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As housing costs soar, county considers new policies to boost supply, subsidize 'affordable' units

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Yessica Bonilla graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2020 and landed a job at a medical center in Washington D.C. She and her fiancé found an apartment to rent in Woodbridge with a manageable commute and only a short drive from her parents' home in Stafford County.

Bonilla, 23, said she likes the commute and being close to her family. But there’s a catch: The rent in Woodbridge is just too high. 

Bonilla said she spends about a third of her monthly pay on rent for her small apartment. And after her student loan and car payments, there’s not much left to put in savings. Bonilla said she’d like to stay where she is, but after months of searching, she and her fiancé can’t find anything in their price range. 

“We’ve been looking in Stafford because it’s a little cheaper,” Bonilla said in an interview with Prince William Times. 

Bonilla isn’t alone. Northern Virginia residents have long faced steep housing costs. And in Prince William County, once considered among the more affordable counties in the region, residents are increasingly feeling the pinch. The median price for recent home sales is up about 16% from last year, and the average rent on a two-bedroom rental unit rose to nearly $1,800 a month, according to the Virginia Housing Development Authority.

Now, county planners are recommending that the Prince William Board of County Supervisors adopt a suite of new policies aimed at providing more affordable options for low- and middle-income residents. 

The new policies under consideration aim to expand the supply of land available for residential development within the “rural crescent,” increase rental housing options in the western end of the county and create local subsidies to incentivize affordable housing development countywide. 

They would also target certain areas of the county for redevelopment and revitalization, like U.S. 1 in Woodbridge and Sudley Road in Manassas.

The proposals aim to address two converging issues facing county residents: a housing shortage, which is driving up the price of available housing, and the lack of local assistance available to low-income residents with acute housing needs.

County staff presented the new policies to the planning commission at a July 7 work session.

Addressing the county’s steep housing costs has been a critical issue for some on the board of county supervisors. In July, the board’s Democratic supervisors directed county staff to begin updating the comprehensive plan’s housing chapter on a 5-3 party-line vote. 

“It's certainly a priority. And it's so much a priority that it's one of the first things we tackled when coming on this board. Now we're finally realizing some actual proposals that we can move forward,” said Supervisor Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge.

The new policies have not yet been presented to the board, however. Franklin, Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, and staffers for Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At-large and Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, all said they had not yet seen the policy recommendations offered by county staff.

All the policies are being recommended for inclusion in the county’s updated comprehensive plan, which is scheduled for a board vote later this year. The comprehensive plan is a guide for future development. The update is the first since 2010.

Housing deficit

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments estimated in 2019 that Prince William County had a shortfall of about 7,500 housing units based on future job growth in the region. About 21,000 new housing units were built in Prince William between 2010 and 2020, according to the United States Census. 

The Prince William Realtors Association said in an Aug. 10 report that “home prices are rising rapidly” in the county driven by low housing inventory. The shrinking supply of homes in the area “is causing more competition among active buyers in the market,” the report said.

“We have to keep up with the number of housing units that are constructed. And that also depends upon our land-use policies. If we are not able to keep up with fast enough construction, it will definitely impact affordability of housing values in the county,” Prince William County Planning Director Parag Agrawal said in an interview with Prince William Times last week.

Additionally, the county relies primarily on about 1,900 federal housing vouchers to assist low-income individuals and families with acute rental housing needs. But demand for assistance has outstripped the supply. More than 600 people were on the county’s waiting list for a voucher as of July.

‘Rural crescent’ targeted for growth

Among the most controversial new housing policies proposed is one that would open up some areas of the county’s rural crescent for development where home-building is currently restricted. The new policy would allow clustered growth “in rural villages or hamlets,” according to county staff. 

Agrawal said county planners are exploring whether some local land-use policies, like the rural crescent restrictions, “are causing a challenge” for housing availability in the county. The current policy allows only single-family homes to be built at 10-acre intervals. The rural crescent, along with federally protected areas such as Prince William Forest Park and the Manassas National Battlefield Park, cover about 53% of the county’s total landmass. 

