Monday, April 16, 2018

Weekly Column: Affordable Housing Must Be Part of U.S. 1’s Remake

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, Springfield Connection, The Prince William Times, and the Potomac and Stafford Locals in the week of April 15, 2018.
Affordable Housing Must Be Part of U.S. 1’s Remake 

U.S. 1’s revitalization, called Embark, is generating some legitimate questions about the future of affordable housing for current and future members of our community.  The first part of the Embark plan envisions building fourteen miles of bus rapid transit and extending the Yellow Line to Hybla Valley.  This is a long-overdue plan that can bring new life, opportunities and jobs to our area.

From the beginning, I have been concerned about Embark Route 1’s impact on affordable housing and have raised concerns in the planning meetings.  The South County Task Force led by Mary Paden recently convened a panel discussion on affordable housing after it was largely omitted from the Embark Route 1 recommendations.

The Route 1 Multimodal Alternative Analysis Study developed by Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transit, the study that started the planning process, was premised on the assumption that 50 percent of transit capital funding would come from the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) "New Starts" Program.  New Starts is a five-year process that brings federal  co-investments in transit projects that meet certain criteria.

The FTA’s published 2016 policy guidance  is clear that obtaining federal funds is contingent upon high population densities and pedestrian accessibility within one-half mile of transit stations and "legally binding affordable housing" within the one-half mile area around each station.  It says: 

“This definition, includes, but is not limited to, state or federally supported public housing, and housing owned by organizations dedicated to providing affordable housing. For the land use measure looking at existing affordable housing, FTA is seeking legally binding affordability restricted units to renters with incomes below 60 percent of the area median income and/or owners with incomes below the area median that are within ½ mile of station areas and in the counties through which the project travels.”

One reason FTA chose to include affordable housing in the land use criteria? was to ensure that neighborhoods surrounding proposed transit stations have the fundamentals in place to ensure that as service is improved over time, there is a mix of housing options for existing and future residentsOne measure of the readiness of a community to accept a new transit investment and avoid significant gentrification that can occur over time is the presence of “legally binding affordability restricted” units. These units have protections in place to ensure that they will continue to be available to low- and moderate-income households as changes in the corridor occur.

The FTA makes clear that plans that wipe out existing lower-and-moderate-income populations will not be funded. 

Therefore, as U.S. 1 upgrades move forward, if we want to see them funded, we need to find a way to move 80,000 additional people into the U.S. 1 Corridor, using new development and infrastructure without displacing all of our existing residents.

Fairfax County's existing affordable housing ordinance and program are not adequate to address this issue and must be strengthened.  In recognition of that, the Board of Supervisors has set up a committee to study the affordable housing issue and recommend solutions so that we can meet these objectives with Embark Route 1, obtain federal funding and maintain affordable housing for everyone. 

As someone who has lived in this area for 46 years and whose family first came to eastern Fairfax County in 1941, I strongly believe that the U.S. 1 Corridor's economic and cultural diversity is what makes our community special.  As a student at West Potomac High School, I had friends from many neighborhoods and we did not care where you grew up or whether you lived on the river, in a rambler, in a split level or in a manufactured home. 

As we prepare for U.S. 1’s modernization, we can have the benefits of high- density, transit-oriented development, walkable communities,  protection of natural assets and revitalization of the U.S. 1 Corridor without losing its character.  Decision-makers have to address these challenges to get the project funded.

It is an honor to serve as your state senator.  You can reach me at scott@scottsurovell.org if you have any feedback. 

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