Sometimes, you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.
Arlington County Board members on Oct. 17 tried to salvage themselves from any further misery, removing from consideration a staff proposal to change rules governing affordable housing on Columbia Pike.
Board members, who had weathered intense community skepticism of the proposal when it first was heard in June, had placed the proposal back on their October agenda, and had recommendations from both the Planning Commission and county manager to approve it. But when critics again suited up to do battle, board members threw in the towel.
(“The County Board got the message,” one critic of the policy noted with satisfaction after board members, following a public hearing, agreed to drop the matter indefinitely.)
As the meeting, as had been the case in June, board members said more work was needed. “There are a lot more policy issues that need to be resolved,” said board member Takis Karantonis.
The proposal called for increasing the maximum threshold from the current 60 percent of area median income to up to as much as 100 percent for individuals to qualify for assistance in buying properties.
County Manager Mark Schwartz, who seemed a tad beleaguered after public comment on the plan, said the proposal was in keeping with direction given staff by County Board members over the years, and was the end result of three years of effort and community outreach.
“Despite all the work, we still had members of the community that were skeptical,” Schwartz acknowledged.
Julius Spain Sr., head of the Arlington branch of the NAACP, can be counted as one of the skeptics. He pointed to the possibility of accelerated gentrification and displacement of existing Columbia Pike residents, and said county officials were failing to take into account the impact that the arrival of Amazon and its thousands of highly-paid employees would have on the future of housing in the corridor.
“You have a moral and fiduciary responsibility to protect our vulnerable communities,” Spain told County Board members.
Spain and other critics said the proposal, as designed, would direct county-government priorities away from the most vulnerable residents to subsidize those higher on the economic ladder.
Under current rules, households eligible to purchase affordable units are limited to annual incomes no higher than $51,000 to $78,660, depending on household size. At 80 percent of median income, that would rise to $70,560 to $108,880, while at 100 percent, it would grow to $88,200 to $136,100.
In his comments, Spain voiced something that often is merely whispered or completely unsaid – some in the community believe there is “too cozy” a relationship between non-profit housing developers and county staff.
Schwartz acknowledged that some believed that staff was on a mission of its own, but disputed the contention.
“I couldn’t disagree more,” he shot back. “Staff are really focused on the mission they were given by the [County] Board. We’ve done our best. I still stand by the work that was done.”
Others in the online public hearing wondered if County Board members themselves were personally profiting by supporting increasing housing density in the community. It was the type of contention that, to board chairman Libby Garvey, seemed to cross an unseen but real line of propriety.
Garvey, who is up for re-election on Nov. 3 and has been hit hard by challenger Audrey Clement on the housing issue, urged residents to “resist casting accusations and aspersions,” although her plea came after that ship, apparently, had sailed.
The proposal on the table Oct. 17 was specific to projects built under provisions of the Columbia Pike Form-Based Code, which promises a streamlined approval process for projects that meet certain benchmarks. Developers are allowed, but not required, to use the Form-Based Code process for projects in the Pike corridor.
The measure, as proposed, would not have changed the maximum income levels for those receiving rental subsidies in Columbia Pike properties. But if more properties convert from rental to condo (something county officials contend is unlikely), there likely would be fewer apartments available to rent.
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