“If 53% of the county is only limited to single family homes, we want to see if that is causing an issue. How can we improve our land-use policies that will help to preserve our environment and will help to enhance our housing options?” Agrawal said. 

Additionally, county planners said in their presentation to the planning commission that, “The lack of land area for new residential development is … driving up land prices,” and “making local housing prices less affordable in Prince William County.” 

Planning commissioners briefly discussed the rural crescent issue but came to no conclusion about whether they would endorse the policy.

“It seems to reason that you would maybe build a little bit more [housing] out in the western end. There again, the western end also contains the rural area. I don’t have the answer to that. I just don’t know that there’s too many areas left in the eastern end where you can build affordable housing. There’s not that much land left. Hardly any,” Neabsco Planning Commissioner Bill Milne said. 

"We’re more constrained now than we’ve ever been across the county,” said At-large Commissioner Don Talyor. But, he said, “There’s plenty of land out there to make all this happen.”

Many rural area residents, some civic associations and the board’s three Republican supervisors have steadfastly opposed any plans to alter the current rural crescent rules over concerns that new development could increase traffic and overburden county schools. 

Environmental and conservation groups have also opposed changing the rural area's boundaries over concerns about impacts to local habitats and protected open space. 

The rural crescent was created by the board of county supervisors in 1998 with the intent of slowing development sprawl. At the time, the rural crescent policy was estimated to reduce Prince William’s projected build-out population over 20 years from 475,000 to 391,000 residents and drastically reduce the number of new schools needed, according to then-county Attorney Sharon Pandek. 

But the county reached 482,000 residents in 2020, almost 100,000 more residents than was initially anticipated when the rural crescent was created. 

"It didn’t make a dent at in slowing growth, which was its intent,” Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At-large, said in an email earlier this year.

Affordable housing policies proposed

County planning staff members are also recommending the county create a source of public funding to subsidize and incentivize affordable housing development throughout the county for both low-income and “workforce” residents, such as county employees and teachers. 

Such incentives could include new policies to allow higher density development in “activity centers” and along major employment and community service corridors.

The county is also considering an “affordable dwelling unit ordinance.” Such an ordinance would allow the county to offer developers certain incentives, such as higher residential densities or waived proffers on some units, in exchange for offering a certain percentage of housing units below market price within proposed developments, as allowed by Virginia law. 

Currently, the county has no policies to encourage or incentivize affordable housing, Agrawal said, and the greatest need for housing in Prince William County “is clustered [among those who earn] 30% area median income level and below.”

But Agrawal stressed it is “not only the low-income folks, but also our teachers, our firefighters, our county employees, our city employees,” who would benefit from the new housing policies. 

‘Workforce housing’

Both low- and middle-income residents of Northern Virginia face some of the highest housing cost burdens in the United States, according to a January 2021 report from the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia. 

Nearly 20% of middle-income households in Northern Virginia, those making between $50,000 and $100,000 for a family of four, spend half of their income or more on housing, the report said. 

Nearly half the county’s teachers and more than 60% of the county’s firefighters commute to work from outside the county, according to Prince William Education Association President Maggie Hansford and Prince William County Professional Firefighters spokesman Joe Mirable. 

Mirable and Hansford said teachers and firefighters travel from as far as Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Fauquier and Culpeper to their jobs in Prince William.

Jamilla Gualt, a special education teacher at Mullen Elementary School in Manassas, is one of them. 

Gualt and her husband, a Loudoun County teacher, live in Bealeton in Fauquier County.

“We tried to stay in the county, even if it wasn't in Manassas. It was just not within our budget at the time,” Gualt said in an interview with Prince William Times.

The commute isn’t bad. It’s only about 35 minutes without traffic, Gault said. But after more than a decade of teaching, she and her husband are searching for a home in the Gainesville area to shorten both of their commutes. So far, she said they haven’t had any luck.

“We’ve looked in Gainesville and Haymarket. ... It’s pricey,” Gualt said.

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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