"Promoting housing affordability by combating exclusionary housing policies"


Reston Task Force approves major increase in housing


 On October 29, 2013, the Reston Special Study Task Force approved a major advance for housing growth and affordability in Fairfax County, Virginia—a large, wealthy suburb of Washington, DC. The Task Force had been appointed by Fairfax County in 2009 to make planning recommendations to the County’s Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) regarding the massive redevelopment of its three future Metrorail (commuter rail) transit station areas (TSAs).


The plan—now a proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA)—was approved unanimously by the Fairfax County Planning Commission on January 9, 2014. See generally DPZ, Staff Report, Plan Amendment ST09-III-UP1(A) (Reston Master Plan Special Study, Phase I) (Nov. 1, 2013, as amended). The CPA is scheduled for a public hearing before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on January 28, 2014, at 4:30 PM. The hearing will be held at the Fairfax County Government Center, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, Virginia 22030. 


The CPA envisions 22,140 new housing units being built in the TSAs by 2040. DPZ, Reston Transit Station Areas, Comprehensive Plan Text (CP Text")p. 22, Figure 7 (January 9, 2014). That is at least 12,540 more new units than when EHI got involved in March 2011, more than a year into the planning process. Of the total number of new, planned housing units, at least 2,656—and possibly up to 3,985—would have to be “affordable” to low- and moderate-income people. (Affordability is defined as housing costs that do not exceed 30 percent of household income.) Of the units added to the plan after EHI got involved, at least 1,510—and perhaps more than 2,250—would have to be “affordable.”  


That’s because at least 12 percent of new housing units in Fairfax County’s TSAs must be “affordable,” under the Reston CPA and Fairfax County’s Workforce Housing Policy (WHP). And for buildings with especially high floor-area ratios (“FARs”—ratio of total floor area in a building to the square footage of its lot), the percentage of affordable units increases.   The CPA permits new residential buildings with up to a 4.5 FAR, for which 18 percent of the units are to be “affordable.” 


The CPA calls for enough new housing to actually balance the tremendous amount of future projected nonresidential (commercial) growth. CP Text, p. 22 (ratio of jobs per household--currently about 2.55 to 1--will be maintained at approsimately 2.5 jobs per household, measured across the entire community). EHI can take part of the credit for the housing gains, which are unprecedented among Fairfax County transit-oriented developments (TODs). 


Evolution of Reston TSA housing planning


When EHI began advocating planning for more housing in the future Reston TSAs, the basic jobs-housing mix under consideration was the County DPZ’s initial framework (Nov. 9, 2010). It envisioned 8,000 new housing units and 30,000 new workers in those TSAs by 2030 (a jobs-housing ratio of 3.75 to 1 for new development).


 If adopted, that initial framework would have raised the overall jobs-housing ratio for Reston substantially, from what was then assumed to be the current ratio of about 3.1 to 1 (approximately 77,300 jobs and 25,000 households). That framework used the intermediate forecasts for 2030 that had been presented to the Task Force by George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis (“GMU”). The overall jobs-housing ratio in the Dulles rail corridor was more than 10 to 1, according to those GMU forecasts. [1]


EHI’s initial involvement—a March 7, 2011, letter to the Task Force, urged its members “to attach a much higher priority than is now being discussed to including ample residential development in their planning recommendations. “ EHI noted the very high jobs-housing ratios in Reston and the Dulles rail corridor. EHI also noted that Fairfax County has had the largest overall imbalance of jobs over housing units in the Washington area (particularly when all zoning jurisdictions within the County’s traditional borders are included, as GMU does). 


EHI pointed out that one of Reston’s founding goals has been “that the people be able to live and work in the same community.” The letter summarized numerous adverse results of insufficient amounts of housing near jobs, such as increasingly congested highways and extreme commuting times, increased suburban sprawl, chronically soaring housing costs, housing market instability, increased poverty and homelessness, and lost economic development for the area.


EHI also spoke to the Task Force briefly at its next meeting (March 15, 2011), summarizing those points. Soon afterwards, the Task Force obtained additional information from the County about jobs-housing ratios in Reston.


On April 14, 2011, DPZ presented a new “flexible framework” that would establish an “Initial Development Level at 120% of GMU 2030 Intermediate forecast.” That approach envisioned about 9,600 new housing units (1,600 more than its previous framework). But it envisioned the same percentage increase in jobs, resulting in the same jobs-housing ratio for new development as its initial framework.


EHI submitted another letter to the Task Force on April 20, 2011, documenting the facts that:


  • If the development level s in DPZ’s April 14 framework were adopted, there would be almost twice as many Reston workers in excess of the housing units there (almost 72,000, versus about 37,300 “external workers” in 2010, based on GMU’s previous estimates).
  • Many housing experts, including experts who prepared the GMU forecasts on which DPZ relied, would counsel strongly against using those forecasts as a model for future development.
  • GMU’s forecasts, like those of other forecasting groups such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), merely restate, and extrapolate from, Fairfax County’s own statistics, which are based on the results of its pro-commercial policies to date; 
  • Substantially better jobs-housing ratios have been achieved by other Washington, DC, suburbs (including Arlington County, VA, and Montgomery County, MD) in planning their Metrorail corridors—as described in presentations to the Task Force; and
  • Starting more than 50 years ago, the Virginia Supreme Court has criticized and invalidated as exclusionary numerous Fairfax County land use policies that have contributed to the County’s long-standing housing shortages.

Following EHI’s input, support for more housing, relative to job growth, coalesced among Task Force members. By July 2011, the Task Force’s Steering Subcommittee proposed that 20% more residential development be included in the plan that would be analyzed by County agencies for impacts on traffic, schools, and other public utilities.  And in November 2011, the full Task Force voted to send to those agencies, for impact analysis, two development scenarios—both of which presupposed much more housing, and much lower jobs-housing ratios, than the County’s previous framework.  


  • “Scenario 1” contemplated up to 42,162 new jobs and 16,739 new households by 2030 in the three TSAs (a/k/a Reston Suburban Center).  Those totals would produce a jobs-housing ratio of 2.52 to 1 for new development there, versus the current  14.08 to 1 (82,482 jobs and 5,860 households).  The overall jobs/housing ratio in Reston would drop from the current 3.55:1 to 3.1:1 under that scenario. 
  • “Scenario 2” (the “Residentially-Intensive Scenario”) contemplated up to 40,067 new households along with up to 42,162 jobs in the TSAs by 2030.   Those totals would produce an even lower jobs-housing ratio of 1.05:1 for new development there and would result in overall jobs-housing ratio of 2 to 1 in Reston.


DPZ, Review re: Steering Subcommittee & Second Scenario for Impact Analysis (so-called “Residentially-Intensive” scenario), p. 28 (Nov. 1, 2011, as amended, Nov. 30, 2011). Thus, Scenario 1 would involve more than a 140% increase in new housing, and Scenario 2 would involve more than a 450% increase in new housing, compared with the County’s initial framework. Scenario 2 actually would have reduced the total number of Reston workers in excess of Reston housing units. The projected 1.45 to 1 jobs-housing ratio for new development under that scenario was slightly better than the overall ratio of workers per household in the Washington region before the 2007-09 recession (1.6 to 1). The jobs-housing ratio in Reston overall would have been reduced dramatically, to about 2 to 1 from the current 3 to 1, under Scenario 2.

The County chose to test a somewhat different scenario (“Scenario E”), which combined the development projections for the Reston and Route 28-Innovation TSAs. (FCDOT, Dulles Corridor Special Study Transportation Results, Part I, pp. 6, 24 (April 8, 2013).) The traffic challenges presented by that scenario were found to be bearable but hardly ideal. Scenario G, the final recommendation by the Task Force and tested by the County, included more housing and fewer new jobs than  Scenario E—and it demonstrated better traffic outcomes.   For Reston’s TSAs overall by 2040, Scenario G—the basis for the proposed CPA—envisions:

  • About 35,000 new jobs—about 16,700 fewer than DPZ’s April 2011 framework of 51,700 (129,000 total jobs  – 77,300 existing jobs), and 5,000 more than its Nov. 9, 2010, framework of 30,000 new jobs; plus
  • 22,140 new housing units—12,540 more than DPZ’s April 14, 2011, framework, and 14,140 more than its Nov. 9, 2010, framework. 
The Task Force also adopted a developer contribution policy similar to the one in the Tysons Corner Metrorail-area redevelopment plan, adopted by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 2010. It states: “Non-residential development in the TOD districts should contribute a minimum of $3.00 per nonresidential square foot on total new development intensity.” The proposed CPA calls for up to 37,265,000 square feet of nonresidential development. That amount would generate contributions of more than $111 million to the County’s housing trust fund, which is used to stimulate the production and preservation of affordable housing. DPZ, Staff Report, CPA ST09-III-UP1(A), pp. 22-24.
It bears mentioning that:


1.       Primary credit for the extra housing units goes to the Task Force itself, which consistently supported them—at least, once EHI provided full information about relevant housing shortages and their consequences. Numerous members of the Task Force took a leading role in opposing County approaches that would aggravate the imbalance of jobs and housing in Reston.

2.       Because the planning horizon was extended to 2040 by the time of the final plan, much of the new housing added after EHI got involved probably would have been planned by the County eventually. Nevertheless, the fact that the Task Force put the additional housing into the current plan means that it can be built much sooner. Future planning starts from a higher housing base and would have a housing-friendly precedent on which to build.  


The Future

Continued vigilance will be necessary to ensure that the planned ratio of residential growth actually occurs. The County’s Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) still seems philosophically inclined toward predominantly commercial growth. For example, its new report on Jobs-Housing Ratios asserts that such ratios (between 3 and 6 jobs per household) are preferable in TODs generally. A link to EHI’s analysis of that report will be provided soon—or you may request a copy by e-mail from: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  


Questions have arisen as to whether DPZ is significantly underestimating the number of office workers who would be accommodated by the office space being planned. (Office workers form the vast majority of the planned new workforce.) Also, DPZ staff attempted to revise the plan in summer 2013 to reduce the amount of residential growth by the amount of commercial hotel growth that is approved.   However, DPZ has stated in the CPA that it will keep Reston’s overall jobs-housing ratio at its current level, and we hope the agency will follow through on that commitment.  


[1] GMU, Forecasts for the Reston/Dulles Rail Corridor and Route 28 Corridor 2010 to 2050 pp. 20-23 (July 26, 2010).) The working estimates by DPZ on Nov. 1, 2011, assumed there currently were 70,047 jobs within the future TSAs and 75,553 jobs in Reston overall. Fairfax County DPZ, Review re: Steering Subcommittee & Second Scenario for Impact Analysis (so-called “Residentially-Intensive” scenario), p. 28 (Nov. 1, 2011) (“Review”). Revised DPZ estimates as of Nov. 30, 2011, indicated that Reston overall actually had 87,988 Jobs and 24,774 households in 2010, for a jobs-housing ratio of 3.55:1. In the Suburban Center, there were 82,482 Jobs and 5,860 HHs in 2010, for a jobs-housing ratio of 14.08 to 1. Review as amended, Nov. 30, 2011). 


Thus, adding 30,000 jobs and 8,000 households by 2030 would produce a jobs-housing ratio of 3.6 to 1 for Reston overall (117,988 jobs and 32,774 households) and 8.11 to 1 for the Suburban Center (112,482 jobs and 13,860 households). The new development in the Suburban Center would have a jobs-housing ratio of 3.75:1. (Total jobs outside the TSAs in 2010 were 5,506.)