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Local faith groups propose using properties for affordable housing, county officials say

Fairfax County housing officials want to assist religious congregations interested in using their existing buildings or land to help create affordable housing.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors talked about the idea at its housing committee meeting last Tuesday (Nov. 23). While in the preliminary stages of discussion, the proposed collaboration could help religious groups that need to sell vacant property to address struggling finances, officials suggested.

“A lot of these congregations are, especially the older ones, are facing economic and financial pressures, and they’re looking for a lifeline out of that,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said. “We’re in a little bit of a race against time here.”

He shared that developers are asking to buy excess land from religious groups and build million-dollar-plus homes on those parcels, thereby giving faith organizations revenue that would help them continue providing services to their congregations.

Senior Facility Could Serve as Model

Faith organizations have a model for one way to approach redeveloping their land through Chesterbrook Residences, an assisted living facility with a capacity for 109 residents that opened at 2030 Westmoreland St. in McLean in 2007.

The project used land donated by the Chesterbrook Presbyterian Church, which sought to create an assisted living facility for low-income seniors when it dissolved in 2000, according to a history provided by Chesterbrook Residences.

The $13.5 million project also involved a partnership with the Lewinsville and Immanuel Presbyterian churches and Temple Rodef Shalom. Local and federal grants provided $12 million, and the religious groups raised the remainder, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman said in a blog post.

“The National Capital Presbytery donated the land for this project. Without this gift, the cost would likely have been too burdensome,” Schwartzman wrote.

Other Options for Religious Groups

Places of worship could also pursue other strategies, such as retrofitting part of a building, while still maintaining a worship space.

They could demolish an existing structure to build a new one with both housing and worship space, according to Judith Cabelli, director of the county’s Affordable Housing Development Division.

“There might be a…parking lot on site that is much larger than the house of worship needs, and a multifamily building could be built on that parking lot, and then parking could be reconfigured,” she said.

But the complex and sometimes lengthy permitting approval process can create barriers.

Chairman Jeff McKay noted that congregations could also face development challenges, from stormwater management to zoning. Their buildings may be located in environmentally sensitive areas that limit development.

To address those concerns, county leaders are looking for ways to streamline the approval process, possibly working with an initial batch of congregations to help their projects succeed. If that route is pursued, the initial group could later be expanded to more congregations, McKay suggested.

Next Steps

County staff proposed providing a handout, a video, or another resource to help religious groups. Cabelli said the county envisions having community educational meetings and adding a “Faith in Housing” section to the Department of Housing and Community Development’s website.

An informational video could be launched in early 2022 with meetings to follow throughout the year.

Housing and Community Development Director Tom Fleetwood said he plans to continue examining possible approaches to bring back to the housing committee.

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