Public Land & Housing

We all agree that opportunities for housing that are safe, decent and affordable, with access to transportation and jobs,support a diverse, inclusive region and provide significant community benefits.

Those who work in our communities can afford to live in our communities; businesses can more easily recruit and retain employees; and traffic congestion and air quality are improved with fewer commuters clogging the roads.

Studies have also shown that educational and health outcomes improve significantly for children who live in housing that is decent and affordable.

With federal housing resources shrinking, and minimal support for housing at the state level, the burden of addressing our growing regional affordable housing shortage falls upon local governments. Two recent studies document our region’s growing poverty and well-known loss of affordable housing. “Bursting the Bubble: The Challenges of Working and Living in the National Capital Region” and “Housing Security in the Washington Region” tell the all too-familiar story of an increasing percentage of households struggling to make ends meet on low wages and rising rents. And the percentage growth of poverty in our Northern Virginia suburbs is greater than the region’s urban areas – a trend that’s playing out in suburbs across America.

Local governments need to examine all of the tools in their toolkit to address our unmet housing needs. Fortunately, there are best practices that provide solutions to address this challenge. Public land that is either vacant or underutilized can leverage other public and private resources to develop affordable housing. In our area, we have three prominent examples of this: The Station at Potomac Yard in Alexandria, Arlington Mill Residences in Arlington, and the Residences at the Government Center in Fairfax County (still awaiting a construction start date). Together, these developments provide 456 units of affordable housing.

Why public land? Land is the most expensive component of development, so discounted or free land can measurably reduce development costs, resulting in housing that is more affordable. Public land is usually located near transportation, job centers and other community amenities – locations that are accessible and utilize existing infrastructure in accord with smart growth principles. Finally, with the significant challenge the region faces in providing housing for its low and moderate income residents, it is appropriate that a public resource be considered for such a high priority need.

What steps could local governments take to maximize this asset for housing? The Alliance recommends the following:

  • Create an Inventory. An inventory of vacant and underutilized land provides a comprehensive look at available resources. A complete inventory supports a transparent process for allocating a jurisdiction’s surplus parcels to an alternate use.
  • Develop criteria and a process to evaluate each parcel. This should include suitability for development, physical site considerations, surrounding uses, property value, etc.
  • Determine criteria to evaluate multiple proposals for a given site.
  • Adopt a policy that considers affordable housing co-located with public facilities. Each jurisdiction has a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that schedules, over a multi-year process, the construction of needed public facilities such as schools, libraries, community centers, fire stations, etc. Many of these facilities could support additional development in the form of affordable units. The Alliance supports a step, early in the CIP process, that includes consideration of this option.
  • Adopt processes that promote transparency and invite public participation.

Continued loss of affordable units to redevelopment or upgrades for higher rents makes adoption of these alternative strategies all the more urgent. As our older neighborhoods and strip centers redevelop, local governments should explore opportunities to include affordable units by leveraging their land to address a documented, urgent housing need.

To access the full reports referenced above, see:

“Leveraging Public Land for Affordable Housing in Northern Virginia”

“Bursting the Bubble: The Challenges of Working and Living in the National Capital Region”

“Housing Security in the Washington Region”