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Progressive Voice: Support the Affordable Housing Master Plan

Mary Rouleau

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 the author’s organization or of ARLnow.com.

In September, the County Board will vote to adopt the Affordable Housing Master Plan (“Plan”) as part of the County’s Comprehensive Plan. The draft Plan has undergone review and revision and continues to be a hot topic in local blogs and print outlets. Here’s my case in support of its adoption.

Let’s start with what the Plan is: a policy document that contains enabling principles, goals and objectives. It is not a master housing siting plan or an allocation of new resources. The Plan, with a 20+ year look forward, does not commit to a specific course of action or number of committed affordable units (CAFs). In fact, it specifically reserves the right to make adjustments based on feasibility and market conditions.

There is a fair amount of confusion about the impact of the accompanying Implementation Framework (“Framework”), a staff guidance document that describes the existing and potential tools that will be used to achieve the Plan. The County Board will be asked to “accept” the Framework to guide staff efforts to develop new housing tools and consider housing site plans. These resulting processes to evaluate those tools and plans will be subject to community review and input–as has been the tradition.

So why has the County, guided by a citizen working group, spent the better part of three years preparing the Plan? For one thing, a change in state law now requires the County to incorporate an affordable housing plan into its state-mandated Comprehensive Plan which currently contains the County’s policies regarding land use, energy, transportation, and public spaces. This helps ensure integrated planning.

But more importantly, it’s time to re-examine housing needs, given that the last major study and current housing goals and targets were created 15 years ago. Since then, rents and housing prices have doubled, and the County has lost 13,000 rental units that were once affordable to households making 60 percent of AMI (Area Median Income — roughly $46,000 for a single person and $65,500 for a family of four).

Three other trends require the new policies expressed in the Plan.

First, available land in Arlington is scarce and costly. New approaches are needed to encourage market forces to develop affordability and allow for its distribution throughout the County. The Plan proposes exploring new approaches including land use and zoning changes, simplified approvals, and new housing design, including revisiting the accessory dwelling ordinance. Specifically, however, the Plan commits the County to using its financing (loan fund) and land use tools and sector planning to incentivize distribution of affordable units throughout the County.

Second, affordability challenges now confront the middle class. That and the growth in Baby Boomers who wish to “age in place” and Millennials require a fresh look at housing options. The Plan includes policy language and potential tools for addressing these concerns, including using land use and zoning policy to incentivize ownership housing affordable to households between 80-120 percent of AMI. The Plan includes new County policies to both help the middle class and enable Arlingtonians to age in community.

Third, Arlington’s economic sustainability in the face of increased competition requires a robust and stable employee base and a housing mix to support that base. In expressing support for the direction and goals of the Plan, the Arlington Chamber noted the importance of housing to employee recruitment and retention and business location decisions. The Plan expresses a preference for existing residents and Arlington-based workers in using County funds for rental or ownership programs.

Market forces, strong property rights laws and the Dillon Rule notwithstanding, our success in meeting current and future challenges — if we are to remain a place that is both diverse and economically sustainable — will depend on creative approaches and flexibility. The policies and objectives of the Plan provide that foundation.

Mary Rouleau is a 25-year resident of Arlington. She is the Executive Director of The Alliance for Housing Solutions.

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