|The Housing Matters session in Mason District.|
The “Housing Matters” session was convened by the county’s Office of Housing and Community Development, which is seeking community input for a strategic plan on affordable housing.
“The strategic plan will be shaped by and for the community,” Mason Supervisor Penny Gross told the group. She said the plan will identify policies, programs, and funding sources for ensuring the county has a range of housing options available to people of all income levels.
The lack of affordable housing is a huge problem in Fairfax County. Between 2010 and 2015, the average household income grew by just 10 percent, while the average housing cost soared between 15 percent (for single-family homes) to 27 percent (for condos).
Affordable housing is important for several reasons, said Vincent Rogers, director of policy, reporting and communications for the Office of Housing:
- It contributes to individual and family well-being by promoting self-sufficiency, upward mobility, success in school, and physical and mental health.
- Housing is the basis for inclusive and diverse communities.
- Having a range of housing opportunities encourages people to live and work in the community, supports shorter commutes, and makes it easier for companies to attract and retain workers.
Thousands of people in Fairfax County, however, are spending more than half of their incomes on rent, meaning they have to cut corners on food, healthcare, childcare and other needs.
If the demand for affordable housing is so strong, why aren’t developers stepping up? Rogers cited several reasons: Land and building costs are so high, it isn’t financially feasible. State and local land use and zoning regulations present barriers, and there is widespread community opposition to new housing.
Rogers asked participants to form small groups to discuss various scenarios about people struggling to cover their housing costs.
In one example, a single mom in her 30s earns just $26,500 a month working in retail and spends more than half of her income on housing. An unexpected car repair put her behind on rent and now she’s considering moving, which would mean her daughter would have to change schools for the second time in three years.
In another scenario, a 77-year-old retiree with physical disabilities who wants to stay in her home, or at least in her community, isn’t sure if she will be able to do so with an annual income of just $38,650.
Here are some of the comments reported by the groups after their discussions:
- Fairfax County should protect tenants from arbitrary rent increases.
- People who have to share apartments with roommates they don’t know lose privacy and dignity.
- Convert underutilized shopping malls, warehouses, and office buildings to housing.
- A woman in her 70s said she can’t afford to retire and might have to move to the South, away from her children, to save on housing costs.
- Look for creative solutions, like a sharing approach used in Europe where students live for free with seniors in exchange for helping them with chores.
- Worker pay should be increased so people can earn a living wage.
- Churches and community associations could help people find roommates.
- Both the county and private sector need to work on this to prevent young professionals from leaving the area.
- Companies could help by subsidizing transportation costs.
Of the three Housing Matters sessions so far – there were two in Reston and one in Alexandria – the Mason District meeting was the best attended, Rogers said. Additional sessions are planned with the business community.