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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mason District Council calls for RSUs to be limited to high-density areas

A tiny apartment in Seattle. [Photo from the Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.]

The Mason District Council (MDC) of Community Associations unanimously approved a resolution Sept. 9 calling for Fairfax County to prohibit residential studio units (RSUs) in low-density residential neighborhoods. 

RSUs are zero-bedroom efficiency apartments no larger than 500 square feet. The county is proposing that they be allowed all over the county to address the need for affordable housing. The units would be targeted to people earning no more than 60 percent of the area median income.

“There is no doubt we have a need for affordable housing,” said Loretta Prencipe, MDC’s second vice chair. MDC’s concerns are with allowing this type of housing in single-family neighborhoods and a lack of transparency in the county’s process to impose RSUs without adequate opportunity for public review and input. The staff report by the Zoning Administration Division in the Planning and Zoning Department is confusing, overly complicated, and vague on key details.

Here are some of the key points in the MDC resolution, which closely mirrors a proposal to be considered Sept. 19 by the Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations:
  • RSUs should only be permitted in residential areas zoned R-20 or greater or in areas zoned for commercial or industrial uses.
  • The conversion of single-family detached homes or townhouses into RSUs should be prohibited.
  • RSU should be located within a quarter-of mile of public transportation (heavy rail or a major bus transit center), retail, medical facilities, and other services to support the residents.
  • RSUs should not be exempted from open space requirements or any regulations on maximum density or intensity.
  • RSUs should be limited to buildings with no more than a total of 60 units.
  • No more than 10 percent of RSUs should have two occupants; the rest should be limited to a single occupant, and no RSUs should have three or more occupants.
Kathleen McDermott, a land use attorney, said there are a number of troubling provisions in the staff report. “Even if the board chooses Option 2 which appears to prohibit the conversion of a single family house into an RSU development,” she said, “there is nothing to prevent someone from tearing down a house and replacing it with an RSU or building an RSU development on a vacant residential lot.”
Prencipe cited some additional problems with the proposal as outlined in the staff report: Developers would only need to provide one parking space per unit, and there are indications that could be reduced even further. While the report says RSUs should be located near public transit, it doesn’t define what that means, it doesn’t call for a management plan for RSU buildings, and there’s no landscaping requirement.

Also, Prencipe said she has no confidence in the staff report’s assertion that it would be unlikely that the county would permit RSUs in residential neighborhoods.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission has scheduled two meetings on the RSU proposal, Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, and a public hearing on Nov. 23.

MDC has scheduled another public meeting on RSUs for Nov. 14, with a presentation by Donna Pesto, the county’s senior assistant to the zoning administrator and author of the RSU proposal. Meanwhile, the council urges people concerned about RSUs to contact county planning and zoning staff and members of the Board of Supervisors. Click here for more information.


  1. So wait, we allow RSUs only in places where multifamily is already allowed? With no density increase there? So to get more RSUs we need to get FEWER large units? More microunits but fewer 2BRs that might appeal to a middle class empty nester couple? Im not sure that makes sense. Why not let a homeowner have one of these units in their home to get an extra income stream? The status quo bias of the Citizens assocations, is, as always, great. I hope the BOS rejects it and goes with the planning office suggestion.

    1. You are kidding me? Sounds like someone did NOT READ THE AMENDMENT. Many of our Mason Neighborhoods have been ruined by "boarding houses" - look the term up on the Fairfax Co. Web site. This coould ruin further our neighborhoods. READ THE THING YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVENT.

    2. What Mason district neighborhoods have been ruined? I can't think of any ruined neighborhoods in Mason District.

    3. Have you not driven around Mason District lately? Some areas look worse than some third-world countries to which I've been. Have you not compared the appearance of Mason District to other areas of the county? The continued disregard of the state of the district by the district supervisor is appalling. I cannot understand whether her approach is one of naivete, willful apathy, or arrogance. It seems, however, that she is perfectly content with Mason District being the ghetto of Fairfax County and that is not good for any resident, rich or poor.

  2. "allow a mcmansion to be turned into a hotel.”

    first it would be easy to limit it to one RSU per SFH. A granny flat.

    Second, these are apts, not by the night hotel rooms.

    Third, if you didnt want mcmansions as multifamily, you should have gotten form based ways to stop mcmansions.

