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Fairfax County considers turning vacant commercial space into emergency homeless shelters

Closed sign (via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

With a high office and commercial vacancy rate and over 1,000 locals experiencing homelessness, Fairfax County is considering a zoning change that could use one problem to help solve the other.

The proposal would allow unused commercial spaces, including office and hotel space, to be used as emergency shelters for those experiencing homelessness.

The new zoning would let private entities — namely nonprofits that work with those experiencing homelessness — operate emergency shelters in vacant or underutilized commercial or industrial properties.

“Special exception use would permit repurposing of a commercial building in a commercial, Industrial, or in some Planned Districts with approval by the Board,” a staff report on the change said. “Commercial building includes buildings designed or used for office, hotel, retail, institutional, or industrial purposes.”

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors housing committee on Nov. 22, staff said there is currently no “emergency shelter” use in the county zoning code.

In addition to creating an emergency shelter use, the zoning change would add a “permanent supportive housing” use for housing that provides assistance and supportive services, like transportation and training, to residents. Supportive housing is reserved in the zoning ordinance for those making below 60% of the area median income.

The presentation didn’t include information on incentives to get private property owners to open their space up for use used as emergency shelter, but board members still expressed enthusiasm for the idea.

“We’ve had similar conversations to this before, but I think we’re in a different situation right now,” said County Board Chair Jeff McKay, “not only with what we know about homelessness but that we also, unfortunately, have a higher number of vacancies because of Covid. I think it’s time to have a conversation about adaptive reuse.”

The proposed changes are part of a general push by the county to reevaluate how it tackles homelessness, particularly by increasing the availability of permanent and supportive housing instead of relying on temporary shelters.

The last point-in-time count, conducted on Jan. 26, found 1,191 people experiencing homelessness in the county, a decrease from 2021 but higher than the numbers reported in the most recent years preceding the pandemic. About 50% of the individuals counted were Black, even though only 10% of the county’s population falls in that demographic.

During the initial months of the pandemic, the county enlisted hotels as temporary shelter for individuals who were experiencing homelessness or otherwise lacked space needed for isolating or quarantining due to Covid.

Photo via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

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