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Friday, November 15, 2013

RSU proposal revised: these units would be barred from low-density neighborhoods

A full house at the RSU meeting.
An amended proposal on residential studio units (RSUs) will be presented to the Fairfax County Planning Commission to bar this type of housing from low-density, single-family neighborhoods. This major change was announced at a packed meeting on RSUs Nov. 14 organized by the Mason District Council of Community Associations (MDC).

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?”


  1. Pretty good summary. The distrust of Fairfax County Govt. was palpable...

  2. Wow. just wow. “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.”

    clearly those folks should be homeless. If not where should they live. In some other county, I guess. Thats for the formerly homeless and the ex prisoners- the young partiers are all in Clarendon, they arent interested in living in Columbia Pines

    The 'compromise" is okay, for now (though I note r8 is 8 units per acre, which isnt exactly low density by FFX standards). But the attitudes revealed make me question why I live here. (and no, I won't let the door hit me on the way out.)

    1. You don't understand the problem, unless you live next to a home with many people. When I have complained to Penny Gross about overcrowded houses that violate zoning laws, she says, "What am I supposed to do? Go and knock on the door and ask how many live here? " We have 5 or 6 trucks and cars sitting on cemented lawns. One house that could have 3 or 5 children now have 10 for our already overcrowded trailer ridden school! The teachers are trying, but it is getting harder and harder.

    2. I did live next to a "crowded" house. The people there were incredibly quiet, and seemed to want to avoid being noticed. And there were no children. But RSU's are tiny and clearly designed for singles - and to the extent that school crowding is an issue, that would be impacted by RSUs in comm districts as well. This sounds much more like "Eww - poor people cooties"

    3. You know, it is people like you who try to stereotype folks and send the conversation in a negative direction.

  3. "A resident of Ravenwood Park suggested that instead of cramming people into tiny apartments, “maybe we should consider higher wages.”"

    great, except minimum wage for Va is decided in Richmond.

  4. Fairfax County occupancy and zoning codes are not being enforced now. The RSUs would make the problem worse.
    Let's face it: Fairfax County is an affluent area. It is just not affordable for some. Don't see why the county wants to make it so.

    1. when I have complained of zoning violations to Penny Gross, her response was, "I can't knock on the door and ask How many people live here!" I live next to homes that have 4 to 5 trucks on cemented lawns. No one enforces the code!

    2. Agreed. Zoning enforcement is a joke - they have neither the flexibility nor the teeth to make a meaningful impact. This is part of the reason schools in our area are stuffed beyond capacity.

    3. I do NOT understand how RSUs make enforcement of regs in existing housing worse. I just don't. As for why FFX isn't going around evicting those folks - where the hell do you expect them to go?

  5. This is an excellent summary of the meeting. One person asked why this proposal (with our neighborhoods in it) had gotten this far since other cities who have implemented RSU's excluded single family homes. It seemed like the answer was that the Board of Supervisors (not the staff) was driving it (until they received massive complaints from residents).
    The group that researched this topic and held the meeting did an excellent job. Kudos to them.

  6. Apparently some lack an education in assuming that all low income people come from prisons or are homeless or party all day.And many people who do come from these backgrounds want to improve their lives and try hard at it. What an sad statement. If you are doing well in your life - great. Some people struggle day to day just to make ends meet. It doesn't mean they want to tear up your neighborhood. They are just in need of more affordable housing. It's a shame you feel this way. Maybe one day you may need affordable housing too. One never knows.

  7. While some people are prejudiced, I believe the majority of the people at the meeting were mainly frightened because of many years of frustration as they watch the quality of their neighborhoods decay, with little to no assistance from the county. Many have been begging the county to step up its zoning enforcement efforts, but to little avail. The majority of us have been asked to embrace overcrowding in our neighborhoods, etc. because the people responsible are less fortunate. (I myself was once less fortunate, but sacrificed and worked hard to become successful. When I was starting out, I found a roommate in the newspaper, because I could not afford to live on my own.) Meanwhile, zoning violations, threatening property values, are common in areas that have no HOAs. The RSU proposal was seen as another threat to an already frustrated population. In addition to helping those who do not yet live in Fairfax County, the BoS needs to make sure that it is helping those of us, who live here already. I am glad that our concerns were heard. I hope that the Planning Commission and BoS continue to interact with Fairfax County residents to reach a common ground.

    1. those who do not yet live in FFX? Huh? Is that meant to imply that is for folks streaming from DC? First of all, we have plenty of people from here who are poor - folks who've hit hard times, etc. They arent all (or mostly, AFAIK) coming from other washington area jurisdictions. And why, exactly, should DC (and PG) have a disproportionate share of the region's poor? FFX never had a problem accepting affluent people, or corporations, moving in from DC, Alexandria, or Arlington.

      Im glad you found a roommate. Have you tried to price a roommate situation around here lately? The reason folks fit 4 or 5 or 8 adults into a house is because 2 adults in a 2 BR apt, or even a 1 BR apt, is not cheap.

      I am also not aware of any neighborhoods in FFX county that are "decaying". Some are slowly losing relative value, but thats inevitable as the housing ages. The movements in are much more effect than cause.

    2. Take a drive through some neighborhoods in Mason District... Belvedere, etc....

    3. There is no implication in my comment as to where people are coming from. It was simply to state that people who already live in Fairfax County have been asking for the county to help improve certain things, but have not been heard. I do think it would be nice for the county to address issues for those of us who already live here.

      My post was very non-inflammatory, so I am not sure why you are assuming the worst. I was simply stating that people who do not have HOAs are frustrated, so this explains why so many were upset (right or wrong) at the RSU meeting.

      It is unfortunate that we cannot have a civil discussion about the issues.

  8. I pay a lot of my income to live in FFX County. I left DC to get away from just this sort of thing.

    Why should others get the priviledge living in this affluent area without having earned it?
    Those of you who support having your neighborhoods turned into an urban scene, moce across the river to DC, and you'll have exactly what you seek.