Loudoun’s Ambitious Housing Needs Plan Nears First Hurdle – Loudoun Now

The Board of Supervisors’ wide-reaching plan to address the county’s shortage of attainable housing is nearing its first test, with the presentation of a report on how far the government has come on those housing goals to the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee.

That report only shows a half-year of progress toward annual goals, but it also shows how big the job is and how far Loudoun has to go. The county hopes to meet a goal established in its Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan—based on a study of the housing needs completed at the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis in 2017—of creating 16,000 attainable housing units by 2040. Some of those may be through bringing down the cost of existing homes, others newly built.

Those goals are also broken down further by year—500 net units a year until 2026, when the goals start climbing. From 2031 to 2040, the county is aiming for 1,000 new attainable homes a year. Affordable and price-controlled housing should account for 20 percent of all new homes in Loudoun. In the first few years, that would be an accomplishment—and down the road, a total rethinking of local housing policy and spending.

During the second half of 2021, the county’s housing team reported 90 units added. That took a combination of programs, according to Housing Coordinator Sarah Coyle Etro—the county’s Affordable Dwelling Unit Program, developer proffers, the county’s public employee homeownership program, and SPARC, a Virginia Housing Development Authority program that helps finance first-time homebuyer mortgages. Two hundred more units are anticipated soon when the Loudoun View Senior Living Apartments opens, and the acquisition of Sommerset Senior Apartments by a developer with plans to rehabilitate them and rent them as affordable units.

Meanwhile, the county government and affordable housing developers also are trying to keep current price-controlled units from disappearing from the market, pushing the county further from its goals. One big example: The Fields at Cascades, a 320-unit price-controlled rental community in Sterling, which went up for sale with price restrictions set to expire in 2025. Affordable housing developer AHC is working to purchase it and keep at least half of those price-controlled.

But the county is still deciding how to even measure its progress—with Transportation and Land Use Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) recommending measuring by the fiscal year, which would put Loudoun halfway through its 2022 goals with its smaller 2021 goal of 250 units having already passed before the plan was adopted. And when to count those units was also in question, with Etro recommending they be counted only when people can actually move in.

The housing needs plan takes a wide variety of avenues to explore. Those range from coordinating among different nonprofits and developers, to various ways to use public land or otherwise set aside land for housing, to finding new sources of funding.

“In my opinion, this isn’t strictly the job of the government to do, and I keep hearing a lot about how the business community. They continually come and encourage us,” County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said, encouraging the county government to set up partnerships among business, philanthropic organizations and faith-based communities. Etro said those discussion have already begun.

More of that work will depend heavily on an ongoing rewrite of the county’s Zoning Ordinance.

The county board also looks set to begin investing seriously in affordable housing for the first time, with plans to dedicate a half-cent of the real estate tax rate—roughly $6 million in funding—to the Housing Trust Fund which helps finance those projects.

“That is just really huge, and it expresses a level of commitment that has just not been there before,” said longtime affordable housing developer Kim Hart. For years Hart was the only party developing affordable housing in Loudoun, first through the nonprofit Windy Hill Foundation and now through a new company, Good Works. When the county in 2016 approved changes to its Affordable Dwelling Unit program that let in state and federal financing, that began to change. With the effort by the county government to put skin the game, that could change even more.

“That they’ve made a commitment will bring more affordable developers into the county,” Hart said. “Affordable developers are going to wake up and say, ‘hey, wait a minute, Loudoun’s getting serious, now we’re going to head over there and start doing something.’ So the amount is going to have to go up in future years, but it’s a great start.”

“We’re thrilled that the board is excited about affordable housing. It’s important and we’re certainly for it,” said Al Van Huyck, the former Planning Commission chairman who also headed housing talks for the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. “But our overall concern really is: Are the tools that we have in the toolkit now really the most effective tools to obtain the objectives?”

The tax funding complements the new focus on attracting other sources of funding to the county—Etro’s report pointed to one such effort, with Loudoun projects winning $10 million in Resources Enabling Affordable Community Housing or REACH funds, established in response to concerns about the expected impact of Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington on the region’s housing prices.

Van Huyck said he hopes for more transparency in the plan’s progress, and granular, detailed plans such as one housing price points to guide the county’s work.

“For instance, one of the concerns that the business community has is to try and find affordable housing for baristas and other relatively low-paid people at their businesses, to give them a break so they can live in Loudoun County. Well, that’s very different from helping a young professional family get into their first house, who may be a commuter and not even working here,” Van Huyck said. “I would say they’re doing a great job, and my thoughts are not negative, but I would personally hope that we would get more transparency to the program. I guess that’s the simple thing—that we would be able to trace who’s actually getting the benefit from the money.”

As to those future-year goals, when the county hopes to see 1,000 units a year, things get more speculative—and for some, more worrying.

“Basically, the problem we’ve got and the issue that’s at hand really, or will be certainly at hand in five years is, the east is building out,” Van Huyck said. And those homes will have to go somewhere.

“The options for residential development, single family and townhouse, are running out, because the land’s so expensive and the density issues are so strong. You can’t afford to do a Broadlands anymore down east even if you could find the land,” he said. “So, what does that mean? It means at some point—some point soon, probably when the next review of the plan takes place in 2024—western Loudoun’s going to be on the table.”

Market pressure on Loudoun remains enormous, because “everybody wants to be here for a whole lot of reasons,” Van Huyck said.

“Ninety-five percent of all the counties in America would love to have the development potential Loudoun County has, but we’re a special place, and you have all these people who are so invested in the rural area,” he said.

“I think the first few years are going to be easier to meet, because the numbers are more modest and also because the first few years are probably going to be making existing programs more efficient,” Turner said. “But as you get to further years out, the only way we’re going to meet our goals is to develop completely new and unknown programs.”

Even if Loudoun misses its ambitious housing targets, they are a reminder to county officials of the scale of the problem they face. Turner said they will spur out-of-the-box thinking. He and others have been looking around for both near-term tactics—he pointed to Los Angeles’s revamping their accessory dwelling ordinances, resulting in hundreds of thousands of new units—and radical new idea down the line.

“It’s to have a benchmark ladder so we have something to shoot for. The world is not going to come to an end if we don’t make those goals,” Turner said. “What it lets us do is, it causes us to think. … we can’t just keep doing business as usual.”

With the Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan, Loudoun County is working locally to tackle a nationwide issue.

“I think there’s a lot more we can do on the cracking end of the whip to address affordable housing even though there is a societal massive income gap disparity,” Turner said. He acknowledged there may be practical limits to what the county can fix without the power to legislate on larger societal issues of income and taxation. But, “even without that top-down addressing of the income disparity, I still think we’ve got a whole lot more room where we can address workforce housing down at the granular level.”

And he said it will become “one of the signature leadership issues” in the county.

“We have taken the steps to state, ‘this is our emphasis.’ We are just now beginning to add some substance to our aspirational vision, but we’ve got a long way to go yet before we get down to putting brick and mortar on the ground,” Turner said.