By Bob Leggett:
The pandemic has worsened the affordable housing shortage in Fairfax County, and highlighted the overall needs of the many in our prosperous region who already were on the margins.
More than 70,000 people were living in poverty in the county last year out of a population of around 1.15 million people – a poverty rate of 6.1%, according to data recently released by the county.
The data also show that the unemployment rate in the county was 2.4%. Although quite good by most standards, over 27,000 people were unemployed — before the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic Party values call for us to protect and support vulnerable segments of our population. Are we as a party adequately addressing the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, especially in the current environment?
Housing is one of the biggest unmet needs. Adequate housing should be a basic right of all citizens, but access to it remains out of reach for many.
Purchasing a new home is well out of reach of most low-income people, as the median market value of owned housing units in Fairfax County last year was over $536,000.
Renting a home in Fairfax County also is problematic. The average monthly rent for housing in the county was $1,764 – over $21,000 annually, according to the county’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
Assuming that 30 percent of a family’s annual income is the maximum portion that can realistically be spent on rent, an annual income of over $70,560 is needed to rent a home in Fairfax County. But, although the median household income in Fairfax County was $122,000, almost a third of the population – 29% — had incomes below $75,000.
While incomes rose about 10 percent in the county between 2010 and 2015, rental costs rose much higher — 15% for single family homes, 23% for townhouses, and 27% for condominiums.
The Housing Authority, which owned or operated about 3,700 units in 2018, estimates that the county needs additional 15,000 affordable housing units over the next 15 years.
The pandemic has greatly complicated efforts to find solutions to the housing crisis. While the county’s budget for fiscal year 2021 had initially proposed a one cent increase in the real estate tax to support affordable housing programs, almost all of the increases – in housing and other programs — have now been postponed due to the financial impact on the county budget of the Covid-19 pandemic. (See previous story in The Blue View)
Nonetheless, county officials have voiced support for more affordable housing, albeit with only a very modest increase in funding in the upcoming fiscal year, and the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development has a “Community Housing Strategic Plan” in place to address the growing need for price-appropriate housing in Fairfax County.
Phase I of the plan was adopted in June 2018. It identifies 25 short-term strategies that can be implemented without major new policies or revenue as a way to encourage and produce additional housing. Phase II was presented to the Board of Supervisors last year. It outlined long-term strategies, tools, and policies needed to develop and preserve affordable housing options into the future. These phases are going forward despite the drop off in county revenues.
Still, affordable housing is only one area where help for vulnerable citizens is needed. Adequate health care, opportunities for meaningful employment, and meeting basic food needs of lower income citizens need to be addressed on a continuing basis as well.
County officials have said that current programs will continue in these areas, and the county has published a Human Services Resources Guide on its website and a dedicated telephone number for those in need of emergency food, shelter, health care, and with financial needs.
In addition, Fairfax County’s community health centers, schools, and Community Services Board are continuing to provide comprehensive health care, meals, and mental health and substance abuse services.
The challenge going forward for the Democratic Party, which holds nine of the 10 seats on the county Board of Supervisors, is to ensure that the needs of low-income citizens continue to be given high priority during this period of uncertainty and beyond.
Photo: The ideal is far from the reality in affordable housing in Fairfax County. Source: Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority
Bob Leggett is a former intelligence analyst and military veteran with a doctorate in economics from Lehigh University. He is a member of Hunter Mill District Democratic Committee.
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