Even by its own estimation, the Arlington County government’s success rate in stemming the exodus of affordable housing in Arlington has been hit-or-miss, and the local government at times has been viewed as unimaginative and overly bureaucratic by those who want to see more aggressive efforts at building and retaining housing accessible to lower- and middle-income residents.
In its latest effort, the county government appears to be taking a page from the songbook of Elvis Presley: “A little less conversation, a little more action.”
“We are open for business – bring it on,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said on April 25 in teasing a host of new initiatives he says will be rolled out in coming weeks.
“We will do things that have never been done before,” Schwartz promised. “We welcome any ideas and thoughts and proposals.”
Critics – both those who believe the county government is doing too little on affordable housing and those who think it is doing, and spending, too much – may have cause to wait and see how this latest incarnation plays out. Other efforts by the Arlington government have had limited impact in a community where modestly priced housing is being razed to make way for pricey rentals and million-dollar-and-up single-family units.
But when it comes to housing providers and activists, there is cautious optimism.
“It’s recognizing that housing affordability is an issue across a wider spectrum of household income levels,” said Michelle Winters, executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, which advocates for more housing and creative solutions.
Winters praised county officials for adding a staff member specifically to work on the initiative. “The additional staff capacity is really key,” she said.
More than 17,000 affordable units have disappeared from Arlington since 2000 as property owners have cashed in. The rise of “committed-affordable” (subsidized) units over that period has not come close to offsetting that decline, and has made finding an affordable unit in Arlington something like playing the lottery: A few end up big winners, but most come away empty-handed.
The looming arrival of Amazon and its corps of high-earning employees sent shudders through some in the housing arena that the price of housing will continue to rise across Arlington.
“Amazon helps us focus and put the spotlight on affordable housing,” said David Cristeal, who heads the county government’s housing efforts. (The county government has been brainstorming with Amazon officials on the subject, Schwartz said.)
Cristeal said future efforts would include a government-wide focus on finding ways available under state law to help the housing sector, and partnering where possible.
“We’re seeing a lot of good energy – and anxiety,” Cristeal said of the government-staff response to more aggressive efforts.
Not everybody is on board, however.
John Reeder, who heads the Arlington Greens and long has been active in local housing issues, expressed concern that the new rollout is “little more than a cynical public-relations effort” to paper over the government’s “abysmal failure” to live up to its own Affordable Housing Master Plan.
“The County Board has refused to use the considerable powers it already has, and to appropriate adequate funds to fund affordable-housing programs that work – like housing grants,” Reeder told the Sun Gazette. He also criticized the county government for not moving more aggressively on creating local history districts.
In remarks to the County Board, Schwartz tacitly acknowledged that, in the past, the county government sometimes has looked askance at creative ideas offered by housing providers and other advocates. Now, he says, the government’s ears are more attentive, both to the ideas of current providers like AHC Inc. and Wesley Housing Development Corp., and to any that might be interested in entering the market.
“We want those who have done work elsewhere to come to Arlington,” the county manager said.
Traditionally, the Arlington government has supported affordable-housing initiatives through its Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF), which lends out money for projects. County Board members in late April approved additional funding for the program for the fiscal year that begins in July.
Schwartz told County Board members on April 25 the fund “will never meet” the full need in Arlington. Yet Nina Janopaul, president and CEO of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, said AHIF remains a key component.
“We strongly suspect that more [AHIF] funds will be essential, as well as planning initiatives,” she said.
Janopaul said the county government has set ambitious goals, and should work to live up to them.
“We would like to hold the county accountable for meeting the current goal that 17.7 percent of all housing will be affordable to low-income households by 2040, as written in the county’s Affordable Housing Master Plan,” she said. “If the new ‘Housing Arlington’ initiative can provide measurable progress to that important goal, APAH will be thrilled.”
Virginia law gives localities limited powers to interfere with the rights of property owners; how far Arlington might be willing to go with some of the tools it does have (like creation of more historic districts in an effort to stem redevelopment), and how far it might try to stretch existing law, remains an open, and thorny, question.
Any effort to go too far likely would result in legal or legislative pushback, and could result in property owners’ playing a game of beat-the-clock by demolishing existing properties before any such restrictions could go into effect.
At the same time, Arlington’s housing efforts have drawn criticism from fiscal activists, who say the local funding is far in excess of what surrounding jurisdictions provide, deride the high per-unit cost of constructing affordable units, and suggest the county should focus its efforts on crafting regional solutions rather than attempt a go-it-alone approach.
Those same critics also contend it is the county government’s tax policy that is helping to push middle-income families out, opening the door for high-end redevelopment.
Apparently not in the cards is creation of a county-government housing authority. Establishing one has been on the ballot twice in the past generation in Arlington after efforts by the Arlington Greens. Each time, the effort was strongly opposed by the county government and existing housing providers, who convinced voters to turn the referendums down.