|A tiny studio apartment in San Francisco. [Photo from USA Today.]|
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?