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Independents on the Attack Over Housing and Amazon Incentives in County Board Debate

Arlington County Board incumbents fought to hold their ground against independents over Amazon incentives and housing topics at a debate Monday evening.

At the Arlington Chamber of Commerce’s candidate forum at U.Group in Crystal City (2231 Crystal Drive), Democratic incumbents Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol faced off against independent challengers Audrey Clement and Arron O’Dell.

One of the moments of back-and-forth criticism among the candidates came over the redevelopment of a number of market-rate affordable housing complexes in the Westover neighborhood. Clement has frequently criticized the County Board for what she said was the “preventable demolition” of the Westover garden apartments.

The redevelopment was by-right, meaning the developer did not need County Board approval. But Clement said the County Board could have designated the apartments part of a historic district and preserved the homes.

Overall, Clement argued that development drives up costs to build housing and that even dedicated affordable housing units come at a steep cost.

“The average cost of a new [Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing] unit is in excess of $400,000,” Clement said. “Most of the units are not affordable. Because the units are not affordable, the income-qualified people who move in, 30 percent of them have to have rent subsidies to pay the nominal amount of rent that they do pay. The taxpayers are hit twice, they have to pay their own rent and their own mortgage and they have to pay someone else’s because the cost of building that unit was astronomical.”

Dorsey fired back that rather than use the historic district designation, the County Board is working to change the regulations to protect affordable communities from redevelopment.

“In the Westover reference that Ms. Clement talked about, while she thinks the Board has done nothing, what we did do was take a courageous stand… and stopped the perverse incentive that led people to take affordable communities and turn them into by-right townhouses,” Dorsey said. “We paused that option and put it into the special exemption process so that we created options to preserve that housing.”

“We’re studying ways that can be better purposed to provide long term, market-based affordable housing,” Dorsey added. So you have to figure out where you’re doing harm and stop doing harm to create new options to preserve affordability both through direct subsidies and through the market.”

O’Dell, meanwhile, said the County should do more to accommodate for “tiny apartments” aimed at people moving to Arlington immediately after college, who may need an affordable place to live but not a lot of space.

“When you talk about housing affordability, you need to have a variety of types of units,” O’Dell said. “We should look at the lower incomes that fall into the 60 percent bracket and give them opportunities to possibly move in and look at places to live.”

Cristol said the County should work to open the door to other types of housing, pointing to the recent legalization of detached accessory dwelling units as an example and noting the large amount of land in Arlington zoned for only single-family housing.

“One of the most important things we can do is legalizing alternative forms,” said Cristol. “There are so many housing forms that could offer folks not only an opportunity to rent but [also to] buy and it’s literally illegal to build them in huge swaths of the county… There’s room for creative ideas, this is an area where we need partnership in the private sector, particularly for those who develop housing.”

Clash Over Corporate Incentives

When it came to helping businesses in Arlington, both of the independents came out swinging for the incumbents — mainly attacking the use of incentives to bring Amazon’s HQ2 to Crystal City and Pentagon City while smaller businesses struggle.

Gerber, the [Drug Enforcement Administration] and Amazon were all awarded subsidies in one form or another by the county,” Clement said. “These are all big players and there’s very little evidence the little players are getting the kind of attention from Arlington Economic Development that they need. In fact, it seems to be going the other way.”

Clement pointed specifically to the change in tax assessments that left a particular class of commercial tenants — commercial condo renters — with a 30 percent tax increase.

“One such commercial tenant, a bookstore, had to have an online silent auction to raise the money to pay her retroactive tax assessments while her competitor, Amazon, got a 23 million dollar subsidy,” Clement said. “There’s a real question of fairness in the way Arlington awards subsidies.”

“I thought the idea of big business was to decrease the tax burden on residents, but it doesn’t always work that way,” O’Dell said. “We need to work on leveling the playing field for all businesses, especially small and medium-sized businesses. Arlington is good enough to sell itself if we promote it.”

Dorsey held his ground on the incentives.

“Four years ago, right before we were sworn in, our vacancy rate stood at 21 percent,” Dorsey said, noting that it has since fallen — to 16.6 percent as of the second quarter of 2019. “That means we’ve taken significant stress off all taxpayers to fund what is necessary for Arlington.”

“Certainly, when we think about what is necessary to drive that strategy, it has included incentives for Amazon and Nestle, but it’s also included dozens more retention deals that have not involved one iota — not one cent — of public subsidy at all in order to achieve and that’s because we built a pretty terrific community in Arlington — one that is set for a future growth that will take us away from the stress of this decade,” Dorsey added.

The incumbents emphasized taking the long term view of Arlington’s growth and development is pivotal for County leadership.

“Arlington is a successful community because we have a tradition of leaders with a vision for the long term and I think that you deserve that in your County Board members,” Cristol said.

The general election is on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Residents have until October 15 to register to vote, and can check their registration status online. Debate moderator and former ARLnow reporter Alex Koma noted that as year without any federal or state-level elections, turnout will likely be low.

“It’s an off-off year,” Koma said, “so bring a friend [to vote] because you will be lonely.”

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