Colin Mills: Small Apartments = Big Problems?

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.

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