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Fairfax County rents are increasing, as pandemic deepens affordability, inequity concerns

The Fairfax County Government Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Rents in Fairfax County have gone up during the pandemic, reflecting a trend seen regionally and nationwide.

Multifamily rents increased 8.7% in the county between the first quarter of 2020 and first quarter of 2022, making the average rent $1,974, according to a Washington Post analysis.

“Rents have continued to increase across the region and in Fairfax County, making it harder for low- and moderate-income households to be able to afford to rent here,” Tom Fleetwood, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said in a statement.

He said the Board of Supervisors’ $44.7 million allocation in the upcoming budget is a critical investment that will directly help develop additional affordable homes.

Fairfax County’s typical increase in rent outpaces neighboring Arlington County, which has seen a 3.9% uptick since 2019 for an average rent of $2,258. Alexandria City and Loudoun and Prince William counties all saw larger increases than Fairfax County, though their average rents remain lower.

Nationally, median monthly rent has increased nearly 17% from March 2021 to March 2022, according to real estate firm Redfin, though existing renters may be experiencing a smaller, 2.7% increase during that time frame.

Fairfax County Chief Equity Officer Karla Bruce said at an Urban Institute event in August 2021 that the pandemic has exposed inequities.

“The inequity was present before the pandemic,” she said at the virtual event. “What the pandemic did is show anybody that might have doubted that how present inequity is in our communities.”

Bruce emphasized the importance of knowing who was most disproportionately affected in the pandemic and targeting strategies around those individuals.

Citing 2020 Census data, Fairfax County’s most recent demographics report noted that white residents no longer make up the majority of the population. As of 2021, the county had over 425,000 housing units: 46% single-family detached housing, 24% single-family attached, and 29.7% multifamily units.

The report does not break down who rents and who owns by race.

Across the country, 74% of solely white households own homes, far outpacing other racial demographics. The homeownership rate for solely Black households is at under 45%, a persistent trend that contributes to a racial wealth gap.

While Fairfax County has upped its goal to provide 10,000 affordable units by 2034, housing advocates have noted shortcomings.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in 2019 proposed a target of at least 320,000 housing units to be added to the region between 2020 and 2030, and at least 75% should be affordable to low- and middle-income households.

That housing target is being tracked, and Fairfax County government hasn’t adopted COG’s targets, according to a policy and statistical tool from the nonprofit Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers (HAND).

While D.C. and Alexandria have adopted those targets, most jurisdictions in the region haven’t, though several have set their own goals.

Fairfax County’s efforts to address affordable housing challenges have involved creating a housing trust fund and other initiatives.

Peter Tatian, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and research director for Urban-Greater D.C., noted that housing production plays a key role in affordability. Urban was involved in developing the HAND tool to track governments’ efforts.

“There’s a lot of things…in the pipeline,” he said. “In terms of actual production at this point…we’re not seeing them yet.”

Tatian said governments need to address issues in multifaceted ways, but if he had to single out a top priority, he would say the public sector needs to make a local commitment to positive action.

“There may be some people who think that this is just the housing market, that’s just how it is,” he said. “But there’s a lot of things that governments do or don’t do that influences the market and influences what housing opportunities there are.”

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