Updates from Letty – December 11, 2020

Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council

Dear Friends,

After this week’s school renaming decision that has left some proud and some disappointed, I’ll offer an observation that comforted me and may help unify our divided community. As I listened and read the many thoughtful perspectives, I noticed that except for a few outliers, most people believe that we have opportunities to add diversity of all kinds, pursue racial justice, and promote greater equity – regardless of a school’s name. So, I think we can all get behind this sentiment: now that we’re past the renaming vote which is but one step – let’s get to work on the rest of the journey to truly live up to our values. 

From our City Council work session this week – I’ll share a few topics that have been eclipsed by the headlines yet have direct connections to the pursuit of equity (budget, affordable housing, qualified immunity, city holidays). If you’re with me, roll up your sleeves and read on – I’d really welcome your thoughts.

This week hopefully marks the “beginning of the end” for the COVID pandemic. The first people received the vaccine in the UK and approval is imminent in the US. Yet the stark reality is that we’ll be celebrating another holiday season differently as the virus ravages the country and widespread vaccination is still months away. Frankly, our recent metrics look terrible, even in Falls Church. We’re at the highest counts and positivity rate ever, which means there is far more community transmission than there was in the spring when we rallied to flatten the curve. To avoid burdening local hospitals that is already happening elsewhere, Governor Northam rolled out new restrictions, including a universal mask requirement (wear a mask indoors and even outdoors if you can’t maintain distance – mirroring last week’s CDC guidance), reduced gathering limits, and modified stay at home orders beginning on Monday. Please keep up the resolve to make safer choices to take care of yourselves and to take care of each other.

Next Monday night will be our last City Council meeting of 2020 before we’re back on January 4, so I’ll be taking a blogging break as well. Tune in to my Facebook page for briefer updates before January. Wishing you a safe and peaceful holiday season – here’s to brighter days ahead.

Take care,

What Happened This Week:

(1) Joint Work Session with School Board – FY22 Budget Kickoff

Our annual joint work session with the School Board unofficially kicks off the coming year’s budget season, usually starting with an update from the CFO on projected revenues, ie how much money we’ll have to work with in the budget development. The TL;DR version:

  • Most economists believe the US economy won’t truly rebound until 2022 and the coming year will have a ton of uncertainty.
  • Locally, the residential market has continued to be strong in contrast to commercial property, with hard hit areas of office, hospitality, and retail. We expect residential tax assessments to increase, commercial tax assessments to decrease, and add $10M in new construction – leading to a 1.5% growth in total assessed value.
  • Similar to what we’re seeing this year, sales tax has been strong due to online and grocery sales, while all other categories of local taxes will be down (meals, hotel, BPOL, etc).
  • The current forecast projects 2.5% revenue growth in FY22 or about $2M more revenue than this year, with the caveat that we had made such deep cuts in this year’s pandemic budget that even $2M in revenue growth essentially gets us back to last year’s FY20 budget.

Letty’s thoughts:

When there is so much uncertainty in the years ahead (further public health fallout, pace of economic recovery, rising health care costs, housing and food support for vulnerable residents, funding for schools and Metro…while juggling our capital obligations and core services), I believe we should budget prudently. Revenue growth of any magnitude in this unprecedented year is remarkable. The current revenue estimates are fairway projections, so I asked staff to also produce worse case and better case scenarios so we can plan accordingly. We should remember that while many of our residents are faring well, some of them are not – as such, the social safety net is my first priority. I’m also sensitive that rising property assessments will mean the average homeowner will already see a $300 increase in real estate taxes (while holding the tax rate constant) in the face of widespread economic hardship. Because of the deep cuts we made last spring to limit programs and freeze vacancies and salaries to react to the pandemic, I do recognize there is pent up demand to reward employees for this hard year which adds to the growing list of demands on the budget. If federal relief provides assistance to state and local budgets, we’ll have more flexibility, but we should start leaner and revise from there.

On Monday, we’ll be voting to adopt the annual Budget Guidance document that serves as “guidance” to school and city staff in the development of their budgets before they’re presented to us in March.

(2) Where Do Students Live?

The annual “where students live” analysis is out. As I wrote last month, we saw a 5.5% decrease in enrollment in FCCPS, not uncommon given the pandemic but it was the largest drop of any school system in the region. This annual analysis dives deeper into where students originate across the community and serves as input into our fiscal models used to assess new development projects. As you can see, we’re continuing to see the trend that the overwhelming majority of students live in existing residential neighborhoods, with less than 8% of students living in the newer mixed use buildings, that debunks the common myth that mixed use buildings crowd the school system.

Student-Ratios-per-Dwelling-Unit-2020-11-24 Download

(3) 2021 Legislative Program

The Legislative Program contains our policy positions on a variety of legislation in the coming General Assembly session and aids our lobbying efforts. It’s a long document that’s worth a read, but I will note a few areas that have been personally important to me and are aligned with priorities I’ve heard from the community – criminal justice reform, pedestrian safety, electronic participation in public meetings, stormwater and trees, and funding for public schools.

