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Progressive Voice: Arlington for Everyone – Fund the Affordable Housing Master Plan

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Michelle Winters

For Arlington to realize the benefits anticipated when the County approved its first Affordable Housing Master Plan (AHMP) in 2015, we need greater urgency in making the decisions needed to implement it.

Without some bold actions, most parts of Arlington are at risk of becoming enclaves for the rich rather than communities that welcome people from all walks of life. If Arlingtonians value our diversity, are we doing enough to keep Arlington accessible to people with a broad range of income levels – Arlington for everyone?

The AHMP, a component of Arlington County’s Comprehensive Plan, calls for 17.7 percent of the County’s housing stock to be affordable to renters earning no more than 60% of area median income (AMI) by 2040. Is 17.7 percent a lot? Not really. It’s basically holding steady – representing roughly the same share of households at this income level that we had in 2015. Just holding steady on affordability may be considered ambitious in a community like Arlington, because it will take a lot of investment to make it happen.

This winter, the County published its first annual report on the AHMP – Investing in Our Community. It’s an impressive report that shows progress on several fronts. Yet, a problem remains because the County is nowhere near the pace it needs to be in adding and preserving affordable units if it intends to meet the goals expressed in the 2015 plan.

In FY2016, the County added 219 units of committed affordable housing, but lost 874 units of market-rate affordable housing that had been affordable to renters at 60 percent of AMI. Contrary to the belief of many who are skeptical of investment in affordable housing, the County’s investment is not adding to the affordable housing stock — it’s not even keeping up with the loss.

With this track record, the County Manager’s proposed FY 2018 contribution to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund is not enough to stem the inevitable losses in coming years. He has proposed a contribution of $13.7 million, flat from the level provided in the prior year. Implementing the County’s plan will actually require at least double that amount over the long run.

Housing advocates recognize that there are other important needs that deserve attention and public support, especially in tough budget years. But shortchanging affordable housing compromises other County goals.

Take the educational achievement gap as an example. Research has shown that living in housing that’s healthy, safe, and affordable has positive impacts on a child’s ability to focus on her education. It also reduces stress for parents so that they can engage more with their children and the community. Housing is a critical investment that leverages returns in many other areas, an impact many have likened to a “vaccine” that can prevent a host of other problems.

We have other real world examples. In addition to affordable homes, our award-winning local affordable housing providers such as AHC and APAH provide after school programs, food distribution, workforce development, backpack drives, and other services that enhance the lives of their residents and set them up for success. Keeping a child in stable and affordable home is probably one of the most fundamental ways of supporting them, and without that support additional investments in education will not be as effective.

What will it take to meet the County’s affordable housing needs?

A principal County priority should be allocations for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund that are commensurate to the challenge. It can also mean looking at new ways to leverage the resources that we already have. With high demand and low affordable supply, we will need more than business as usual to make a dent in the problem.

For example, we issue bonds for school construction, infrastructure, and neighborhood improvements, but doing the same to invest in the long-term affordability of our housing stock has not yet been on the table. This kind of option — used recently in Seattle and Austin — deserves a closer look.

If we are going to break through and finally start making the right levels of investment in housing, County residents need to make it clear to the Board during this year’s budget cycle that Arlington cannot stay on its current trajectory. An affordable Arlington for everyone — including our workforce, our children, the elderly and the disabled — requires an investment, not just a plan.

Michelle Winters is the executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions in Arlington. AHS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization working to increase the supply of affordable housing in Arlington and Northern Virginia through public education, facilitation and action. Learn more about the Arlington for Everyone campaign at http://www.allianceforhousingsolutions.org/.

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