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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Fairfax County housing officials are looking at ways to make affordable homes more of a reality for residents, as the value of land continues to jump.

The Board of Supervisors discussed last Tuesday (Nov. 23) how local government could help with not just affordability, but also wealth-building through homeownership, Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said at the housing committee meeting.

“We’re seeing this imbalance of more expensive properties and more need in the community,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said.

Exacerbating the problem of affordable housing is a disparity among different ethnicities in Fairfax County. County data found that, for one period, 44% of Black people and 48% of Hispanic/Latino residents owned homes, compared to 67% for Asians and Pacific Islanders and 76% for whites.

On top of that, two-thirds of the homes in Fairfax County that low and moderate-income residents could afford are occupied by residents making about 80% of the area median income and above, according to a county presentation.

Community Land Trusts Proposed

Now, the county government could pursue a new strategy that mirrors what communities across the country have done: community land trusts, where a nonprofit owns the land and maintains housing as affordable into perpetuity.

Under a potential pilot program, the land could be held by the county’s housing authority, which would reduce the price of homes by taking out land costs, Department of Housing and Community Development Director Tom Fleetwood said.

The county identified a property adjacent to the James Lee Community Center in West Falls Church as one possible site but stressed that no final decision has been made. The presentation acted as an initial brainstorming session to further refine proposals.

The board requested more information from county staff, including how such a proposal would affect property taxes, how other communities have fared with such initiatives, and what would be the best resale formula allowing homeowners to sell while maintaining the properties’ affordability.

Currently, the county has an array of affordable housing programs that involve rental units as well as for-sale properties, which come with conditions like limits on the sales price.

However, housing prices continue to climb, and 67% of low-income households in Northern Virginia have to spend more than half their income on housing costs — the highest rate of any large metropolitan area in the country, according to the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia.

Gross said it seems like the region is fighting a losing battle, where it’s common for someone to pay $500,000 more than the assessed value of a property.

Board Expresses Interest in Idea

The county has touted the potential of using its available land for affordable housing efforts, but there’s still room to grow.

Fairfax County owns at least $50 million worth of assessed properties for over 100 parcels that could be used for commercial, residential, or other uses, not including properties in floodplains and land already in use.

At least $10 million in assessed property is listed as vacant but nonbuildable. It wasn’t clear if other restrictions, such as environmental issues, setbacks, and prior plans, limited the use of those properties.

Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk wondered if the county could quantify available parcels for the community land trust-like initiative.

“It’s a very large number of sites. I can’t quantify it for you, but only a small percentage may be appropriate for this,” Fleetwood said.

Chairman Jeff McKay said he thought the proposal presented was an excellent idea to see how it would work and examine how the county could tweak it in the future.

County leaders also noted that while new housing stock is important, they’re also looking for ways to improve existing homes.

Lusk suggested reexamining the threshold for the county’s existing affordable housing initiatives. Its first-time homebuyer program, for instance, is currently limited to people making up to 70% of the area median income.

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An apartment complex in Fairfax County, along Route 1 (via Ser Amantio di Nicolao/Wikimedia Commons)

While the federal eviction moratorium is no more, local experts say a Virginia law that took effect on Aug. 10 still provides notable protections for both renters and landlords in Fairfax County.

The Supreme Court ruled on Aug. 26 that the hold on evictions imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was unconstitutional, eliminating a nationwide policy intended to keep people housed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[The eviction moratorium] certainly is one protection that’s removed for the tenant,” said Dipti Pidikiti-Smith of Legal Services of Northern Virginia, a local nonprofit that works with Fairfax County to provide pro-bono legal assistance. “But it wasn’t the main protection. There’s a really good state protection in place.”

In place through June 30, 2022, H.B. 7001 prohibits landlords from evicting tenants who have experienced financial challenges due to the pandemic unless they notify renters about the Virginia Rent Relief Program and apply for assistance on their behalf if the tenant doesn’t apply themselves within 14 days.

Pidikiti-Smith says the bill is a very strong protection that helps both tenants and landlords.

“The state provides more protection initially in preventing filing of these evictions because landlords have to apply for rent assistance,” Pidikiti-Smith said. “Once that’s done, the money is there. The landlords get their payment and tenants have relief… and there’s no need to file a case.”

Tenants can apply for up to 15 months of assistance, which could mean anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on their need and eligibility.

Pidikiti-Smith says she knows one tenant who received $35,000 in relief, though the average is about $5,000 to $6,000. Most tenants who apply do qualify for at least partial assistance.

While the moratorium’s end affected cases already in court, it has had less of an impact statewide on potential evictions.

“We’ve been telling tenants it’s okay that the [eviction moratorium] isn’t in place right now,” Pidikiti-Smith said.

County officials expressed relief last month when the CDC extended its eviction moratorium into October, but they also said the county had ample funds to support those in need.

Earlier this summer, the county set up a new emergency rental assistance program using federal relief funds that has provided more than $12 million in both housing and utilities assistance to about 1,550 households so far, according to data provided to FFXnow.

Before the program was implemented, the county provided more than $28 million in housing, food, and utility assistance from other sources.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said by email that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the federal eviction moratorium was “not ideal.” Read More

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