Updates from Letty – February 26, 2021

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,

Another week of exciting news for affordable housing: I’m thrilled to share that the City has won a grant for $3.75M as part of Amazon’s commitment in bringing HQ2 to the area. This third piece of good news in a month is great momentum for one of our top priorities. Read on for more details on how the funds will be deployed, including a new first-time homeownership program and how it may help address systemic inequities. And remember, this Sunday at 4 pm via Zoom will be the first of a three-part series on affordable housing hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Citizens for a Better City civic groups.

On other city business – we had a lengthy meeting with meaty discussions on transportation, police reform, and took several important (but admittedly, boring on paper) votes on Founders Row and the Special Exception Ordinance, which is the zoning tool that enables the majority of redevelopment to occur. I’ll explain why the SE matters.

And good news should be around the corner with COVID: more vaccines, more supply, more locations. And with cases dropping, Governor Northam announced he’ll relax some restrictions, effective March 1. While we’re all anxious for our turn to get vaccinated – as I shared last week, Falls Church appears to be leading with some of the highest per capita vaccination rates in the region (over 8% of our population fully vaccinated as of yesterday).

Finally – a call to action: as you may have heard, WMATA is considering various service reductions, including the closure of East Falls Church Metro station, due to the impact of the pandemic on ridership, should they not receive additional federal aid. Public feedback is vital in helping them make tough decisions. Let them know what you think by Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

Take care,

What Happened This Week:

(1) Affordable Housing Grant

Following on the vote to achieve 10% affordable housing in Broad and Washington and last week’s news about the city’s acquisition of 302 Shirley Street, we learned yesterday that the City was awarded $3.75M for affordable housing. The $3.75M is part of Amazon’s $15M annual commitment to the region, as part of the HQ2 deal.

The majority of the grant would create a new first time homebuyer program. In partnership with a housing non-profit, a revolving fund would be created to acquire small market rate housing, rehabilitate them if necessary, and then resell them at a more affordable price via a shared equity model. Unlike traditional down payment assistance programs, this model should be more self sustaining (market appreciation/equity would be shared – some towards the revolving fund to fund future purchases and some for homeowners to build wealth). Staff estimates that we can support up to 18 acquisitions through this model.

Letty’s thoughts: Why is homeownership important? Besides the obvious point that homeownership is becoming increasingly difficult in the region, much less the city – we should seek to create both affordable rental and ownership opportunities. There are also broader historic inequities we can right. Homeownership is an important source of generational wealth in the US. The wide wealth gap between white and minority communities (that leads to disparities in employment, education, health care access, etc) is attributed to racist housing policies – like redlining, exclusionary covenants, and discriminatory lending practices. Creating more homeownership programs can be one small way to address those historic inequities.

A small portion of the grant will also be used to extend the affordability of the affordable units at the Read Building, which are set to expire next year. Teachers and school staff are given first priority for these units.

(2) Deep Dives

CACT annual report – the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation is one of our more active boards, working on walkability, bike access, pedestrian safety, sidewalks, and the popular Neighborhood Traffic Calming Program. If these topics interest you – I encourage you to read their report.

Use of Force Review Committee Final Report – another impressive citizen-led effort is the Police Use of Force Committee’s final report. Recall that we chartered this group last summer following the murder of George Floyd and re-affirmed our commitment to continuously improve police and sheriff practices. At 189 pages, this is a detailed, thoughtful report – the culmination of 6 months of work. Before you get intimidated, the detailed findings are on pages 18-26. They include recommendations like an independent citizen review board, more community policing, non police response to mental health issues, more training for crisis intervention – some of which will have budget implications. The next step is for staff to take the recommendations and come up with an implementation plan to go in front of City Council.

(3) Founders Row Amendment

As I last wrote about in January, the Founders Row developers requested a change in the voluntary concessions. The original commitment connected the issuance of certificates of occupancy (COs) for a portion of the apartments to the construction of the theater. Mill Creek assures us they remain committed to finding a replacement theater and will put $3.6M into an escrow account if there is no signed lease at the opening of the apartments. The cash will remain in escrow until tenant improvements for a movie theater are underway and Mill Creek will provide a confidential monthly update on the status of theater negotiations.

Letty’s thoughts: We approved this change by a 6-1 vote. To be clear, the theater commitment has not changed – the developer is still legally required to deliver a theater. No one likes renegotiations, but given that there are extraordinary circumstances with the pandemic and the alternatives would mean halting work on the project altogether – I believe it’s important not to hold up the entire project (and its associated fiscal benefits).

(4) Special Exception Amendment

We’ve been working on modernizing the Special Exception since the fall. The Special Exception code has been the main tool used in the city for re-development the past 20 years. It allows for mixed used development and taller building heights than otherwise permitted if certain criteria are met. I believe it was time for an update to enable smaller, infill development that aren’t financially viable under the current code, flexibility on ground floor uses, create more diverse housing types, and ultimately widen the funnel for more projects to come forward. A few highlights of the changes:

  • Focus on the quality of commercial spaces and uses more than quantity
  • Raises the bar for environment sustainability to LEED Gold or equivalent and 20% reduction in energy use
  • Adds language around open and green space and green and gray stormwater infrastructure

Letty’s thoughts: The SE ordinance has been a great tool than has enabled the city to diversify our single family home-heavy tax base and bring millions of fiscally net positive revenue and community amenities to the city. The changes may look like wordsmithing on paper and passed by a 7-0 vote, but should be impactful. By removing the hurdle that projects have to have significant increase in commercial square footages, we will be able to consider smaller infill projects that don’t take up multiple city blocks. There is still a clear revenue test in the SE criteria so projects have to be fiscally net positive for us to consider them. That said, I believe that we shouldn’t vilify residential development. There is a clear need for more housing in the region. And housing brings important foot traffic and spending power to our businesses – we can’t support the retail and dining options we all enjoy and desire without more customers. As long as it’s well-planned and we understand the costs – we should not be afraid of residential uses in mixed use development (and to date, mixed use development that has originated from the SE ordinance has not created school or other capital issues).

(5) COVID Updates

  • The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to receive emergency use authorization soon, which will add another 50K/doses per week in Virginia (on a base of 160K/week from Moderna and Pfizer vaccines).
  • More pharmacies will get be getting vaccine supply directly from the federal government (another 50K doses per week). Some of the pharmacies, like Giant, will be working off the same waitlist as the local health department and some like CVS and Safeway require you to register separately if you’re eligible. I know this is confusing and far from ideal – I assure you that this feedback has been shared.
  • With cases and positivity rates dropping, starting next Monday March 1, the Governor will be easing some public health restrictions. I encourage you to keep up masking, distancing, and limiting risky indoor activities.
    • The maximum capacity for outdoor social gatherings will increase from 10 to 25 people. Indoor gatherings will still be limited to 10 individuals.
    • Alcohol sales will be permitted until midnight, extended from 10:00 PM.
    • Outdoor entertainment venues can operate with up to 1,000 individuals or at 30% capacity, whichever is lower. Indoor venues will continue to have a 250-person cap.

What’s Coming Up:

Current draft schedule of meetings and agenda items

City Council Meetings start at 730 pm, unless otherwise specified. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings

Sunday, February 28 (4-515 pm) – Citizens for a Better City and League of Women Voters are co-hosting a three part series on affordable housing, with the first of the panels on Sunday, Feb 28 via Zoom.

Tuesday, March 2 (12-130 pm)Join City staff and representatives from Falls Church Gateway Partners to learn more about the second submission of the Special Exception Entitlement Amendment and Special Exception Site Plane for Phase 1 of the project. There will be a question and answer opportunity.