Vouchers Help Erode Barriers to Affordable Housing

One option to open the door to the county’s lowest income residents.

Part of an ongoing series on affordable housing.

On March 22, 2022, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors raised the bar for affordable housing.  The board announced they were “doubling their goal from producing a minimum of 5,000 units by 2034 to creating 10,000 net new units affordable to households earning up to 60 percent area median income.”

Sylisa Lambert-Woodward is the CEO of Pathway Homes which provides housing and supportive services to adults with serious mental illness and other co-occurring disabilities.  Lambert-Woodward said that using [Housing Choice] vouchers is one strategy with the potential to address the economic and racial discrimination of the county’s lowest-income rental residents. Individuals considered at 30 percent of the ‘area median income’ (AMI) can earn up to $31,650 for a one-person household. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determines the scale annually for the D.C. region. However, potential renters at or below 30 percent AMI may not qualify to rent a unit operated by a management company or an individual due to poor credit, long wait list times, and other conditions. 

Nevertheless, the option for a voucher is nonexistent at this time.  Fairfax County Housing and Community Development states on its website, “The Housing Choice Voucher Waiting List is currently CLOSED. The FCRHA will provide notice on this site and through a variety of media outlets when it reopens.”

According to HUD, “Since the demand for housing assistance often exceeds the limited resources available to HUD and the local housing agencies, long waiting periods are common. In fact, a [Public Housing Authority]  PHA may close its waiting list when it has more families on the list than can be assisted in the near future.”

It is documented that rental tenants with low- to very low-income levels in Fairfax  County face hardship due to high housing rents across the region. This increases their risk of eviction, unstable housing, and homelessness. 

Within Fairfax County, the towns of Clifton, Vienna, and Herndon, as well as the City of Fairfax, are the four local jurisdictions with their respective planning and zoning departments upholding and enforcing regulations to ensure their municipalities grow and develop in ways that advance their goals. Due to the by-right development restrictions, low inventory of municipal-owned properties that could be used for low-income housing and bring down construction costs, and a need to update their zoning and planning ordinances, low-income housing availability is limited in these jurisdictions.

For instance, the Town of Vienna’s last significant zoning code changes occurred fifty years ago, in 1969; a significant portion includes regulations that date back to the 1956 zoning ordinance. Vienna Town Council adopted an update to the zoning and subdivision code on October 23, 2023, that will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024. Chapter 18 will replace the existing chapters 17 and 18. You may preview this code by clicking here and the updated zoning map here.

The Oct. 5, 2020, Herndon Planning Commission Staff report states Herndon “is deficient of housing options for the AMI levels below the missing middle.” 

The Town of Herndon’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan was last amended on May 24, 2022. Herndon is in the preliminary stages of launching the Herndon 2050 Plan, which will replace the existing comprehensive plan. The town anticipates a multi-year public-facing plan development process.

Comstock Company's pending downtown redevelopment project with 247 rental units has zero affordable units. The application by FMI Herndon Corporate Center, LLC, by developer Stanley Martin Companies, LLC for 85 townhomes and 56 2-over-2 condominiums states there is the intent to market to the “missing middle,” defined by the Congress of New Urbanism as those earning between 60 and 100 percent of the average median income (AMI).

“There needs to be a concerted effort to address the lack of affordable housing from different angles,” Lambert-Woodward said. “One of the key steps is addressing the lack of an elevated living wage ... to be able to afford housing.” She added, “And if people are not paid a living wage that allows them to support that, it is imperative that we become innovative and embrace and advocate for vouchers for anyone unable to afford the ‘affordable housing’ of the Fair Market Rate in that region.”

Lambert-Woodward spoke of "'innovative and flexible vouchers’ that could be applied to people with low to extremely low incomes who share a rental unit. For example, consider when one person on the lease must leave before the rental contract ends due to a job or other circumstances. A flexible voucher could ensure that the renter who remains is housed, can still pay the rent owed, and does not add to the unhoused numbers.”

Also, while she praised the “amazing developers” coming into the local county communities and building so many units, only a small portion of the inventory addresses individuals on the low and lowest percentage of the area median income. 

Most affordable housing in Fairfax and nationwide, Lambert-Woodward said, are ‘landlord mom and pop entities’ with four units or less.

Pathway Homes is strategic in Herndon and other areas and develops partnerships with landlords. The nonprofit creates extensive deposits and additional dollars to incentivize the mom-and-pop landlords to cover incidental costs and things of that nature. Then Pathway can write the vouchers for potential individuals who want to rent who might have poor credit scores.

"I just think that the relationship with landlords, a living wage that's elevated to prevent these issues from occurring to begin, and then the innovative vouchers that can be provided as a wraparound in circumstances where crises or emergencies happen as a preventive eviction strategy, I think, are all critical ingredients and being involved to assure that no one is unhoused in our community,” Lambert-Woodward said. “I have said this many, many times at every opportunity that I have to speak: housing is a right, not a privilege. a human right.”

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, individuals and families with a Housing Choice Voucher “generally must contribute the higher of 30 percent of its income or a “minimum rent” of up to $50 for rent and utilities. The voucher covers the rest of those costs up to a limit (called a payment standard) set by the housing agency that is based on HUD’s fair market rent estimates.”

Learn More https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/housing/sites/housing/files/assets/documents/fcrp/2023_income_limits.pdf to learn more about the Housing Choice Voucher, Federal/HUD Rental Programs,  and Fairfax County Rental Programs.