Leaving Fairfax for Cheaper Pastures

Leaving Fairfax for Cheaper Pastures

County looks for ways to retain its workforce, which has been increasingly priced out of the market.

This is the fourth of an occasional series on affordable housing in the area.

Northern Virginia's housing market, with prices shooting through the roof, has been ridiculous the past five years, said Jason Eldredge, a special education teacher. “It’s been stupid,” he adds.

When Eldredge first started teaching in Fairfax County five years ago at Mount Vernon High School, he moved in with his mother because he could afford little else. He was finishing up a graduate degree in education at George Washington University and didn’t want to incur any unnecessary student debt.

A year later, Eldredge transferred to Westfield High School in Chantilly and moved into a townhouse in Centreville that he rented with two friends. “We were all close to work, we were single and we wanted to stay in Fairfax County,” said Eldredge, who grew up in Fairfax.

But, fast-forward three years and Eldredge has since moved to Prince William County and started teaching in Loudoun County at a high school in South Riding.

For Eldredge, who is now married with a baby daughter, renting didn’t make sense. He wanted to buy, but sticker shock was all he found in Fairfax County. Instead of squeezing into a small condo, Eldredge chose to buy a newly-built, 2,600-square-foot townhouse in Haymarket. “We couldn’t find anything locally that fitted our needs or wants,” he said. So, like many county employees, he looked westward.

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS priced out of the market and unable to find affordable workforce housing is an all too common story for Fairfax County employers. Due to a shortage in housing, the median home sales price has increased 129 percent since 2000, from $209,000 to $479,000, according to John McClain, deputy director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. In addition, homeowners are dedicating roughly double the percent of income to their mortgages than they did six years ago, reported McClain.

The region’s high cost of living has forced many employees to live outside the county. Nearly a third of Fairfax County’s teachers live outside its borders. In addition, the county faces problems with retention. Each year, the county hires about 2,000 new teachers, nearly half of which leave the school system within five years.

“Only 22 percent of the police live in the county,” said Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, citing a profession where the problem seems most pronounced. “But it isn’t just the county. It’s an increasing problem in the private sector,” said Connolly.

Bill Lecos, who equates running the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce (FCCC) with running a small business, said that many of the young professionals he’s hired have difficulty finding housing. “In four years, I’ve had a half dozen cases where people can’t find attainable housing,” said Lecos, adding that the same employees often end up moving to Loudoun and Prince William counties. “You can always drive a little further, play another CD in the car, but there’s nothing you can do to mitigate that monthly mortgage.”

Once employers move west or south and begin racking up miles in lengthy and time-consuming commutes, they often look for jobs closer to home, said Lecos.

RECOGNIZING THE LACK of workforce housing, members of the government, academic and business communities gathered at a conference sponsored by FCCC and George Mason University Thursday, June 1 to brainstorm solutions that could alleviate the problem.

Connolly said that the affordable housing initiative, which includes workforce housing, is the county’s highest priority.

Connolly would like to see more county-owned land converted into housing that would be affordable to county employees, particularly teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses and other professionals.

The county identified 18 parcels that could be developed for low- to moderately-priced housing, but any decisions are far off. In addition, the county has started to consider possible uses for several land parcels donated by the school system last month.

“If we own the land, then we’re already halfway there,” said Connolly. The idea, he said, is to take the land — “the most expensive variable” — out of the equation and use it as an incentive for developers to build price-controlled housing.

At George Mason University, which is increasingly finding it difficult to retain faculty and staff, officials have already initiated a similar housing plan.

“We hire between 75 and 100 new faculty members each year,” said Tom Calhoun, vice president of facilities at GMU. “We lose them because of housing.”

To be able to provide below-market housing for faculty, Calhoun said the university has partnered with a developer, Studley, Inc., to build a 400-unit residential building on the Fairfax campus. “A capitalized land lease provides the engine that drives the project,” said Calhoun.

MANY AFFORDABLE HOUSING advocates are hoping that new development will include more moderately-priced housing, whether through proffers or other government incentives or subsidies.

Proponents of Metrorail’s extension from Falls Church through Tysons Corner and the Dulles Corridor and into Loudoun County say transit-oriented development around the Metro stops will lessen demand on housing as well as alleviate traffic and preserve open space.

But Connolly said it’s unlikely that development around future transit stations will include much affordable housing.

“The price of land is daunting at transit stations,” said Connolly. “It’s much more of a challenge to create affordable housing there than on more remote pieces of land.”