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Colin Mills: Small Apartments = Big Problems?

by Karen Goff — November 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm 19 Comments

Colin Mills/File photoResidential Studios. It sounds like a movie company, doesn’t it?

Actually, it’s an idea under consideration to relieve the affordable housing crunch in Fairfax County.  As you may know, the idea has stirred up a lot of controversy in the county. Since the Residential Studios concept would likely have an impact on future development in Reston, we at RCA decided to take a stand on the issue.

Our position? We support the concept… but we’re concerned about the execution. We believe the ordinance needs rewriting in order to protect existing neighborhoods, and to ensure that the new units go into areas with the infrastructure to support them.

What are Residential Studios? Essentially, they’re efficiency apartments (zero-bedroom units less than 500 square feet in size). Currently, there are a few such apartments in the county, but only a very small number are permitted. The proposed change to the zoning ordinance would allow construction of buildings with up to 75 of these units almost anywhere in the county.

Why build them? To provide a different affordable housing option. As housing prices continue to climb in Reston and elsewhere in the region, it’s harder and harder for people with low incomes to afford to live here. Our economy needs people to work relatively low-wage jobs in service, retail, and other industries, and those people need a place to live.

One way to meet this need is to provide subsidized and/or government-owned housing; the Crescent Apartments are an example of this. This generally requires substantial government investment. Another answer is to let the market set rents, which generally pushes lower-income residents farther out, where housing is cheaper. This makes our traffic worse, since the workers have to drive long distances to get to their jobs.

Residential Studios present another option: Just make smaller apartments. Smaller spaces tend to command lower rents.  If these units are built where people can walk or take transit to work instead of driving, it reduces traffic on our streets. They don’t require the government to provide rent subsidies or build or buy apartments. The proposed zoning ordinance would require that most of the units be rented to people making no more than 60% of the area’s median income, to ensure that the units are going to the people who really have a hard time affording housing in the area.

Sounds pretty good. But there are a few problems with the ordinance as it’s written. We were alerted to this issue by the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations, which passed a resolution about this in September. Upon looking at the issue ourselves, RCA discovered that we shared FCFCA’s concerns, and so at our meeting last week, we endorsed FCFCA’s resolution.

What are our concerns? We believe the ordinance should be narrowed to put studio units in areas where they’ll do the most good. As currently drawn, residential studio units could be constructed almost anywhere, including by conversion of single-family homes or townhouses in existing neighborhoods. And that’s a problem.

Throughout the Master Plan review process, RCA has fought hard for protection of existing residential neighborhoods in Reston. Shoehorning residential studios into stable neighborhoods just doesn’t make sense. They would cause parking problems, potentially reduce property values, and change the character of the neighborhood. Putting studio units near existing apartments or in redeveloping areas (such as around the Metro stations) is far more sensible.

Also, the studio units should meet the same requirements as other multi-family residential development. If the units aren’t pleasant places to live, that’s bad for the residents and the surrounding community. Residential studio buildings should be subject to the same open space requirements as other residential development, so that the residents don’t feel like they’re crammed in cheek-to-jowl. And they should meet the parking requirements for other apartment units, so that if the residents have cars, they have a place to put them.

Most importantly, the new units need to conform to existing density requirements. The current proposal would exempt the new units from density calculations!  That seems like a recipe for planning chaos. Ideally, the new units should be in high-density areas, where the infrastructure is (hopefully) in place to support a lot of people.

Speaking of infrastructure, if the studio units are going to reduce traffic, we need to put them where the transit is. Residential studios should be located no more than ¼ mile from a transit stop, either a Metro station or a bus stop on a major arterial road. The apartments should also be within walking distance of neighborhood retail and recreational facilities. If residents of these units can walk to work, shopping, and recreation, they can limit the use of their cars, or even go without one. That benefits all of us.

If planned right, these units could be just what the area needs: small efficiency apartments located either near the Metro stops or bus stops on major roads. They would contain enough open space and parking so they felt like neighborhoods, not tenement buildings. The residents would be able to live, work, and play using transit. They could handle basic errands on foot; they could take the Silver Line to the Town Center or Tysons, or go to DC to see the museums and take in a Nats game. We would be able to address the very real affordable housing issue in this area without disrupting existing neighborhoods, clogging residential streets and parking lots, or forcing low-income residents to live out in the boonies.

That’s where we want to wind up. Unfortunately, the current proposal is so broad that it opens the door to haphazard placement of studio units that damages our neighborhoods, ruins our planning, and threatens our overall quality of life.  Let’s address the affordable housing issue in a smart way, one that makes our community stronger. Let’s modify this zoning ordinance so that encourages the type of housing that we really need.

Colin Mills is president of the Reston Citizens Association. His column runs weekly on Reston Now.

  • MaryElizabeth

    First, affordable is not the same as subsidized. But my real problem with the objection is the idea that existing neighborhoods would be harmed by having affordable housing units mixed in. One of the absolutely wonderful and unique things about Reston is mixed income levels of our residential neighborhoods. it’s everywhere in Reston – subsidized apartment complexes right next to townhouses and single family homes. Second, how do we know what will be “the boonies” in 10 or 20 years. Doesn’t having less restrictive ordinances help for having smart development later? Look at the time and resources it took to rezone the Dulles corridor through Reston so we COULD have smart development around metro. It was originally zone specifically to exclude residential units.