    1. Have you read the proposal? This has nothing to do with a in-law suites it has everything to do with 3 to 75 units per buidling with up to 225 people. This can be put in a SFH in any neighborhood. If you read the proposal you would see that the owner can not live on site. These are for renters only.

    2. You can't build above the zoned FAR and bulk and related restrictions which still hold. So Im not sure how you could fit a 75 unit building on a 1/4 acre lot in Annandale. Where are there large vacant lots in SFH neighborhoods in Annandale?

    3. That is not true with a special exception and it actually talks about ignoring the density and intensity in the SRU proposal.

  3. This initiative isn’t supposed to provide another “income stream.” It’s supposed to provide affordable housing for low income individuals. If left unmodified, this initiative will turn into a business rather than a community service.

    While I would agree there is a need for affordable housing, the county could better address this issue in other ways such as incentives for developers to build RSUs into their designs from the start. Before approval, the county should demonstrate other actions taken with developers to build more RSUs in more suitable areas, such as the Springfield Mall project. Rather than being less divisive and working with developers, some Board of Supervisors (BoS) members seem to have put this issue on the backs of the “middle” middle class who cannot afford to live in exclusive developments with homeowners associations (HoAs). This initiative will continue to erode the quality of life within lower-end single-family communities that are outside of any HoA, driving up property values of more exclusive communities. (How many BoS members live in these types of exclusive neighborhoods?) By ignoring constituents’ concerns, some BoS members seem to have taken the elitist approach by saying, “We need affordable housing but since we live in a development with a HoA, we won’t suffer the negative consequences of our actions.” It seems as if they do not care if they create ghettos as long as they get re-elected.

    Nor does it seem the BoS has considered continued overcrowding, impacts on parking (anyone who thinks all of the residents of the RSUs will use public transportation is sadly mistaken), over-crowded schools, or crime. Moreover, while it’s nice to believe these will be “granny flats,” this is more about the legitimization of boarding houses against which so many in the county have fought for the reasons cited above. I doubt many “grannies” will live in these “flats.” Without regulatory limitations and strict enforcement, this will become a nightmare in communities that do not have by-laws (i.e., HoAs) that prohibit RSUs. Also, there are still many unanswered questions. How many residents can live in an RSU? If the limit is the proposed 3 residents, what kind of quality of life would that be? How is the county going to verify non-reported income? Do areas of Fairfax County become the ghettos of a nation’s capital like portions of Sao Paulo or London?

    I approach with extreme skepticism any idea that the BoS will adequately ensure code compliance of RSUs. While individuals within the code compliance section of the county do a good job of investigating and correcting complaints, this initiative would overwhelm that office. The county does not provide enough tools for that office’s job now, let alone an even larger and more complex job. The idea that the county will commit adequate resources to effectively manage this initiative is laughable.

    As for the cynical comment about the “status quo bias” of the citizens’ associations, I take it that means some residents wouldn’t mind RSUs? If so and you have the authority, please identify your community within Fairfax County on this blog and commit to building the RSUs. Or, if you are resident who lives in a community with a HoA or other means of preventing this from happening in your neighborhood, I’d respectfully ask that you reconsider your comment. Those citizens’ associations represent the positions of the majority of their constituents that are so often ignored by certain BoS members. So, those are not the associations’ biases. Those are the real concerns of the residents of the communities that will be negatively impacted by this. Simply because we do not agree with you does not make us “biased.” Just because an initiative is depicted as “change” or “progressive” does not make it right or a good idea. This initiative, without more thought to its implementation, is simply a bad idea.

    1. In summary, this is the worst planning proposal I have heard in FFX County since I moved here 18 years ago. What are they thinking, or are they not?

      The resultant of this terrible planning option is the demise of the County's middle class neighborhoods. BOS shame on you for putting such a horrible planning option up for discussion!

  4. Kudos to the Mason District Council, There has been so little success in preventing overcrowding in my neighborhood that I am very fearful adding these units will create even more traffic, trash and disregard for property values. It's a bad idea. And I agree, so-called "progressive" ideas are not by definition "sound" ideas.

  5. I think the other thing we need to be asking the BoS is how come we just found out about this? Apparently this has been in the works for 10 years now. Why has this never appeared in a Mason District newsletter or been shared openly with constituents until now? Does anyone else think this is a little fishy?

  6. Im the anon above who called for granny flats. You are right, it wouldnt allow those. Its more restrictive than I thought. It looks like almost all the planning discussion focuses on commercial industrial and on areas where multifamily is currently allowed.

