Post #324: Affordable housing (ADDENDUM AND FURTHER CORRECTION 7/24/2019)

Posted on July 23, 2019

Affordable housing is a weighty topic that requires a real depth of knowledge if you’re going to address it seriously.

This post, by contrast, is not a serious analysis of affordable housing.  This is just one of those quirky little things you stumble across doing a Google search, that, oddly enough, can be used to get across a few simple points.

Bottom line:  Vienna residence, furnished, utilities included.  Monthly rent is $1950 $1500.  Price includes utilities, internet and cable, as well as daily maid service and free continental breakfast.

Correction:  Turns out, a colleague knows people who have lived there.  If you prepay a week in advance, it’s just $50/night, which works out to $1500/month.

Trip Advisor breathlessly assures me that it’s the #1 rated! motel in Vienna, VA. True, by definition.

On a more serious note, how about a little arithmetic.  It looks like the Wolf Trap Motel has about 120 rooms, or “dwelling units” in this case.  Is there any hope that MAC zoning will ever provide even as many as 120 affordable housing units in Vienna? 

And by that I mean, actual, formally-defined affordable housing under some legally-administered program.  Not the fast-and-loose discussion of “the market-determined rent on these apartments will be more affordable” that has substituted for real Town public discussion of this issue so far.  (And if you have no clue what I’m talking about, in terms of a legally-defined affordable housing project, take a look at what they do in Falls Church.)

The arithmetic is easy enough:  Additional MAC dwelling units x % reserved for affordable housing = additional MAC affordable housing.  All we need are plausible estimates for each.

The table below works through all of that, projecting total dwelling units based on the current MAC average density of dwelling units per acre, and some assumed fraction of Maple that eventually undergoes redevelopment.

But what fraction of units might plausibly be affordable housing?  To model that, I took one of the recent Falls Church mixed use projects.  There, for the Broad and Washington Project, the developer proffered six percent of the units in the building for affordable housing (see this .pdf).  So, if they can do it, presumably we … might too.  (I think this figure is ballpark for the rest of the Falls Church mixed-use development.  E.g., five beds in the large Kensington assisted living facility in Falls Church are in a special affordability program.)

Reading down the table, the first three MAC projects come in at 41 units per acre.  You can then see counts of total additional units that would be built under assumptions that 30% or 70% of the total MAC acreage gets redeveloped at that density.  Finally, if 6% of all new units are set aside for affordable housing, you get the counts at the bottom:  64 affordable housing units if 30% of Maple is redeveloped, or 169 affordable housing units if 70% of Maple is redeveloped.

(N.B. for the number-oriented among you.  The acreage is not proportional to the percentages because I net out the 5.7 that have already been approved for mixed-use development.)

And so the answer to my question is, maybe, if all suns shine.  If Vienna actually had an affordable housing program.  If every mixed-use building from now on would proffer affordable units at the same rate as was seen in the model Falls Church project.  And if a very large fraction of Maple gets redeveloped.

If all that happened, you might get more affordable housing units out of MAC than there currently are rooms in the Wolf Trap Motel.

But:  You can’t get blood from a stone.  Put aside the fact that some projects would not be suitable for this program (e.g., the million-dollar condo townhouses at Marco Polo).  The bottom line remains that there is no free lunch.  Every one of those units is money out of the developers’ pockets, so affordable housing must be balanced against other competing demands for proffers.  For example, developers might not be able to afford both putting the utility lines underground and reserving 6% of units for affordable housing.  Ditto, providing significant public green space on their property and in additional supplying significant affordable housing.  And if a future MAC results in smaller buildings, there would be fewer units and less profit available from which to supply affordable housing.

My point is that instead of just talking in the abstract about affordable housing, we really ought to get into the numbers just a bit.  It’s instructive.  Best guess, any formal, legal, zoning-driven affordable housing program under MAC would be a drop in the bucket, relative to the perceived need for affordable housing.

My only other point is to study Falls Church, because, by definition, they’re doing  better at it than we are.  Interestingly, while Falls Church has this formal, legally-defined affordable housing program, they also make sure that people looking for affordable housing can find a comprehensive list of apartment and condo rental rates.  They put those right on their website, on the affordable housing page (here, .pdf.). Those aren’t “affordable housing” in the legal sense, they are just (presumably) the market rates on the cheapest housing options available in Falls Church.  And given the extremely limited supply of legally-defined affordable housing, the market rate is going to be what almost every person pays.  Like it or not.

So, no free lunch.  But maybe a free breakfast, for the time being.


I started out this post entirely tongue-in-cheek.  But I didn’t realize there was more truth here than I bargained for.  A colleague assures me that she knows of five or six people who do, in fact, use the Wolf Trap as the only affordable housing in town.  They all work food-service jobs on Maple Avenue, as far up the block as Whole Foods, don’t own cars, and walk to work, while living (presumably two-to-a-room, so 750/month/person?) at the Wolf Trap Motel.

So, in fact, Wolf Trap Motel does function as affordable housing in Vienna.  And that peculiar old motel out on Route 50 in Fairfax — the one that looks like a ship’s wheelhouse — apparently does the same for that area.  So the recycling of downscale hotels as affordable workers’ housing is not just limited to the Wolf Trap Hotel.

As a final note, yet another colleague assures me that the Wolf Trap is the most common way-station for the newly divorced in the area.   So, yeah, it does serve as affordable housing.  Maybe not as the Town intends it, but it serves as that all the same.