Faced with criticism on multiple fronts, Arlington County Board members on June 16 essentially threw a staff proposal under the bus, delaying for three months consideration of a controversial plan on how to prioritize affordable housing in the Columbia Pike corridor.
“There’s just a need for a lot more conversation,” acknowledged County Board member Katie Cristol, who voted with her colleagues to defer consideration of the proposal from July until at least October.
The staff recommendation apparently is designed to increase opportunities for those who wish to purchase housing along the Pike corridor. It would have increased 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.
Critics were quick to pounce, some contending that the policy shift hadn’t been fully vetted and others saying it would redirect county-government priorities away from more needy residents to subsidize those who have more.
The proposal “shows the total dysfunction in the county’s housing-assistance program,” John Reeder, leader of the Arlington Green Party, told the Sun Gazette.
“Households earning $100,000 a year . . . can certainly afford to purchase a modest condo for sale in the county already, without government dollars,” Reeder told the Sun Gazette prior to the June 16 meeting. “A single person earning $40,000 a year can barely afford to pay rent in Arlington today, and is far more deserving of some modest rent assistance.”
He wasn’t alone in lobbing grenades at the proposal.
“It is designed to benefit upper-middle-class people . . . the opposite of what was intended” when affordable-housing plans for Columbia Pike were put in place, said Juliet Hiznay in a message to County Board members.
Hiznay was particularly incensed that the proposal had not been fully vetted by the Planning Commission, and that it originally had been placed on the County Board’s “consent agenda” reserved for non-controversial items.
“I find that really outrageous,” she wrote.
The item before the County Board on June 16 was to advertise the proposal for consideration in July. But those with past experience in “the Arlington Way” of policy-making know better than to wait until the public hearing to have their voices heard. They lobbied to have the advertisement removed from the consent agenda so the public could speak to it on June 16.
The policy change proposed by housing staff appears designed to align with the county government’s recent efforts to retain what is being called “the missing middle” – county residents who earn too much for housing subsidies but earn too little to afford most housing in the increasingly off-the-charts Arlington homes market. Similar arguments, over where on the economic spectrum housing support should be concentrated, are being played out regionally.
The change in income levels to up to 100 percent of median income would “better align with the overall cost of home-ownership within the county, and expand the pool of eligible, qualified buyers seeking to purchase an affordable home in the county,” county staff said in a memo to County Board members.
(The proposal is specific to projects built under provisions of the Columbia Pike Form-Based Code.)
The staff proposal does not recommend changing the existing ceiling of 60 percent of area median income for those who can receive rental assistance, but expanding subsidies to more homeowners holds the prospect of apartment units being converted to condominiums – “potentially displacing hundreds of residents who have extremely limited housing options in Arlington.”
That was the assessment of the Pike Presidents’ Group, representing the leaders of civic associations along the Pike corridor.
In a joint June 12 letter to County Board members, those civic-association leaders pronounced themselves “mystified” why county staff was moving forward with a proposal that hadn’t been fully discussed in their communities.
The Pike Presidents’ Group asked County Board members to reject the proposal outright and wait to consider it as part of a broader group of refinements, working with neighborhood associations and the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. But County Board members opted to straddle the fence and keep their options open by pushing off the public hearing until October.
“We certainly haven’t seen all of the analysis,” County Board member Christian Dorsey acknowledged. “Having a couple months to do it would serve everyone.”
The question of who should get top priority for limited housing-assistance funds in Arlington is one that has festered for years. The Green Party is one that long has pushed county leaders to provide more funding to support housing for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the party called on the County Board to provide $20 million or more in housing vouchers to those who have lost their jobs. The county government “came up with only about $2.7 million . . . and continues to waste tens of millions of dollars building a few expensive apartments for a favored few,” Reeder said.
He called the approach “clueless.”