    They would allow 3 unit homes in certain locations (only on principle roads, etc). Again 3 unit houses were common where I grew up. I don't see why they have to destroy a neighborhood.

    I live in Annandale. I live in a townhouse HOA thats built out, so Im not sure how you'd fit these in. Though if there are impacts from neighboring lots, we would be effected, as there are McMansions nearby (if as some above have claimed, mcmansions can be converted into RSUs). I think that such conversion would be a plus for the neighborhood - adding critical mass of walkers, adding enough transit users to justify added transit service, etc.

    If living near poor people bothered me, I could not live in Annandale.

    "If the limit is the proposed 3 residents, what kind of quality of life would that be?"

    better than the alternatives, or why would people choose to live in them? Do you think you are doing those folks a favor by not allowing them to live in such units? They will either live in LESS space, or they will have to live farther out, a major burden for such people. Where do you propose they go instead?

    "Do areas of Fairfax County become the ghettos of a nation’s capital like portions of Sao Paulo or London? "

    DC currently has a disproportionate share of the regions poor. And PG after that. Do you have a problem with that?

    Personally I would prefer to have a society without poverty. But since thats not to be, the poor have to live somewhere.

    1. Hello anon - I want to let you know that if a mcmansion turned into an apartment it would be a NIGHTMARE as this happened to me in my culdesac. I COULD NOT LET MY KIDS OUT OF MY YARD. I DID NOT KNOW ANYONE IN THREE HOMES TURNED INTO BOARDING HOUSES ON THE STREET. OVERLOADED WITH CARS. I did not move into a single family home to have a mcmansion pop up and turned into an apartment. Fairfax Code compliance does not enforce the 4 unrelated people in a home now - what makes you think they would enforce a 3 person per unit occupancy ? - what makes you think they would if these were out of control per this amendment. The illegal boarding houses are and have been in Annandale and surrounding areas of Mason. While I appreciate and love all people and agree there is an affordability problem, I have a real problem with my single family home investment being RUINED by a possible apartment on my street - which was thankfully foreclosed. Let me tell you - I had three of these on my quiet culdesac and I feared for my childrens safety - THIS IS NOT FAIR FOR THE HOMEOWNERS WHO BOUGHT IN SINGLE FAMILY HOME COMMUNITIES for a reason. And PS to the person who thinks that someone has control when a mcmansion pops up - WE HAVE NO CONTROL on this if someone owns the lot zoned R1 - they build what they want and that is one of the reasons it looks so bad in Mason.

    2. I am confused how you are OK with allowing a McMansion to be turned into an apartment building with a possible 225 people. They can have 3 to 75 units and up to 3 people per unit. There is no restrictions on square footage and it says near transportation. Can you define near? Is that 10 feet or 1 mile or is it 2 miles. I am so happy you do not mind living near poor people but this proposal is not about poor people it is asking people who bought a SFH to live next to 225 people. NO!!!!

    3. I'm the anonymous of the 7:14 p.m. posting of 9/10/13.

      I would ask that we not turn this debate into an "anti-poor" debate.

      When I was a kid, I was raised in a family of 4 that had an income of less than $20K a year. I know poor. I am not "anti-poor."

      I am against activist BoS members who continually come up with ideas that they know will cause conflict rather than looking for meaningful alternatives.

      As for the causes and concentrations of poverty in the region and the country as a whole, we could discuss that for hours. Again, this isn't about that so please do not let it disintegrate into that.

  7. I think "60% of the medium income" is a sticking point. To obtain such housing, would there be a credit or employment check or other restrictions and how strict would those regulations be? It seems like some people are interpreting "low income" as a euphemism for "undesirable" or "illegal" - when a 23-year-old, college-educated, single person working at an entry level job making $25,000 would qualify.... but so might a day laborer.... or a single 80-year-old. And those are three entirely different things. I think the type of person living in these units will either sell the idea, or doom it. We'd have to know more details about who the target population is and how they expect to attract them.

    1. The Mason District Council has a petition out to halt ths. You should go see it on

    2. Here is the direct link to the petition. Please read and sign.

    3. Is the 60% of median household income or single? 60% of median household income in Fairfax County would be more around $60K+.

    4. Good question. If the units are as small as these pictures we're seeing, seems like you could only fit one person in there anyway. Another question: in addition to being a maximum income, would there also a MINIMUM income? - it seems like setting a minimum income could really control who those apartments go to.