Updates from Letty – February 11, 2022

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,

Our work session this week was largely focused on exciting affordable housing initiatives on the horizon. We have been making remarkable progress in affordable housing in recent years and with the city successfully winning two rounds of Amazon grants totaling over $7M, we’ll be able to fund new priorities like homeownership. Read on to learn more.

Outside of our work session, we have been closely following happenings in Richmond, now nearly at the General Assembly’s halfway “crossover” point. Governor Youngkin’s executive orders have received a lot of attention, but we’ve also been tracking legislation like the repeal of the grocery tax that could negatively impact our local budget, strengthening tenants rights, and other priorities we outlined in our legislative program. Happenings in Richmond seem far away, but I’ll explain why it matters for Falls Church.

Finally, I recently addressed two of the top questions I’ve received about leaf pick up and the construction happening at the 400 block of Broad, the former Falls Church Florist/Inns of Virginia building.

If you have questions or concerns, I’m happy to hear from you via email or at my next virtual office hours on Monday, February 28 at noon.

Take care,

What Happened This Week:

(1) Affordable Housing

In 2021, the city applied for and was awarded two rounds of Amazon grant, each $3.75M, for new affordable housing initiatives. The grants require a small local match so the city will be putting in $500K from the city’s Affordable Housing Fund.

The first grant will have two uses: $350K of grant dollars will be used to extend the affordability convenants for 10 teacher workforce affordable units in the Read Building (the PNC Bank building) that were set to expire in 2022. Up until Founders Row that was approved in 2016 and opened this year, all of the affordable units in the city’s mixed use buildings have expiration dates – which means their rents will revert back to market rate after 15-20 years. That is one reason why we have been losing affordable housing stock.

$3.4M will be used to start a new affordable homeownership program with a non profit partner. With home prices escalating out of reach for many, this is an important new program, especially with an equity sharing provision. Conceptually, a homeowner will be able to share the equity gains with the city – which allows both the homeowner to build wealth and the city to put the equity gains back into the program to keep the unit affordable for future owners. More policy decisions still need to be ironed out – like eligibility requirements, size of units/housing type, how many properties we’ll be able to fund, etc. Due to home prices in Falls Church, the program will likely target condos and small townhomes for first time homebuyers.

The second grant will create a new “acquisition strike fund” to continue acquiring affordable housing units in the City, preserve them as affordable rental units with a future partner, and eventually consolidate and redevelop for additional affordable housing. As you may recall, we began the year with 1 Virginia Village quadplex under city ownership and ended the year with 5 quads that have now been acquired by the city. A new “acquisition strike fund” will allow us to more nimbly and proactively pursue future acquisitions.

While the concepts above have broad and strong support, getting the details right will be important so expect more discussions to come.

(2) General Assembly Happenings

Among the many bills that we’re tracking in Richmond and other priority areas we outlined in our annual legislative program we adopted in December, I’ve personally have been invested in a few priorities:

  • Charter Change: the city is pursuing a charter change to allow non-US citizens to serve on our boards and commissions. Currently, only “qualified voters” are allowed to volunteer on our boards. As part of the equity review we asked our boards to take on last year, this was one of their recommendations. Removing the citizenship requirement is a small but meaningful policy change to enable a wider pool of talent, voices, and perspectives from all of the city’s residents to serve and ultimately be reflected in our city’s policies and programs. And good news! Both the House and Senate versions of the bill have unanimously passed their chambers, which bodes well for final passage after crossover. Thanks to the many public commenters who helped!
  • Tenants Rights: Related to my last update about issues with the living conditions at The Fields, we have also been following and supporting legislation that would strengthen tenants rights. In particular, HB885 proposed to expand health and safety standards in the statewide building code (for example, housing should be free from plumbing leaks and mold – standards that are considered universally basic livability!). Unfortunately HB885 did not make it out of committee and is dead. But there’s hope – HB802 would allow localities to enforce issues with landlords directly. Currently, localities have little authority to step in and tenants are required to take up issues with their landlord directly, which is often a prohibitively costly and intimidating process. So far HB802 has made it out of committee and is awaiting a floor vote in the House.

We’re also closely watching the state budget and potential repeal of the grocery tax. While repeal of the grocery tax, which is a regressive tax that disproportionally impacts lower impact households, has bi-partisan support and is popular – it should be done with with careful consideration of how the lost revenues will impact local governments and funding of important priorities like schools and transportation. For Falls Church, a loss of local grocery tax revenue would be about a $1.4M hit to the annual budget – which is equivalent to about 3 cents on your property tax rate. And even if the revenue were to be replaced by Richmond, there is no guarantee it would be there in future years.

Personally, I have found it challenging to engage with Richmond’s legislative process. We often find out when bills are docketed in committees and subcommittees in the General Assembly with less than a day’s notice, so sending in written comments or testifying is often a last minute scramble! Luckily we have strong representation in Richmond and hardworking staff to stay on top of it.

What’s Coming Up:

Monday, Feb 14, 2022 – City Council Meeting*

Tuesday, Feb 22, 2022 – City Council Planning Retreat at 6 pm (rescheduled from Jan 31)

Monday, Feb 28, 2022 – Letty’s Office Hours at 12 pm

Monday, Feb 28, 2022 – City Council Meeting*

*every Monday (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm at City Hall and livestreamed. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings