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Fairfax Co. eyes wide expansion of affordable, studio-only apartment buildings

Thursday - 8/1/2013, 12:44pm  ET

Fairfax County is exploring a new development option to address its dire need for thousands of affordable residential units — the expansion of studio-only apartment buildings across the jurisdiction.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday authorized a public hearing on a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would allow studio apartment buildings by special exception in most residential, commercial and industrial districts. The majority of the studios, under the amended ordinance, must be affordable to lower-income residents.

“Today they’re in the woods. They’re in their cars,” Supervisor Catherine Hudgins, D-Hunter Mill, said of the county’s homeless population. “We can be extremely responsive to people when they come and give us their emotional stories. But I don’t think they’re looking for stories from us. They’re looking for housing.”

While the board generally agreed it must do something to address the county’s affordable housing crisis, the challenge will be finding consensus on what should be built, where it should be built and who should be allowed to live there. The board’s brief discussion on the issue Tuesday went in that direction, albeit with carefully chosen words.

“I don’t believe this is ready for prime time yet,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield. “I believe very strongly in protecting our suburban neighborhoods and I feel there are still things in here that might change the character of some of those neighborhoods and that causes me great concern.”

Supervisor Jeff McKay, D-Lee, suggested the ordinance, as currently written, may open the door to issues of overcrowding and “illegal boarding houses.”

“If this is done and not done right, it has an opportunity to destroy the reputation of the affordable housing programs in this county that are great,” McKay said.

The proposed ordinance limits each studio building to 75 units of what the county is calling “residential studios,” or RSAs. Each unit may be no larger than 500 square feet. And in each building, under the ordinance, 80 percent of units must be affordable to residents earning no more than 60 percent of the area median income — $45,000 a year maximum for a single occupant.

The studio buildings, per the ordinance, must sit on land fronting a major roadway and should be “harmonious with the development on neighboring properties in terms of character, building, size, height, intensity and use.”

“Permitting residential studios is an excellent way to accommodate lower-income rental units and provide more housing choices for our residents,” said Board Chair Sharon Bulova.

The board hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 19. In the meantime, the county’s planning commission will launch its own review of the ordinance, in addition to community outreach.

© 2013 American City Business Journals, Inc.