  • Police qualified immunity – I am the first to admit that I have much to learn with criminal justice and police reform. As I’ve been learning, I noted that the ACLU and other prominent reform organizations call for an end to qualified immunity which is different than the City’s current position. I asked that we further study this and understand regional positions; I would welcome your input.
  • Pedestrian safety – ped safety is a top priority across the city. Among other strategies, we’re asking Richmond for more authority to require motorists to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks and use of speed cameras. For me, automated ticket enforcement has the potential to improve safety, free up resources for community policing, reduce unnecessary interactions between residents and police, and further advance equitable outcomes.
  • Electronic participation – a big thanks to everyone in Falls Church who joined me to support more flexibility in electronic participation for elected and appointed bodies of government. Instead of a full elimination of the cap, the FOIA Council is recommending a 25% limit, which is a decent compromise. We will follow this as it turns into legislation.
  • Stormwater & Trees – we supported more funding for stormwater management and authority to provide greater incentives for tree canopy preservation and planting to offset tree removal.

(4) Affordable Housing

As I’ve often shared, I believe addressing affordable, workforce, and diverse housing is an integral part of our equity work. We have to remove barriers to high housing costs if we want to create a more inclusive and economically sustainable community. As it stands, we’re losing affordable housing stock faster than we can add to it. Following our October discussions on ideas to stem the housing crisis, here are two opportunities to turn talk into action:

Amazon REACH Grant Application – as part of Amazon’s HQ2 package, there is a grant program to address localities’ affordable housing needs. Next week, we’ll be endorsing the city’s application for the maximum grant amount of $3.75M. The grant application will include two project concepts:

1) First-time homebuyer program in partnership with a non-profit, using the funds to acquire homes, rehab them if necessary, and resell them at an affordable price. Equity appreciation would be shared between the homebuyer and the city, creating both a wealth creation opportunity for the homebuyer and a growing revolving fund for future home purchase.

2) Affordability extension for current affordable rental units, targeted at teachers and other residents who work in the city. These units were originally built in 2007 and the 15 year affordability covenants will expire in 2022. The Amazon funds would extend affordability for another 10 years.

Broad and Washington Development – with the final submissions expected in a few weeks, we have the opportunity to create more affordable units within the Whole Foods / Creative Cauldron / 339 apartments project. Per the city’s special exception development process, developers traditionally offer “voluntary concessions” that include community benefits like affordable housing, stormwater capture, transportation improvements, environmentally friendly buildings, and cash payments in various areas to offset potential capital needs such as for schools, parks, and libraries. Those cash payments are usually in the millions of dollars and in the past, have gone towards paying for capital projects.

In the Broad and Washington project, 6% of the residential units (21 units) will be set aside as affordable to households earning 60% of the area’s median income, about $75K for a family of 4. In housing lingo, these units are called “inclusionary zoned” units because they’re included within a market rate income building.

*The good news: if approved, once built in 2023/2024, these 21 units will remain affordable in perpetuity.

*The bad news: affordable apartment units at all of the city’s previous mixed used properties will expire over the next 10-15 years (Pearson Square, Northgate, Lincoln, West Broad – 54 units in total) and every affordable condo unit have either expired or will expire (12 left) in the next 2 years. Not to mention the expiration of 96 units at The Fields in 6 years and market rate housing that continues to grow more expensive over time. So clearly we have a huge need to create more affordable units. Inclusionary zoned units in large developments is one clear opportunity.

I believe we should strongly advocate for more than 6% affordable units at our next project, Broad and Washington, and if needed, be willing to consider a trade off of the traditional concessions. Given recent investments and progress in schools, libraries, and parks, we should be willing to evolve our concession model and shift our focus toward affordable housing as a more pressing need.

If you share this sentiment or have questions, I’d love to hear from you.

(5) 2021 City Holidays

Next week, we’ll be adopting the city’s 2021 holiday calendar – which will include the addition of Juneteenth.

New Year’s Day Friday, January 1
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Monday, January 18
Presidents’ Day Monday, February 15
Memorial Day Monday, May 31
Juneteeth Friday, June 18
Independence Day Monday, July 5
Labor Day Monday, September 6
Indigenous Peoples Day Monday, October 11
Veterans Day Thursday, November 11
Thanksgiving Holiday Thursday & Friday, November 25 & 26
Christmas Holiday Thursday & Friday, December 23 & 24
New Year’s Day Friday, December 31

What’s Coming Up:

Monday, December 14, 2020 Meeting

Monday, January 4, 2021 Meeting

City Council Meetings start at 730 pm, unless otherwise specified. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings including virtual Board & Commission meetings: https://www.fallschurchva.gov/471/Watch-City-Council-Meetings