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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Efficiency units could destabilze neighborhoods, community leaders warn

A tiny studio apartment in San Francisco. [Photo from USA Today.]
Civic association leaders are concerned that a Fairfax County proposal to create a new zoning category allowing tiny efficiency apartments could destroy the character of older, residential neighborhoods, especially in places like the Annandale/Mason area where overcrowding is already a problem.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission has scheduled two work sessions on the proposal, Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, and a public hearing on Nov. 20. A date for a Board of Supervisors hearing hasn’t been set.

The residential studio units are aimed at addressing the lack of affordable housing in Fairfax County. In her September 2013 newsletter to constituents, Mason Supervisor Penny Gross said “the proposed amendment is consistent with the Board of Supervisors’ effort to end homelessness, facilitate the 50+ Plan that would accommodate the area’s aging single population, and increase affordable housing for a workforce earning less than 60 percent of the average median income.”

Under the county’s proposal, residential studio units would be no larger than 500 square feet, including a bathroom and kitchen. They would not have bedrooms. The units would be allowed in a variety of residential, commercial, industrial, and planned development zoning categories. The proposal includes two options, one of which would allow the units in single-family neighborhoods. 

Several districtwide organizations of community associations are taking an active role in publicizing the potential unintended consequences of allowing these types of units.

The Mason District Council of Community Associations has scheduled a special meeting for Monday, Sept. 9 to discuss a resolution on this issue being drafted by the MDC board. Representatives of community associations and homeowner associations in Mason are urged to attend the meeting, which will be at 7:30 p.m. at Peace Lutheran Church, 6362 Lincolnia Road.

This issue will also be a top agenda item at the next meeting of the Providence District Council, Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m., at the Dunn Loring Administrative Center, 2334 Gallows Road.

The Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations is expected to approve a resolution on the small units at its meeting Sept. 19, 7 p.m., at the Mason District Government Center. All of these meetings are open to the public.

A staff report by the Fairfax County Zoning Administration Division says the residential studios would be allowed in “a multiple family residential building having between three and 75 efficiency units (zero bedrooms) that are limited to rental occupancy only.” A certain proportion of the units would be restricted to lower-income individuals.

The staff report suggests that in addition to allowing new projects with these units, they could also be allowed in buildings converted from other uses, such as hotels and “big box” stores. Studio units would only be allowed on land “fronting on, and with direct access to, a collector street or major thoroughfare.”

“A residential studio development may be incompatible in some locations,” the report says, such as “a lot zoned R-2 located in the middle of a subdivision of one-half acre lots, developed with single family detached dwelling units, and served by a local neighborhood street.” It also says these units might be acceptable on an “R-2 lot located in an area that is surrounded by properties that have been rezoned to a higher density district or which is a transitional lot between residential and commercial uses.”

“There is a lot of unease about having residential studios in single-family neighborhoods,” said Charlie Hall of the Providence District Council. “There is a real concern you could open a Pandora’s box if you allow people to build or add on to existing structures to dramatically ramp up the number of people living in a house. That could destabilize neighborhoods.”

A homeowner could decide to renovate or put up an addition and “fully transform a house with a large number of units,” he said. “That could actually create an incentive to gut houses and serve a whole new population.”

Hall believes studio units shouldn’t be allowed on a residential site that is zoned for a density less than R-20. He also suggests the concept be started on a pilot basis to see how it works before allowing it countywide. There is a significant need for affordable housing, Hall notes, but “this is about striking a balance. Once something like this is in effect, it’s very hard to reverse the process.”

Leaders of the Mason District Council share these concerns. The MDC is also concerned that the county seems to be moving ahead on this proposal with insufficient opportunities for public input and public notification.

MDC also notes that the county’s zoning enforcement staff already lacks the capacity to respond to complaints about housing overcrowding and other code violations, so why encourage more opportunities for overcrowding abuses?

39 comments:

  1. " “R-2 lot located in an area that is surrounded by properties that have been rezoned to a higher density district or which is a transitional lot between residential and commercial uses.”"

    yeah, Annandale might end up like Logan Circle or Capitol Hill. Oh wait, never mind.

    "so why encourage more opportunities for overcrowding abuses?"

    Huh? Its the large houses that create the opportunities in the first place. Maybe we should ban them? LEGALIZING units means less incentive to cheat - because whats in demand becomes LEGAL. Plus by doing about something to increase supply, it will reduce the incentives to overcrowd elsewhere.

    How many folks on those councils is a renter? How many are folks actually harmed by the shortage of affordable units?

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    1. Many residents are just uninformed; it is only the terminology of the proposal that continues to prevent RESPONSIBLE development of "Affordable Dwelling Units" in our county. How can such a simple edit be an eight-year barrier to this amendment? If the revision specifically excluded existing neighborhoods of R-1 through R-5 (or specifically included those at R-8 and above) we could have been there long ago. The AMI for Fairfax is outrageously high ($107-120K/fam-hhold) relative to most of our typical incomes (under $75K).