    Reston is unique. I realize that these days people move to Reston for a whole host of reasons, but what seems to have gotten lost are the original goals of Reston one which is: “the fullest range of housing styles and prices.” The fact that there is such a gap in income levels in Reston – there really seems to be only really high or really low. This has also has much deeper impact that property values. As someone who grew up in Reston, it is only as an adult that I can see the incredible advantage I have over my peers who grew up in completely homogeneous neighborhoods – not color or race, but income level. I am forever grateful that my parent saw the value of Reston – which was the epitome of “the boonies” back then and chose to raise their family here.

    • Colin Mills

      Thanks for the comment, MaryElizabeth. I grew up in Reston too, and I absolutely agree that Reston should have a range of housing options. People with lower incomes need to be able to live here too. But one of the planning principles that we’ve been pushing for at RCA is that new density – which would include the RSUs – should be located in places that will maximize our investment in the Silver Line while minimizing the traffic and impact on existing neighborhoods. Reston has succeeded because of good planning; I hope we can continue to plan well AND provide more affordable housing options.

  • Lucinda Shannon

    Great points Colin. Thanks for sharing them. If I have time later I’ll write a letter to the Fairfax County Planning Department. Is that who I should send it to? Sometimes I wonder about our county planning department.

  • Kate Peterson

    I agree with MaryElizabeth. It’s absurd to imply that Studio types of apartments or condos harm a neighborhood. When they are a integrated– as in one option among many they are just that– another option.

  • Lucinda Shannon

    It sounds like these small studios should attract young professionals to the county.

    • Colin Mills

      Yes, young people would definitely be one of the markets for studio units. It would present a welcome alternative for young adults, as compared to living with their parents or sharing an apartment with roommates. The studio units would also be a good choice for elderly people who no longer want the upkeep of a big place.

  • John Smith

    What kind of restrictions will be built into the system to prevent situations in which a dozen or more people might be living in one 500-square-foot studio? I didn’t see anything about that potential problem in your discussion.

    • Colin Mills

      If you look at the Federation resolution, one of the points it makes is that a limit should be placed on the number of residents in a unit. 500 square feet is a really small space, and overcrowding in a unit that size could be problematic.

      • Amanda Misiko Andere

        Colin again before you speak as an expert go visit one of these units and understand the complexity of the fair housing laws as interrupted by our Fairfax County Attorney. Is anyone asking why we already have overcrowding? Because we don’t have the affordable housing needed for someone who just needs a small affordable place to live. I encourage people with concerns to go to one of the public hearings and get the facts for themselves.

        • MaryElizabeth

          Thank you Amanda.

  • Amanda Misiko Andere

    I would encourage people to read this fact sheet. http://www.nvaha.org/pdfs/RSUcommunityfactsheet.pdf

    • Colin Mills

      Thanks for sharing that, Amanda. I hadn’t read it before, and I think it brings a worthy perspective to the discussion.

      • Amanda Misiko Andere

        I am really concerned about the language in your blog. Especially the idea that people who are low-income move to the boonies. They are already here and need affordable housing to support the services and businesses we enjoy. I also don’t quite think you and RCA understand the cost it will take to develop housing near metro. The majority of these units will be developed by nonprofit developers.I hope you and RCA reach out to your partners who work on affordable housing issues like, Kerrie Wilson from Cornerstones, before going further. I would assume RCA would want to hear both sides before making decision. Did you or anyone from RCA attend one of public hearings on this where a detailed explanation is given to what this is and what this is not? Have you ever been to one of the RSUs in Fairfax County now to see what they look like? Here are some examples http://www.newhopehousing.org/?p=4105

        • Colin Mills

          Amanda, thanks for the comment. To clarify: I do understand that people who are low-income already live in the “boonies.” My point was that this is a bad thing, both for them and for the region, because it makes our traffic worse. I agree 100% that people need to be able to live where they work; I believe I said as much. I’m also concerned that young adults are being priced out of places like Reston. That’s why I said that RSUs are a good idea; we just have to ensure that they’re done right.

          I would very much welcome input from you, Kerrie, and others on this issue. It’s a complex one, and important to the future of our region.

  • Eve Thompson

    I would hope that RCA would do a little more research on this topic before taking a hard line on this topic. I can offer that from a real estate perspective studio’s are in high demand. Lots of people are desirous of smaller spaces in good neighborhoods; affordability is a great characteristic we shouldn’t narrow our thinking to the assumption that its only those with limited income.

    • Colin Mills

      Eve, thanks for the comment. I agree that studio apartments are becoming a more desirable option. To be fair, the reason I was focusing on people with lower incomes in this post was that this ordinance is written that way. The proposed ordinance would require that the tenants of 80% of the RSUs would make no more than 60% of the mean income for the area.

      • Eve Thompson

        I think that in Fairfax number you can make 60K a year and be eligible for this type of housing. So one of the things that is nice about it is that it does take the notion of affordability and equalizes it as something thats needed by a variety of people, young professionals, under employed and those that struggle with the complex set of issues that can keep one in poverty. I’m just hoping that RCA which has some sway with the community will study up on this type of housing because I think it has a lot of upside.

  • Max

    Studio apartments are a great idea for Reston. As a low income single adult who had lived in Reston for 46 odd years I can’t afford to buy a home of my own. Reston has a become a place of the wealthy, not the Reston that it was supposed to be with all all incomes living side by side. We are now segregated into the “haves and haves nots” Just look at the million dollar condos rising to the sky and you will see what I mean.

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