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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Will residential studio units contribute to decline of decaying neighborhoods?

RSU Committee Chair Tim Sargeant (left) with members of the zoning staff.
Are most of the residential studio units (RSUs) going to be channeled to Annandale and other areas in need of revitalization instead of being spread out evenly throughout Fairfax County? That is one of the key issues discussed last night by the Planning Commission’s Residential Studios Committee.

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.


  1. So wait, excluding RSU's from SFH neighborhoods isn't enough? You can't build an RSU on a SFH plot, even if that SFH is in a commercial district and surrounded by commercial properties? And now we want to keep them out of commercial areas and out of old motels? Sounds like the real motives of the anti-RSU crowd are becoming apparent - anything that would provide more housing for poor people is opposed. As for the economics of it versus other development, shouldn't we let the developers be the judge of that?

    And yes it serves multiple populations - any single person who needs cheap housing. Why is it shocking that that includes different kinds of people. Unless there are certain kinds of people you want to keep out of your neighborhood.

    BTW, what are the decaying neighborhoods in Fairfax? Baileys has issues, but is hardly decaying - if we want to prevent decay there, the best thing to do will be to speed the transportation improvements there.

    1. Be curious if the writer would like RSUs in his/her neighborhood.

    2. Yes I would. I live in Annandale, in a TH, and I see nothing wrong with a modest number of RSU's in the neighborhood. Why do you think I would not want them? Give a reason. Is it one of the reasons people are willing to state in public at the Planning Commission.

  2. No, they aren't going to put any in Annandale. They will put them all in McLean and Great Falls. /sarcasm.

  3. I will be honest. I didn't work this hard, with discipline and prudence to have my neighborhood turned into a slum.

    1. Wow. It's hard to be humble when you're as great as you are, eh?

    2. How would a small number of RSU's create a slum? How do you define a slum? Decayed buildings? Empty storefronts? (BTW, we already have those). Or the presence of a few poor people? Did you really work hard all your life with the goal of being far from poor people? I won't judge you on that, but I will see thats your choice, and I see no reason it should control public policy.


  4. I've said this in the past, I'll say it here. FFx county could care less about the older areas. Follow the money (read tax $), the county prefers the areas near the Parkway, along 7, and the western part of the county. In the past low incomes were a percent of the total in the complex, now it is entire complexes. Guess they never heard of "The Projects". Annandale used to be a nice sleeper town. Not sure if we should bear the entire burden of the lower spectrum of society.

    Small minded person ;)

  5. RSU's will be built and run by private developers without subsidies - they will not be public housing projects. And AFAICT they won't be very big (note that there is opposition to making them too SMALL). This is not going to make Annandale look like the south bronx.

    As for money, I agree that more should be spent on facilities to improve Annandale - I hope the rebuilding of LRT as a Complete Street moves forward, and I think Sup Gross should be held accountable if it does not.

    But Annandale's life as a sleepy town was doomed when the Beltway was built, and when the metro area grew and spread beyond. The threat of decay comes not from a few low rent units (back when Annandale was a sleeper town larger apts were more affordable) but from the failure to adjust to being in a central location in a large metro region.

    BTW, a few affordable units in EVERY new complex is called inclusionary zoning, and is being done in Tysons. I think expanding that program is worth looking at.

    1. "I hope the rebuilding of LRT as a Complete Street moves forward."

      I hope so as well, PROVIDED it doesn't wind up looking like the 'Mosaic District' of Merrifield - dozens of stores selling $8 dog treats, $20 sandwiches and $300 sneakers isn't a neighborhood, it's a playpen for overpaid government contractors who want to pretend they live in L.A.

  6. Keep those ugly nasty RSUs out of our nice neighborhoods, they are for lazies and poors. Everyone knows nice neighborhoods are defined by their quantity of $10 sandwich shops, cellphone dealerships, Starbucks, and massively redundant drugstores peddling seasonal plastics.

  7. Agree that we need a better program than RSUs. An inclusion program integrates "mixed income" units and avoids the concentration of low income properties and associated stigma that comes with those.

  8. As for Supervisor Gross, her lack of vision on what Mason District could be, support for sending metro money and public funding for Mosaic public parking garage, and managing the district special exception by special exception has led us to this path. There is no denying that after 16+ years with her as Supervisor, we are in worse shape. She'll blame the recession and other factors for the decline and overcrowding. But look around. Other districts and areas are being revitalized. Springfield, Merrifield - even parts of Route 1.

  9. For those that did not attend the last public meeting, there were significant questions and concerns about the proposed ZOA draft. Those issues include: RSU definition, code enforcement, what can be waived (most of the provision), etc. These questions were coming from the commissioners. There are also significant lack of transparency with the public over the last 10 years while the County has worked closely with housing advocates. No meaningful public input was sought. In fact, the County proposed a more narrow ZOA in the last few years, pulled that back and proposed a much broader ZOA. The concern from the public stems from this lack of engagement and transparency, the overly broad nature of this ZOA, and the County's dismal record on code enforcement in certain districts.
    Certain members of the Board are also overly "engaged" with developers - meaning that the Supervisors Gross and Buluva have far too funding/campaign contributions from developers - and especially developers that are shielded from public disclosure through varying LLCs. (Cherokee Management being one of them.) This has also led to significant loss of trust.

    1. An excellent synopsis of the history and challenges surrounding the RSU proposals.