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  2. "destroy the character of older, residential neighborhoods,"

    The character of Annandale has change repeatedly over the last several decades. From rural village, to sprawly suburb, to declining suburb, to ethnic area. Its changed and will inevitably continue to change. I do not see who adding a modest number of ADUs in SFHs adjacent to commercial areas will even significantly alter the charecter of Annandale, let alone "destroy" it.

    Poor people, single people, etc do not have cooties. They will not contaminate Annandale. They just might add to the neighborhood. They will certainly add to the critical mass of walkers (and possibly cyclists). And units like this might help restore Fairfax County to what it used to be - IE a place where someone could rent an apartment for a reasonable amount of money, and where the non-affluent could afford to live.

    What direction will Fairfax take - embracing the future - or reverting to classic fear of change, fear of the poor, fear of the single NIMBYISM? If the latter, it makes me not want to live here any more.

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  3. I do not want homes being converted to apartments and filled with too many people. (rich poor old young or whoever) We have something called "apartments" if people want to get one. Drive around and look at the mess around here and see what is going on. Also - look up what "unintended consequences" have happened with this type of thing in Seattle.

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    1. We do not have enough apartments, as shown the high rents. By trying to limit new apartments while demand grows, we have changed Fairfax County - we have made it less affordable.

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  4. This is BEYOND outrageous. This is FXCO looking to increase their voting block and tax base by cramming people into every square inch possible. I bought in an R-2 because it was supposed to protect me from overcrowding. THis is a DIRECT response to AMNESTY and FXCO's open arms approach to illegal aliens. This is a disgrace and disgusting. BUT if we are going to start a pilot program, lets make sure it's ONLY in the neighborhoods where the FXCO Board members live...

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    1. But Penny would not like your idea! She looks out for herself; she doesn't have to stare at a Mini or Maxie Castle either.

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  5. Who is the target population to live in these? Young single people out of college who want to live someplace like Annandale - far from metro, downtown, and other young people? Or are they coordinating with GMU/NOVA for renting these out? Because everyone wants a college dorm down the street.

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    1. In the proposal it says it is targeted to - 80% low income in each bldg. It also says on page one that an attachment can be put on a single family home. Or a single family home could be converted.

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    2. single family homes would only be able to add ADUs in selected locations.

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  6. I am chasing 55 in and have lived and worked in NOVA my entire life, and will never be able to afford a $1000 rent. $800 would be a hardship.

    I don't need much room. But I do need a place to live, preferably in area with amenities within walking distance.

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    1. On page 1 of the report it states "The use will be allowed by special exception in most residential, commercial, and industrial districts and can be approved as part of a rezoning or with a specials exception and/or development plan amendment in all planned development districts."
      Page 10 states... "Option 1 would allow the possibility of converting a single family dwelling structure into multiple family residential studio development.. "

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    2. I say opt out on Option 1 -- let the developers put affordable, practical, attractive multi-unit buildings in appropriate locations as several have attempted to propose in the past. No SFD conversions. (Unless the Waltons want to move into the neighborhood and give Grandma her own suite.)

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  7. Arlington brought in the metro and multiple modes of transportation to accommodate eventual density. And developers did just that. FFX is doing it backwards. Bring the transit then the density to attract working young people not white vans with illegal day laborers. Fairfax you got it wrong again!

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  8. I am never disappointed by the lack of wisdom and good common sense when it comes to the urban planning of Fairfax . It's as if the only bag of tricks they have are the ones left over from the old Soviet Union, and as we all know, that worked out just fine.......NOT!

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    1. How is ALLOWING someone to use their property as they see fit a trick from the USSR?

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    2. Have u every seen social engineering work? The answer is NO! I think using one's property any way they think then u should move to the chaos of Syria where anything goes. I am certain u will find a mud walled 250 SF shed w a corrugated metal roof to your liking .

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  9. I grew up in Fairfax County (pushing 60 years now), and I have seen too much "overgrowth." Too much money building ridiculous houses and eliminating viability for less wealthy populations to survive anywhere nearby. Why is it so difficult to modify a zoning regulation with terminology that is specific enough to protect the values of single-family neighborhoods while still enabling practical and RESPONSIBLE development of apartments suitable for our new --and fast growing-- demographics? Yes, bar expanded boarding use of existing properties in those zoned areas; but allow developers to create the small, affordable units in planned, multi-family buildings where everyday activities are accessible without owning a car. Stop drawing more traffic through my community. Get outdated law out of the way so that safe, attractive, affordable housing can become a reality to our young adults, senior citizens, struggling single parents, disabled residents, and (maybe especially) the lower-income services workforce we rely on daily. Find thousands of successful model developments all over the country via the internet -- visit several as close by as Arlington. Why is Fairfax this far behind in diversity of housing options?

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  10. 80 percent of these RSUs are for those living at 60 percent of AMI or less. They are truly not meant for seniors and recent grads. they are meant to become the new Culmore.

