Speak up for Fairfax County’s affordable housing policy to help mitigate climate change!

UPDATE March 21: The policy was adopted by the Board of Supervisors on March 21st, 2023. Overall, this is a positive step forward in addressing affordability in Fairfax County.

This adopted plan still only applies to multifamily (four or more units) rental stock of housing that serves households whose annual income is 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI) or below and manufactured homes (mobile homes) will be considered via a separate initiative.

Why is Nature Forward writing about affordable housing? The short answer is that housing policy is climate policy. If people can afford to live closer to where they work, they will spend less time commuting and will produce fewer transportation emissions. In addition, close-in affordable housing will help us save more of our natural areas by reducing sprawl. Fairfax County needs to reduce both sprawl and emissions to meet its climate and resilience goals.

Proposal: Affordable Housing Preservation Comprehensive Plan Amendment

Fairfax County staff is currently working on the Affordable Housing Preservation Comprehensive Plan Amendment (Plan) which aims to save the county’s affordable multifamily rental units including apartment buildings. This Plan currently focuses on households with an annual income that is 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI) or below. 

For context, in 2022, 60% of Area Median Income for a family of four was $85,350 (read more here). Households earning $85,350 – often with two salaries – include teachers, health care workers, auto mechanics, EMTs, and childcare workers, for example. At $85,350, monthly rent considered affordable is $2,134. In reality, that means a family of four at this income level can afford a two-bedroom unit in an older apartment building, but not in a new market-rate building where rents range from $2,500 to $3,000. 

The simple story is this: When people can’t afford housing close-in, they get pushed elsewhere. They may become homeless or move in with family members or friends. Often, families who can’t afford market rate rent are forced to move farther away from their workplaces, often out of Fairfax County altogether, to a place they can better afford.

The longer we wait, the less housing will be preserved.

When areas are redeveloped, new market-rate apartments charge much higher rents. Even existing older properties that are classified as affordable today may not be affordable later. Current rent increases are greatly outpacing the rise in household incomes. The Board of Supervisors needs to enact the Plan today to preserve all possible housing units priced for families making 60% or less of Area Median Income to prevent sprawl and reduce transit emissions produced by workers commuting to Fairfax.

Speak up in favor of Affordable Housing to Curb Sprawl

Please write to the Board of Supervisors in advance of their March 21 public hearing.
– Read Nature Forward’s 2/13/23 letter to the Planning Commission

Context for your letter:
(a) Preserving affordable housing helps reduce carbon emissions from transportation
In the DC region, affordable housing is often far away from employment centers (“drive ’til you qualify”), and lacks reasonable public transportation options. When people move far away to find affordable housing, the result is increased car traffic, increased transportation emissions, and tree removal to make way for housing and highway sprawl – all of which accelerates negative climate impacts in our region. Our recent blog posts on how Sprawl is bad for forests and streams and Sprawl is Bad for the Climate cover this in more detail.

(b) The value of preserving affordable housing extends beyond affordable rent to transportation costs
True cost of housing is more realistically the cost of housing plus transportation. Retaining and creating affordable housing near transit will be good for residents’ bank accounts and for the climate because no-car and one-car households produce fewer carbon emissions (and cost less in transportation) than 2+ car households.

Three asks to support and strengthen the Plan:

(1) Housing policy is climate policy: Support the goals of this Plan
The intent of this Plan is strong, but the language should be strengthened in explicit support of the Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) goals.

(2) This plan should include protection for mobile home community residents
While we understand that a second Comprehensive Plan Amendment is being developed to specifically address mobile homes, delaying and handling this separately leaves these important, affordable communities vulnerable. Fairfax County has several mobile home communities, which are among the most affordable remaining housing, are often close to job and transit centers, and disproportionately shelter immigrants and people of color.

(3) This plan should include a strategy for workforce housing as well as one for affordable housing
The high median income in Fairfax hides substantial wealth gaps. For example, the median salary for a county employee in 2021 was $73,108, meaning our own county workers make below AMI. Ask the Board of Supervisors to increase the number of people protected through this Plan by making sure the eligibility threshold covers workforce housing (60-80% of AMI). Affordable housing is good climate policy and a matter of justice and fairness for residents who underpin the county workforce.