|A full house at the RSU meeting.|
RSUs are efficiency apartments designed to meet the housing needs of lower-income people. The original proposal called for these units to be allowed by special exception in all areas of the county, including low-density single-family neighborhoods zoned as low as R-1 (one house per acre.). That was one of the biggest concerns of the MDC and other community organizations throughout the county.
Planning Commission member Janyce Heidetniemi (at-large) told the audience of at least 300 people at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School that another at-large planning commissioner,Tim Sargent, will present a recommendation at the next meeting of the commission’s RSU committee, Nov. 20, stating that RSUs shouldn’t be allowed in areas that are zoned R8 or below.
Heidetniemi said that would protect the character of residential neighborhoods and would also address some of the other concerns people have about parking, code enforcement, and occupancy.
Another change to be considered by the committee would prohibit single-family houses from being carved up into RSU units. That also was a huge concern of the MDC, Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations, and other community groups.
Mason Supervisor Penny Gross is drafting a board matter to be presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Nov. 19 calling for the BoS to urge the Planning Commission to consider these changes.
A huge win for neighborhoods
“This is really big news,” said Charlie Hall, chair of the Providence District Council, which has also been fighting the plan to put RSUs in stable low-density neighborhoods.
Donna Pesto, senior assistant to the Fairfax County zoning administrator, said the RSU proposal will continue to be refined by the committee, and “there will be a number of significant changes.” The Planning Commission and BoS will then schedule public hearings.
RSUs would still be allowed in residential areas zoned R-12 and above, as well as areas zoned for commercial, industrial, and planned housing developments. These rental units would be no bigger than 500 square feet and would have a kitchen and bathroom but no bedroom. At least 80 percent of the RSUs in a property would be reserved for households with an income of not more than 60 percent of the area median income. That’s about $45,000 for a one-person household.
Because many of the tenants of RSUs probably won’t have cars, the proposal calls for these units to be located near transit facilities and on arterial roads (such as Route 50 and Lee Highway) and “collector streets.”
There is no clear, consistent definition of a “collector street,” however. Fairfax County, VDOT, and the Federal Highway Administration each have several different definitions. Some of those definitions would include roads like Sleepy Hollow Road, Old Columbia Pike, and Graham Road, which are very close to low-density housing.
“That won’t be as big of a concern if we drop out lower-density zoning. That changes the equation,” said Pesto.
Despite the changes designed to protect stable neighborhoods, people at the meeting were angry about RSUs and came to vent. And even with the changes, there are still a lot of concerns with other aspects of the concept.
Code compliance concerns
A resident of Rose Lane in Columbia Pines called RSUs “the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of,” saying she doesn’t want to live next to houses “full of people just out of prison, the formerly homeless, and young people who party all the time.” She said there already are many rental homes with four or five families taking over the on-street parking.
There are lots of code violations that aren’t being addressed in Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners, said Ben Cooper of Lake Barcroft. “I’m not confident the code would be enforced for these units.”
RSU properties would have a manager responsible for ensuring they comply with the rules, Pesto said, and the Board of Supervisors would have the authority to revoke approval for these units.
Jeff Blackford, the county’s director of code compliance, said his department relies on complaints from the public before inspectors are sent to a property. “We are complaint oriented,” he said. “If the RSU amendment is adopted, our mission will be to enforce it. If someone builds an RSU without approval, it would be illegal.”
Noting that his office addresses 9,000 complaints a year, Blackford said, “If we have a lot of complaints about RSUs, we will seek more resources.”
Local resident Cyra Doty said that allowing RSUs in a commercial area—say if an old store is converted into apartments—that could have an impact on already-overcrowded schools.
“These units are intended for occupancy by a single person,” said Pesto, although up to three people per unit would be allowed, so “the absolute maximum would be two children in a unit.” The impact on schools would be part of the review process for approving a zoning special exception, she added. But Doty countered, “They could have five kids and no one would ever check.”
Affordable housing needed
Not everyone at the meeting was hostile to RSUs in neighborhoods. Rev. Sarah Scherschligt, the pastor of Peace Lutheran Church on Lincolnia Road, said there was a badly managed boarding house in her neighborhood, Barcroft Hills, and the eight or nine people who lived there were evicted. “It was incredibly heartbreaking. Let’s not lose sight of welcoming our complete neighborhood into our actual neighborhood,” she said. “Let’s at least discuss the need for affordable housing.”
Stephanie Mensh of Westlawn said she supports the concept of having a neighborhood that integrates housing for “people who are a little different from you.” The people who need these units “could be your children, or your grandchildren or grandmother.”
“We’re not against affordable housing. We’re concerned with the degradation of neighborhoods,” said.MDC President Mollie Loeffler. The MDC and the Fairfax Federation will be meeting with affordable housing advocates to hear their perspective.
Heidetniemi views RSUs as an opportunity to provide housing for low-wage workers in Fairfax County “for whom apartment rents are unattainable.” A person would have to work at three minimum-wage jobs to be able to live in a market-rate apartment here, she said. Providing affordable housing also means people could live closer to their jobs, which would reduce traffic congestion.
A resident of Ravenwood Park suggested that instead of cramming people into tiny apartments, “maybe we should consider higher wages.”
Gross told the crowd that the BoS has been talking about the need to prevent and end homelessness for a long time and to allow some sort of efficiency units since 2003. The county has a dearth of about 67,000 units to meet the needs of lower-income residents, she said.
“This is one more choice of housing type—just like you have condos, apartments, and single-family detached houses. This is another piece of the effort to make our county attractive for anyone who wants to live here,” Gross said.
“Why should our objective be to make Fairfax County attractive to everyone who wants to live here? We’ll be inundated with people from places like Arlington and Prince William County,” a member of the audience responded. “Do we want to encourage that?”