Arlington County Board members could be setting up a landmine to be tripped over later by signaling that the county government might – might – significantly increase its funding for affordable housing.
Board members directed, as part of their fiscal 2021 budget guidance to County Manager Mark Schwartz, that budget plans include an option to increase affordable-housing funding to as much as $25 million, a 56-percent increase from the $16 million Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) funding approved for the current fiscal year.
The proposal came from recently re-elected board member Katie Cristol, who in her first term of office had positioned herself as a (relative) budget hawk. Cristol suggested it was time to make a more serious thrust to address the issue – even though Arlington’s commitment to housing, comparable to its overall budget, already far exceeds other Northern Virginia localities.
“This is, I recognize, a lot of money,” and if approved it would rank housing “greatly above” other priorities in the $1.4 billion annual county budget, Cristol said on Nov. 19.
Before Cristol spoke up, board members had planned to direct Schwartz to come back with twin proposals, one providing $19 million in housing funding and the other providing $21 million.
The proposal to add the third, $25 million tier for consideration draw some brushback from County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey, who said raising expectations of affordable-housing advocates could pit them against proponents of other budget priorities.
“We’re setting up our community to have an artificial fight,” Dorsey said. “I’m concerned about creating a lot of sides fighting.”
Cristol acknowledged that could be a byproduct. But, she said, if board members truly saw housing as their top concern, it was time for “real conversations about tradeoffs.”
Her colleague, Erik Gutshall, said it was the County Board’s responsibility to “lead the community through these discussions” and expressed hope that they could be held in “a mature way.”
(“I realize this can be wishful thinking,” he added.)
Of course, some might argue that the County Board won’t necessarily need to deal with tradeoffs: They could simply count on higher property assessments to procure the tax revenue necessary to allow all of what one activist derides as Arlington’s “gimme groups” to come away with their budget wishes fulfilled.
County officials are projecting a healthy rise in assessments both on the residential and commercial sides of the ledger, which means that, without a substantial cut in the tax rate, property owners will pay more.
And County Board members already may have that extra cash spent, at least in their heads. At a Nov. 19 budget preview, they expressed the need for more funding for everything from schools and transit to stormwater infrastructure to county-government salaries.