Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fairfax County, Va., hopes to provide more affordable housing for disabled, elderly or homeless people

From The Washington Post:

Almost a year after gutting a public program in Fairfax County used to maintain and expand affordable housing, the wealthy Northern Virginia locality adopted a sweeping blueprint Tuesday to increase its support for affordable housing through developers, nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups while laying out an ambitious goal to end homelessness within the next decade.

The county's Board of Supervisors approved the "Housing Blueprint" during its bimonthly meeting Tuesday with an option to spend $10.1 million more next fiscal year on affordable-housing programs. That request awaits board approval during budget negotiations this spring.

Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), chairwoman of the board's housing committee, said the plan emphasizes public-private partnerships to address affordable-housing needs and focuses attention on the most needy. Among the county's top housing priorities cited in the report are about $4 million in rent subsidies for homeless families and those on subsidized-housing waiting lists and a $3 million renovation of the Lincolnia Senior Center in Alexandria.

Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest localities in the nation based on household income, has long faced challenges in providing enough affordable housing. The average single-family house sold for about $520,000 in October, according to county figures. This year, the fair-market rent for a one-bedroom unit in Fairfax County is $1,318, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and county officials estimate that rents have stayed steady or risen since the collapse of the housing market as people experiencing foreclosure have flooded the rental market.

Last year, officials cut in half the "Penny for Affordable Housing Fund" program, which devoted 1 cent of the county's real-estate tax rate to buy or otherwise preserve low-rent apartments and other housing units. The program has been credited with preserving 2,200 units that might have been bought by developers for condominiums or become more costly to rent.

Affordable housing is defined as houses, apartments and condominiums whose cost does not exceed 30 percent of a person or family's gross household income. Fairfax County's $102,700 median household income is one of the highest in the nation, and the average annual income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the county is nearly $53,000, according to county statistics.

Among the goals of the blueprint:

-- To end homelessness in the county within the next decade. The most recent homelessness survey performed in Fairfax, in January 2009, found 1,730 homeless. Dean H. Klein, director of the county's Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, said 2,650 more units of housing are needed over the next 10 years to meet the goal.

-- To provide affordable housing options to the disabled and senior citizens.

-- To reduce the waiting lists for those seeking affordable housing by half over the next decade.

-- To expand the county's affordable housing for its growing number of middle-income public-sector workers, such as teachers, entry-level nurses, firefighters and police officers. County figures show that about half of Fairfax employees live in other jurisdictions.

"As the county becomes more urban, we need to adapt our stock of housing, and these are real live dollars at work," said Shelley S. Murphy, chief executive of Wesley Housing Development, an affordable-housing developer in Alexandria

Nearly $6.4 million in additional federal stimulus funds has been used for a variety of "on the street" housing initiatives, including the rehabilitation of public housing, said Paula C. Sampson, director of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Five years ago, the county began an effort to buy, build and preserve the dwindling supply of lower-rent housing, funded through property tax collections. In its largest purchase, the county bought Wedgewood Apartments, a 672-unit complex in Annandale, in 2007 for $107.5 million.

Wedgewood costs the county about $6 million a year in debt financing. Sampson said the new blueprint reflects how cost-efficient alternatives are needed to keep affordable housing options around.

"There's not much falling off the trees right now, so this change really is needed to keep us going," she said.

The county's budget negotiations are set to begin in late February when County Executive Anthony H. Griffin presents his version of the budget.