Updates from Letty – January 11, 2019

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,

Happy new year! 2019 will be a big year for the Little City – the Metro 3T bus service has resumed, Founders Row construction is underway, City Hall will reopen in a few months. We’re looking forward to inking an agreement on the West Falls Church economic development project in May, which will be the precursor to the groundbreaking of a new high school in June. And some updated parks: Big Chimneys, the Downtown Plaza, and turf fields at Larry Graves.

We resumed City Council meetings this week. While our meetings are typically consumed with local business like budget amendments and capital projects – I’m going to focus this week’s post on two macros issues that may not get much press otherwise: affordable housing and climate change. We all share the desire to “leave it better than we found it” and using that lens, addressing both of these rank pretty high for me. And when you see the data on affordable housing stock and the latest greenhouse gas emissions, I believe you’ll share my belief that we should be in crisis mode for both. I hope you’ll spend some time reading about these issues and share your thoughts with me.

The Virginia General Assembly also convened their 2019 session this week. Delegate Simon and Senator Saslaw are holding their annual legislative town hall tomorrow at 10 am at the GMHS Cafeteria. Long time readers know that being a Dillon rule state, our local authority is more limited than we’d like and we look to Richmond to grant us authority in many areas. You can see our legislative priorities (ie, what Falls Church will be advocating to Richmond) in the links below.

Look forward to an exciting 2019 ahead.



What Happened This Week:

(1) Affordable Housing

Since the last time we reviewed the updated affordable living policy, additional feedback has been gathered from boards and commissions, who were supportive of the recommendations. As I’ve written about previously, I believe affordable housing to not only be a critical social and equity issue we should address, but it is also the linchpin in transportation, economic growth, and sustainability as a city. In Falls Church, we simply don’t have many affordable housing options for recent graduates or even professions like teachers, government employees, nurses, service providers, and more. Workers are moving to outer suburbs negatively affecting commute times, the environment, and their quality of life. Regionally, it is becoming the #1 shared issue across jurisdictions and now especially top of mind in advance of Amazon HQ2’s arrival.

As a quick primer: affordable housing does not mean what you think it means. It is not “the projects”. We have two kinds of affordable housing – (1) “market rate” units, which are naturally affordable based on age of the building and market conditions, largely out of our control and (2) “committed” units which are affordable due to regulation and/or an agreement with the city, which are commonly called ADUs (affordable dwelling units) in Falls Church. In this second category, our current policy and practice is developers commit 6% of a new building’s units to be affordable for residents who earn about 60% of the area median income, which is about $65K for a family of 4. It is important to note that the 6% is one of the largest and most valuable concessions in the varied basket of voluntary concessions we receive from each project.

Next, I want to call attention to the data on the City of Falls Church’s current affordable housing stock (you can find more details in the policy document):

  • In 2012, we had 224 market rate affordable units. In 2017, that number plunged to 27. Merrill House apartments and Lee Square apartments no longer are affordable as the market demand for rentals skyrocketed, driving up rents.
  • Ownership units also decreased from 25 to 21 units.
  • We were able to add 18 net new committed rental units as new buildings came on line, so the stock of committed units grew from 221 in 2012 to 239 in 2017.
  • Overall, across rental and ownership affordable units – we went from 470 units in 2012 to 287 units in 2017. That is nearly a loss of 40% of our affordable housing. And in 7 years, the affordability provision at The Fields (93 units) will expire. I call that a crisis.

The small bit of good news: many of the recommendations from the task force have already incorporated in our most recent project negotiations: we’ve negotiated the affordability terms for future committed ADUs to be in perpetuity and have the option to convert units to a cash equivalent – which may be leveraged to create more units in a separate project or preserve existing units.

The data above doesn’t include future housing needs to support the regional population growth expected. And even if we negotiate more than 6% of future projects to continue to be set aside as ADUs, the math shows that it won’t be enough to claw back the loss of units and keep up with demand. If we believe affordable housing is important to our community and to our future, we need more concerted efforts to address. What should be the affordable housing stock target? For what populations and income ranges? How do we encourage the development of more affordable units? Affordable housing development and preservation requires financial resources from a locality – are we willing to prioritize money in our annual budget to focus on this? Or should we create a new source of revenue, like the City of Alexandria recently did with an increase in their meals tax?

Should affordable housing be a priority for us and how should we tackle it? Let me hear from you!

(2) Climate Change

Moving from one weighty topic to the next…

You might have seen that the news this week that carbon emissions in the US actually rose in 2018, the largest increase in 8 years. Locally, we didn’t get much better news, albeit in an excellent presentation. Interestingly, greenhouse gas emissions can be measured and calculated by jurisdiction:

  • Total emissions for the City have declined slightly (2%) over the past 10 years
  • Our population has increased 21% in the same timeframe, so emissions have decreased by a more significant 19% when expressed on a per person basis. While per capita results provide useful insights, total emissions are what ultimately matter when considering our City’s contribution to global climate change.
  • Regionally, the results were similar. Total emissions have decreased by 9% from 2005 to 2015, and per capita emissions have decreased 22% over the same period. Population for the region increased 16% from 2005 to 2015. When considering the faster rate of population increase in our City versus the region, our emissions results are roughly in line with regional results.

In 2017, we adopted a resolution with GHG emissions reduction targets for the City of Falls Church – a 20% reduction by 2020 and 80% reduction by 2050, As it stands – the trend we’re on + current federal and state policies (which affect the majority of our emissions) means we’re unlikely to hit our 2020 goal.

Despite the glum news, I share the position that we should still do our part to reduce the emissions we can control. I found the recommended local actions to be a good guide forward and an affirmation of many of our current priorities: a new, energy efficient and net zero ready high school; mixed use development that is built green and where we have new live-work-play options together in town so residents don’t have to drive outside of Falls Church; and a focus on multimodal transportation options like bicycling and walkability improvements. Additional recommendations are in the staff report and presentation.

(3) Other business

As a preview to next week’s regular meeting where we’ll be taking votes on these – in work session this week we reviewed a budget amendment, which includes appropriating the additional $300K to the Big Chimneys renovation to rehab the long-awaited park and playground and the 2019 legislative program, which contains the priorities of Falls Church we advocate to our Richmond delegation.

(4) Board & Commission openings

If you’re making new year’s resolutions to get more involved locally, may I suggest considering a board or commission vacancy? We have some critical vacancies on the Library Board of Trustees, the Environmental Sustainability Council (ESC), Transportation (CACT), Human Services, and more. Do you have interest or expertise in one of these areas? They are a great, low commitment way to dip your toes in local government – see how the sausage gets made and give back to the community. If you have interest, I’m happy to discuss with you and answer questions, including the appointments process which may seem more intimidating that it actually is.


What’s Coming Up: