Disabled in Fairfax Given Priority for Accessible Housing



By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 14, 2002; Page C01

With more than 3,000 names of disabled people on waiting lists to buy or rent affordable homes, Fairfax County has created a priority system that favors these applicants and is encouraging developers to build more low-cost units with features for the disabled.

The priority system, a first in the Washington region, took effect last month when the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority changed how it allocates "affordable dwelling units," or ADUs.

For many disabled people, finding a place to live is "the first hurdle to being a contributing member of society," she said.

Bonnie Conrad of the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board said: "There's a huge need for affordable housing and an even stronger need for accessible affordable housing. Without housing, you really can't do anything else. Employment, health care and transportation options are all based on where we live."

At a public hearing last month, the housing authority noted that under existing regulations, people with disabilities "do not receive a priority to purchase or rent ADUs with special accessibility." So the panel amended the rules to give households with one or more physically disabled members priority to buy or rent an accessible ADU.

Applicants must meet moderate-income requirements and, in the case of ADU purchases, be first-time home buyers. Preference will be given to those with at least one child under 18, the housing group decided.

The new policy not only increases the opportunities for disabled people to buy or rent affordable homes, but ensures that such features as wheelchair-wide doors, ramps, lowered light switches and countertops, and raised toilets go to those who need them most, the authority said. The policy also could "encourage other developers to build accessible housing," it said.

Developers in Fairfax are required to set aside a portion of new housing for two categories of people with moderate incomes -- defined as up to 50 percent of the median Washington area income and up to 70 percent. A single person earning $32,000 or less annually, for example, could qualify under the program for an efficiency apartment renting for $667 a month. For a family of four with income less than $45,750, the rent for a two-bedroom apartment could be as low as $858 a month. Prices for first-time home buyers range from the mid-$60,000s for a condominium to less than $125,000 for a town house.

The aim of the program is to allow people such as starting teachers and police officers to find homes in the relatively wealthy communities they serve. Other Washington area jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Arlington counties and Alexandria, have similar programs, but none gives priority to the disabled.

Federal law requires developers to include accessible units only in multifamily buildings. Of the 852 ADUs offered for sale in Fairfax since the program started seven years ago, 85 percent have been town houses, which are typically not accessible for the disabled.

Before the new priority system, disabled people on waiting lists to rent or buy low-cost housing had to join a lottery for available ADUs, and those units with accessibility features could end up going, by "the luck of the draw," to non-disabled people, said Patti Schlener of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development. For every new offering of a few ADUs, more than 200 people typically apply, she said.

The priority system was proposed after community activists in the Lorton area asked real estate company KSI Services Inc. to include accessible ADUs in its planned 500-home Lorton Valley project west of Interstate 95. KSI was obligated to build at least six ADUs there but was not required to make them accessible.

Nevertheless, the company agreed to the request, designing a "quadruplex" of four accessible ground-floor units and a duplex, both resembling single-family homes. The Vienna-based firm plans to start construction on the 130-acre site this spring and complete the project in three or four years.

Although the developer stands to lose money on its "prototype" accessible ADUs, "this is something we wanted to do," said Richard Hausler, president of KSI. "It's something that comes with being a member of the community."

After agreeing to build accessible ADUs, KSI joined the Federation of Lorton Communities, a group of more than 30 homeowners associations, in lobbying Fairfax for a priority system for the disabled.

"This was a pretty big oversight that we've had," said Lynwood Gorham, a former president of the federation. "To a lot of people, it was just common sense."

The change came too late to help Moseke, who was unable to find a place under the county's ADU program but bought an accessible condominium on her own last year. Disabled with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since age 3, she works for ENDependence, an Arlington-based advocacy group for the disabled, and chairs the Lorton federation's accessible housing committee.

"We're going to work with developers . . . to ask them to put in a certain number of single-family homes with these accessibility standards," she said.

Barbara Gilley, a disabled Alexandria resident who heads Disability Housing Advocates of Northern Virginia, said KSI's example has given her hope. "There's now attention focused on resolving some of the problems of accessible, affordable housing," she said. "In the next few years, we're going to see some dramatic changes."

2002 The Washington Post Company