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Friday, March 28, 2014

RSU committee explores different models for affordable housing

The Gosnold Apartments for the formerly homeless in Hampton Roads was developed by Virginia Supportive Housing in a repurposed RC Cola bottling warehouse.
There are all kinds of projects going on to provide affordable housing to the homeless and the working poor that Fairfax County could support—without having to create a new zoning designation for residential studio units (RSUs).

That’s the key take-away from the March 26 meeting of the Fairfax County Planning Commission’s RSU Committee. The committee has been meeting for the past few months to consider a controversial zoning proposal to allow zero-bedroom apartments of not more than 500 square feet for people with no more than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI).

RSUs would serve the working poor, the formerly homeless, lower-income seniors, and other populations that need affordable housing.

At the committee meeting, Allison Bogdanovic, executive director of Virginia Supportive Housing (VSP), described how that nonprofit organization develops housing projects mainly serving homeless individuals or people on the verge of losing their homes.

On-site services essential

VSP has built attractive, well-run housing developments in Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Charlottesville, Va., and the Tri-Cities area of North Carolina. Some of the projects also house people with disabilities, families transitioning from homeless shelters, or the working poor. VSP uses a mix of state, federal, local, and foundation funding and charitable donations to build and operate its projects.

What makes VSP unique is that it also offers voluntary, on-site 24-hour support services to residents, including case management, counseling, and referrals for veterans services, substance abuse recovery, and mental health, said Bogdanovic.

The Chesterbrook Residences, an affordable assisted living facility.
Jim Edmondson, of E&G Group, described some of the projects he’s worked on in Northern Virginia, including the Chesterbrook Residences, an affordable assisted living facility in McLean developed on donated land in partnership with two local churches and a temple.

Public funding needed

He also described a proposed development for the homeless in a former Sunrise assisted living facility in Lorton that’s been empty for the past seven or eight years. The cost would be only $150,000 per unit, which makes it “the bargain of the century,” he said, but needs the county to help fund it.

Even with tax credits, Edmondson would need grants and loans to make the project feasible, due to rent constraints. Tenants couldn’t be charged more than $1,100 a month, which is significantly below market rates.

He also hopes to start construction this summer on a building with subsidized efficiency units for low-income people in Washington near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro stop. That project is possible because the D.C. government is contributing $7.5 million in “soft money.”

Edmondson tried to develop an affordable housing project as part of a mixed-use development in Tysons Corner, but couldn’t get the numbers to work without significant public money, which Fairfax County is not willing to provide.

“There is an enormous need for affordable housing,” said Edmonson, who is also a founding member of AHOME (Arington Homeownership Made Easier). He cited a recent study by the GMU Center for Regional Analysis that predicted nearly 860,000 new jobs would be created in the region within the next 20 years, but most of them would have annual salaries of $50,000 or less.

Edmondson urged the committee to support RSUs. “I fully understand the reluctance of some supervisors and their constituents to accept RSUs in mostly single-family communities,” he said. “That smells a lot like boarding houses or potentially overcrowded single-family units to me, too.”

But he doesn’t think that will happen because it won’t be financially feasible. “You need some scale to make these things work unless you have an asset with almost no basis.” He also said projects with a mix of RSUs and market-rate apartments would likely be most successful.

Critical issues

An earlier draft of the RSU ordinance allowed RSUs in low-density residential areas, but that was restricted in later drafts.The most recent draft includes some additional changes, including more restrictive language requiring RSU to be near public transportation and tighter language requiring this housing to be integrated with existing developments in terms of character, intensity, and scale. 

There are still lots of troubling aspects in the RSU proposal, which were pointed out by members of the public at the committee meeting. Annandale resident Jon Clark, for example, noted there is no requirement to provide social services to residents and that as many as three people could live in one of the tiny apartments.

Zoning administrator Leslie Johnson later confirmed that the county cannot legally restrict an RSU unit to a single resident. The total income of all the residents in a household could not exceed 60 percent of AMI, however.

Edmondson said he discourages more than two people in a one-bedroom unit, calling overcrowding “a landlord’s nightmare.”

Other concerns dealt with whether the RSU ordinance would require sufficient parking spaces, the extent to which they would be near public transit, and the lack of requirements for open space.

Kathleen McDermott, a land use attorney who lives in Annandale, questioned why an RSU zoning ordinance is even needed if this type of housing won’t require social services and there are other ways to provide affordable housing.

RSU Committee Chair Tim Sargeant, an at-large member of the Planning Commission, called RSU’s “another arrow in the quiver” to meet the county’s need for affordable housing.The zoning ordinance needs to be changed to allow this housing in industirally and commercially zoned land, as well as residential areas.

Sargeant, however, also raised concerns about how to maintain the quality and security of these units 20 or 30 years down the road.

Clyde Miller of Falls Church questioned why the county wants to create a whole new zoning category for studio apartments for homeless individuals, when there’s an even larger population of homeless families that need larger units.

The RSU Committee will meet again on April 9, May 6, and May 27.


  1. This zoning ordinance proposal is absolutely worthless. It is the only way the Board of Supervisors can say on their resumes that they did something for the working poor. They will say they fulfilled their 10-year goal to help the poor. They will wash their hands of all responsibility if the ordinance is passed. This ordinance will not help anyone except a developer. Once built the running of it is left to the private developer who will not monitor what goes on or how many people live in an efficiency. The owner is only required to report to the county once a year that everyone in the building qualifies. As the resident Clyde Miller stated in the article this does not help the families that are homeless at all. The developer in the meeting Mr. Edmondson said the only way to make it viable is if the county would help. The supervisors have no intention of helping with donations of land or asking more from residents on their taxes because they are all running for office again. This zoning ordinance would only give developers a way to work the system. Everything in the proposal is a special exception that is left to the discretion of the board of supervisors. The board votes the way the district supervisor wants. This is not governance by the people or for the people.

  2. Commissioner Sargeant's analogy of “another arrow in the quiver” is a good one as long as it is understood that this arrow is tipped with a high explosive charge and its trajectory cannot be predicted with any accuracy.