Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
Arlington is grappling with issues common to communities with urban areas. We can remain inclusive and value diversity as we progress and seek to remain competitive, but we must consider the importance of affordable housing as part of that competitive edge.
The need for affordable housing evokes different images — providing shelter for families in need; allowing lower-income workers to live closer to their jobs and to transit, promoting economic activity without adding to congestion; encouraging greater diversity and inclusion; aging in place without having to give up one’s home as real estate prices rise; strengthening and stabilizing communities; and, for some, housing “projects” and crime.
Arlington has attempted to maintain affordable housing as the cost of living has increased. In 1975, AHC, Inc., began working as a nonprofit affordable housing developer. In 1989, the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing was founded to develop and preserve quality rental communities for individuals and families earning approximately $20,000-$60,000 per year.
Housing is considered affordable when rent or mortgage, plus utilities, is no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income. Across the nation, an estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. In 2012, average rents in Arlington increased to $1,999.
One must make generally make 60 percent or less of the area median income to qualify for affordable housing, which in Arlington is $45,180 for a single person.
Arlington County provides affordable housing by expanding the supply of Committed Affordable Units (CAFs) for low-income residents, and offering Market-Rate Affordable Units which are owned by the private market and tend to have higher monthly rents.
According to a 2011 literature review by the Center for Housing Policy, “the development of affordable housing increases spending and employment in the surrounding economy, acts as an important source of revenue for local governments, and reduces the likelihood of foreclosure and its associated costs.”
In 2012 the County commissioned a three-year task force to create a shared community affordable housing vision, but not everyone is happy with the direction of affordable housing in Arlington.
- Although it ultimately failed, in 2013 the Arlington Green Party (AGP) spearheaded a ballot initiative to create a low income housing authority. In a 2013 Washington Post article, AGP chairman Steve Davis noted, “…a housing authority would raise funds more easily, lower administrative costs, and provide more affordable rental units.”
- The County offered developers more density for their projects if they preserved 6,200 units of affordable housing on Columbia Pike as a part of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Plan. It is unclear whether developers will still be interested in building and preserving affordable units in light of the recent streetcar project cancellation.
- Under the Public Land for Public Good program, the county identified three to five publicly owned sites with the greatest potential for affordable housing development in the next 10 years. Yet, the Long Range Planning Committee of the county Planning Commission recommended that the program be “set aside” and the Arlington County Civic Federation is asking the County to start over — both citing a need for more public input.
- Additionally, Columbia Heights West, the civic association that encompasses the new Arlington Mill Residences, is an advocate for more affordable housing in Arlington, but questions the high concentration of affordable housing in some neighborhoods. Early drafts of the Affordable Housing Working Group study included a provision to ensure more affordable housing throughout the county, but it was deleted by the Long Range Planning Committee.
The diversity that can be achieved through affordable housing yields benefits such as higher education achievement. Washington Monthly covered Montgomery County’s implementation of inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to make a small fraction of the units in their buildings affordable, and led to improvements in student performance as lower-income students were exposed to the resources that exist in low-poverty schools. In Arlington, developers often pay a fee into the Affordable Housing Investment Fund rather than include affordable units.
To thrive, remain competitive and stay true to our progressive values, we must continue to attract talented people from various backgrounds and engage residents from throughout the county to find solutions to help create a better Arlington.
Krysta Jones is the Founder and CEO of the Virginia Leadership Institute.