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    1. There are seniors and recent grads earning 60% of AMI or less. What do you mean by the new Culmore? is that code for "brown people"?

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    2. That is code for boarding houses/apartments becoming legal. It is code for shoving as many people into a single space as non-humanly possible. That is code for changing the zoning ordinance so no one can complain when your neighbor has 25 people living in the a single family dwelling next to you with 15 cars.

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    3. REALITY CHECK here -- http://www.vhda.com/BUSINESSPARTNERS/PROPERTYOWNERSMANAGERS/INCOME-RENT-LIMITS/Pages/HUDMedianIncome.aspx#b
      More of us earn less than 60% FAIRFAX AMI than those above that. Zoning change is necessary just to authorize developers to meet our needs (must be REALLY old regulation), not intended to allow degradation of existing residential areas.

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    4. anon - at 9/14

      A. thats not how microunits would work.

      B. the micro unit space is quite possible. thats why theres a market for it. For someone whose previous residence was a dorm room, it can be a decent space. Why is it up to you to tell someone how they can choose to live?

      C. I once lived across the street from a SFH that was an illegal boarding house. (BTW that shows that the current zoning doesnt stop that sort of thing) The folks there were quiet as could be. They had a lot of vehicles, but did not park them on the street.

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    5. The current zoning laws are not being enforced and are actually being ignored. This does not make it right or appropriate what is going on. We have children living in closets and dresser drawers. The fire hazards that must being going on in these apartments and homes are unbelievable.

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    6. Actually, pumped-up enforcement of residential regulations have resulted in part to the increased homeless population. The illegal set-ups have to be reported in order to be stopped.

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    7. Where did you get that information that the "pumped-up enforcement of residential regulations have resulted in part to the increased homeless population." Can you site any data on that fact? The increase enforcement is not doing much because every time they go to these boarding house they all say they are kin and they do not make the residents prove it in any way so the case is closed. The law is a joke when there is no enforcement.

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    8. Moot. No allowance for conversions should be attached. We need a pathway to enjoy simple and stylish affordable apartments like trend-setting communities are modeling in busy metropolises all across America.

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  11. On page 8 of the proposed zoning ordinance, it states: The amendment proposes to exclude the density/intensity associated with the residential studio use from the maximum limits of the district in which located. In other words, they are not going to count the new amount of people living in that area putting strain on our infrastructure, local communities and transportation system.

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    1. Instead of four multi-bedroom apartments with potential total of 16 or more adults (or many more with children), the building could contain six 'studio' units restricted to a possible (albeit unlikely) maximum of 18 persons of any ages.

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    2. If any variance, somewhat fewer residents will likely fit into the same area just based on modified division of building spaces.

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  12. This plan, if invoked, would be a sweeping change to the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/comprehensiveplan/

    A countywide referendum should be required to approve this plan or anyone similar to it.

    Over time, the impacts of this plan on the roads, schools, utilities would be immense. In Mason District, there are not enough PROPERLY LOCATED schools to accommodate the expected school population in a few years.

    ONLY BY REFERENDUM - ONLY BY REFERENDUM.

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    1. It's not clear to me that Virginia statutes would allow these sorts of decisions to be made by referendum. As a Dillon-rule state, localities have only the authority delegated to them by the legislature, so the County may not be able to just decide to hold a referendum. No matter how much you SHOUT.

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  13. HOLD THE PRESS - HOLD THE PRESS

    RSUs will still not be permitted on a lot with a single family dwelling.

    From Page 6 of the proposal (http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/zoningordinance/proposed/residentialstudios.pdf):

    As is the case with the current special exception uses in residential districts, not every lot in every district is going to be appropriate for the development of residential studios. It should be emphasized that a residential studio development would not be permitted on a lot with a single family dwelling, pursuant to the current provisions in Sect. 2-501 of the Zoning Ordinance which preclude a dwelling unit from being located on a lot with any other principal building.

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    1. They are not allowed on a lot with a single family dwelling because your dwelling is no longer a single family but a RSU. So you can change your home from a single family dwelling to an RSU or buy a home and convert it to RSU.

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    2. Well on page 2?? I believe it says that someone can attach this (housing product) to their home. It also says they can gut a home and put the units in there....? And - this "amendment" does not follow the normal comprehensive plan procedures - it gives the supervisors complete control to approve these with no citizen input.

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    3. Go to one of the citizen input meetings - http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/zoningordinance/proposed/

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  14. Therefore, staff recommends approval of the proposed amendment, with Option 1 that permits the ability to convert a single family dwelling structure into a multiple family residential studio development, with an effective date of 12:01 a.m. on the day following adoption.



    page 14 of Staff Comment

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    1. Citizen input can override recommendation--cannot figure out why Option 1 ever even entered the picture. Multiple dwelling structures where they belong. Ordinance is not current for County demographics.

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  15. This will add how many more kids to our public schools which are already overcrowded. If they approve this, it should be attached with a rider to provide funding for construction to increase the size of the impacted elementary, middle and high schools.

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