|RSU Committee Chair Tim Sargeant (left) with members of the zoning staff.|
The county’s proposal for an RSU zoning ordinance amendment has generated a huge amount of controversy over the past few months. RSUs are small efficiency units—with a kitchen and bathroom but no bedroom—targeted to single people working at low-wage jobs, people transitioning out of homelessness, and other populations in need of affordable housing. At least 80 percent of the RSUs on a lot must have rents affordable to tenants with incomes up to 60 percent of the area median income.
The measure had been on a fast track toward approval when strong opposition from community groups, including the Mason District Council, led the Board of Supervisors in November to direct the Planning Commission to modify the proposal—banning RSUs from low-density single-family neighborhoods—and extend the review process. The Planning Commission formed a committee to hammer out more details on how this new zoning concept would work.
At the RSU committee’s Jan. 6 meeting, planning commissioners reviewed an amended version of the RSU proposal prepared by staff of the Department of Planning and Zoning that takes into account the revisions recommended by the BoS and adds new provisions.
The original proposal called for a maximum of 75 RSUs on a property, for example, but the revised definition in the staff report also requires a minimum of 30 RSUs on a lot.
Planning Commissioner James Hart (at large) questioned why there should be a 30-unit minimum, noting that churches or other nonprofits might find it too difficult to develop that many apartments although they might be able to provide 15 or so.
Committee chair Tim Sargeant (at large) called that provision a “placeholder” until the committee gets more information on what minimum level would be commercially viable. He said developers will be invited to speak at future committee meetings.
In addition to prohibiting RSUs in areas zoned for less density than R-12 (12 houses per acre), the revised proposal would prohibit the single-family dwellings to be converted to RSUs and would prohibit the co-location of RSUs on lots with single-family dwellings.
James T. Migliaccio (Lee District) raised concerns about the conversion of older commercial buildings, such as motels, to RSUs. That could stymie revitalization of older areas, like Bailey’s Crossroads and Springfield, he said, and “that could create slums, if no more money is pumped in for the upkeep of these properties.”
“I’m afraid we’re pushing this to where have a lot of market-rate apartments”—such as Mason District, he said, rather than to Tysons and next to Metro stations where this type of housing stock is needed. RSUs need to be built all over the county, not just in areas where there already are a lot of older apartments.
A fixed-up motel might be better as an interim solution—say for five or 10 years—than an old, deteriorated motel, Hart suggested. Migliaccio said short-term RSUs won’t work because once the tenants are there, it won’t be easy to relocate them.
Janyce Hedetniemi (at large) suggested having separate rules for RSUs in revitalization areas.
The revised draft calls for RSU developments to have a resident manager, or alternatively, allows the Board of Supervisors to approve a plan for off-site management. Nell Hurley (Braddock) said one resident manager might not be enough, especially for large developments where the tenants need social services.
Leslie Johnson, Fairfax County zoning administrator, said RSUs aren’t designed for people who need 24-hour supervision. Why not allow more than one resident manager if that’s what the developer wants?, Hart asked. Sargeant noted that RSUs could be interpreted as strictly a housing program or something broader that incorporates social services.
During the public comment period at the meeting, several housing advocates spoke in favor of RSUs, while other people expressed concerns and asked the commissioners to clarify certain confusing provisions.
Al Smuzynski, a housing advocate and former CEO of the nonprofit Wesley Housing Development Corporation, said he’s been pushing for the RSU concept for the past 10 years, but it’s gotten overly complicated. RSUs should be limited to areas zoned for higher density and there shouldn’t be a minimum number of these units on a property, he said.
Keith Bender of Springfield, who said he had been homeless, called affordable housing a basic right. Housing advocate Michelle Crocker told the committee “the working poor deserve a place in our community.” She listed several occupations—auto mechanic, child care worker, fast food cook, and bank teller, for example—that the community relies on, but don’t pay enough for these workers to afford market-rate housing in communities where they work.
Several local residents called the RSU proposal vague and confusing. Jon Clark of Annandale asked the committee if there is any information on “who are the customers for RSUs.” Sargeant acknowledged that there isn’t any data on that and that more information is needed.
Clyde Miller, a resident of Falls Church, called RSUs “a half-baked proposal” that is serving too many different populations, including people fresh out of prison, first-year teachers, and the homeless, most of whom are drug addicts and mentally ill.
Carol Turner of Seven Corners called the RSU proposal so “nebulous” that it’s hard to get a grasp on it. Why not integrate RSUs into existing developments instead of building new ones? Mason District already has a concentration of low-income people, she said. “We need revitalization.”
Other issues surrounding RSUs, such as the requirement that they be restricted to major roads and the number of parking spaces allotted per unit, should be addressed at future committee meetings. The next one is scheduled for Jan. 22, 7 p.m., at the Fairfax County Government Center.