by RCA President Colin Mills
Residential Studios. 
It sounds like a movie company, doesn’t it?  Actually, it’s an idea under consideration to
relieve the affordable housing crunch in Fairfax County.  As you may know, the idea has stirred up a
lot of controversy
in the county. 
Since the Residential Studios concept would likely have an impact on
future development in Reston, we at RCA decided to take a stand on the issue. 
Our position?  We
support the concept… but we’re concerned about the execution.  We believe the ordinance needs rewriting in
order to protect existing neighborhoods, and to ensure that the new units go
into areas with the infrastructure to support them.
What are Residential Studios?  Essentially, they’re efficiency apartments (zero-bedroom
units less than 500 square feet in size). 
Currently, there are a few such apartments in the county, but only a
very small number are permitted.  The proposed
to the zoning ordinance
would allow construction of buildings with up to 75
of these units almost anywhere in the county.
Why build them?  To
provide a different affordable housing option. 
As housing prices continue to climb in Reston and elsewhere in the
region, it’s harder and harder for people with low incomes to afford to live
here.  Our economy needs people to work
relatively low-wage jobs in service, retail, and other industries, and those
people need a place to live. 
One way to meet this need is to provide subsidized and/or government-owned
housing; the Crescent Apartments are an example of this.  This generally requires substantial
government investment.  Another answer is
to let the market set rents, which generally pushes lower-income residents
farther out, where housing is cheaper. 
This makes our traffic worse, since the workers have to drive long
distances to get to their jobs. 
Residential Studios present another option: Just make
smaller apartments.  Smaller spaces tend
to command lower rents.  If these units
are built where people can walk or take transit to work instead of driving, it
reduces traffic on our streets.  They don’t
require the government to provide rent subsidies or build or buy apartments.  The proposed zoning ordinance would require
that most of the units be rented to people making no more than 60% of the area’s
median income, to ensure that the units are going to the people who really have
a hard time affording housing in the area.
Sounds pretty good. 
But there are a few problems with the ordinance as it’s written.  We were alerted to this issue by the Fairfax
County Federation of Citizens Associations, which passed
a resolution
about this in September. 
Upon looking at the issue ourselves, RCA discovered that we shared FCFCA’s
concerns, and so at our meeting last week, we endorsed
FCFCA’s resolution
What are our concerns? 
We believe the ordinance should be narrowed to put studio units in areas
where they’ll do the most good.  As
currently drawn, residential studio units could be constructed almost anywhere,
including by conversion of single-family homes or townhouses in existing neighborhoods.  And that’s a problem. 
Throughout the Master Plan review process, RCA has fought
hard for protection of existing residential neighborhoods in Reston.  Shoehorning residential studios into stable
neighborhoods just doesn’t make sense. 
They would cause parking problems, potentially reduce property values,
and change the character of the neighborhood. 
Putting studio units near existing apartments or in redeveloping areas
(such as around the Metro stations) is far more sensible.
Also, the studio units should meet the same requirements as
other multi-family residential development. 
If the units aren’t pleasant places to live, that’s bad for the
residents and the surrounding community. 
Residential studio buildings should be subject to the same open space
requirements as other residential development, so that the residents don’t feel
like they’re crammed in cheek-to-jowl. 
And they should meet the parking requirements for other apartment units,
so that if the residents have cars, they have a place to put them. 
Most importantly, the new units need to conform to existing
density requirements.  The current
proposal would exempt the new units from density calculations!  That seems like a recipe for planning
chaos.  Ideally, the new units should be
in high-density areas, where the infrastructure is (hopefully) in place to
support a lot of people.
Speaking of infrastructure, if the studio units are going to
reduce traffic, we need to put them where the transit is.  Residential studios should be located no more
than ¼ mile from a transit stop, either a Metro station or a bus stop on a
major arterial road.  The apartments should
also be within walking distance of neighborhood retail and recreational
facilities.  If residents of these units
can walk to work, shopping, and recreation, they can limit the use of their
cars, or even go without one.  That benefits
all of us.
If planned right, these units could be just what the area
needs: small efficiency apartments located either near the Metro stops or bus
stops on major roads.  They’d contain
enough open space and parking so they felt like neighborhoods, not tenement
buildings.  The residents would be able
to live, work, and play using transit. 
They could handle basic errands on foot; they could take the Silver Line
to the Town Center or Tysons, or go to DC to see the museums and take in a Nats
game.  We’d be able to address the very
real affordable housing issue in this area without disrupting existing
neighborhoods, clogging residential streets and parking lots, or forcing
low-income residents to live out in the boonies.

That’s where we want to wind up.  Unfortunately, the current proposal is so
broad that it opens the door to haphazard placement of studio units that
damages our neighborhoods, ruins our planning, and threatens our overall
quality of life.  Let’s address the
affordable housing issue in a smart way, one that makes our community
stronger.  Let’s modify this zoning
ordinance so that encourages the type of housing that we really need.