virginia) program, which supports affordable and accessible housing as well as revitalization and preservation efforts.

While the first year of the fund focused on Arlington and Fairfax counties as well as the City of Alexandria, smaller localities like Falls Church City are now eligible to apply for the $15 million that Virginia Housing will allocate in Fiscal Year 2021.

Localities can receive a maximum of $3.75 million, and all of the funds they are awarded must be utilized within a year.

According to Falls Church City staff, proposals will be evaluated based on their proximity to National Landing, affordability, the project timeline, land use incentives, access to public transportation, energy efficiency, and other factors.

If Falls Church decides to look at buying homes that would be owned, Lewis says the city has identified six condominiums and one townhome that can be purchased for less than $700,000. They would be sold to buyers whose income is 60 to 80% of the area’s median income.

If the city decides to purchase a rental property, the units would be rented at a rate below 60% AMI, according to Lewis.

“We’d hold onto the units and then, at some point at a later time, maybe possibly combine them into a larger development plan,” Lewis said.

City Councilmembers Ross Litkenhous and Letty Hardi expressed interest in the idea of Falls Church exploring a homeownership program, noting that the importance of homeownership to people’s ability to accumulate wealth in the U.S. has contributed to racial inequities.

Councilmember Phil Duncan, however, questioned whether a homeownership program would allow Falls Church to produce enough affordable housing.

“Just because property here is so blooming expensive, [homeownership] is going to move the supply needle by handfuls of units, not dozens or hundreds,” Duncan said. “I think we need to find some way to try to move in the dozens or hundreds direction.”

With only four more council meetings scheduled for the rest of the year, Shields says city staff will keep the council updated on their work on the REACH application. He anticipates having another in-depth discussion on the topic at a work session on Dec. 7.

The deadline for localities to submit applications for Amazon REACH funds is Dec. 31.

“This is kind of at the testing-out ideas phase of this grant application, but we are moving quickly,” Shields said.

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One of the many problems highlighted by the pandemic is the lack of affordable housing, with even short-term job loss leaving many residents unable to pay their rent. As local governments grapple with how to support more housing, one of the options proposed in Falls Church has been a meals tax increase.

The obvious response, presented even by the consultants in Falls Church proposing the increase, is that local restaurants are already in dire straits and many are struggling to make ends meet. The Falls Church City Council quickly dismissed the idea of implementing a meals tax during the pandemic and favored other options presented, like trying to tap into an Amazon-related affordable housing fund.

While the restaurant industry is slowly recovering, stability could be a year away. But the affordable housing crisis is unlikely to be solved before then, and the question of the meals tax could resurface.

Meals taxes can be controversial even under non-pandemic circumstances. In 2016, Fairfax County voters rejected a referendum to implement a meals tax which would have predominately gone to support schools. In 2018, the City of Alexandria increased the meals tax by 1% to support affordable housing.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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