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
In 2015, the Arlington County Board adopted its first-ever Affordable Housing Master Plan. Two years in, how are we doing?
No Market Let Up – Thousands of market-rate affordable housing units have been lost to rent increases or redevelopment. The County’s most recent accounting shows less than 3,000 units remain affordable to households earning 60% of the area median income — about $45K (single person) and $65K (four-person household).
Worsened Political Environment – Proposed Trump administration budget cuts would devastate the support network for low-and moderate-income people, including affordable housing programs. We were spared the worst for the current fiscal year, but we can expect draconian cuts in each new proposed budget. Moreover, plans for a tax code revamp put at risk the nation’s only real affordable housing program – the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit – that responsible for almost all new or substantially rehabbed affordable rental housing in Arlington.
Local Funding Has Not Kept Up – Even with annual allocations to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund – the County’s revolving loan fund supporting affordable housing development and preservation – resources fall so far short of demand that the County can only partially fund the project selected through the recently enacted Notice of Funding Availability – APAH’s Queens Court development. Any other planned developments in the system will have to wait potentially several years.
This is the context for the County’s next budget planning round. The AHMP’s goal for affordable housing supply is simply to provide housing to match the demographic reality and prevent further loss. Adequate AHIF funding is the most fundamental step the County can take to support this goal. Annual AHIF allocations have increased to $15 million in the current fiscal year, doubling the allocation of just five years ago. However, even this increased annual allocation remains far below the amount needed. Supporting Arlington as a diverse and inclusive community requires support for an even higher AHIF investment.
The County is trying to move forward simultaneously on a number of other non-financial AHMP-related initiatives potentially making the climb toward affordability less steep.
Reduce Costs – This month, County staff plan to advertise a policy change to potentially reduce the amount of structured parking required for residential developments near Metro. At an estimated $45,000-$60,000 cost per space, parking requirements are a key example of local public policy impacting the cost of housing. Given ride sharing trends and overall lower levels of car ownership, this forward-thinking policy change can save thousands of dollars per apartment. This reduction is more justified and meaningful for affordable housing properties, potentially reducing public subsidy needs and producing lower rents or a larger number of affordable units.
Provide Incentives – Arlington and other inner-ring suburbs and cities have been undergoing a purging of non-subsidized affordable housing stock. Even were adequate AHIF loans available, saving this market affordable housing stock would be daunting. Individual property owners make their own decisions about the future of these properties based on what makes the most sense to them, not public policy priorities and needs. Setting up an incentive structure that aligns owners’ and developers’ interests with those of the public could be highly beneficial. Over the past year, County staff have been working toward a proposal, hopefully released very soon, to create a property owner incentive package to encourage preservation or replacement of these affordable units.
Create More Options – Another small-scale solution in the works would not rely upon public subsidies or incentives but could nonetheless provide a new, moderately-priced housing supply. The County’s accessory dwelling ordinance, originally adopted in 2009, has not worked as anticipated. Accessory dwellings are what many people refer to as “granny flats” or “in-law units” – standalone apartments within or on the property of a single-family home. The current AD policy contains so many restrictions that only 20 units have been approved. This year, the policy is getting a much-deserved second look with an eye toward removing many restrictive provisions keeping these units from being created.
Progressive Arlingtonians should support all of these efforts with enthusiasm, even if each is just a small step toward solving a large and daunting housing affordability challenge. After these proposals move ahead – and hopefully each will be successfully adopted by the County Board over the next few months – there are many more examples of similar measures that can and should be taken up promptly to achieve the goals of the Affordable Housing Master Plan. Full speed ahead.
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/.