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Progressive Voice: Can Everyone Share in Prosperity? A Few Big Businesses in Arlington Say “Yes”

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 Anne Vor der Bruegge

Given Arlington’s top national rankings in housing market competitiveness and child care costs, some say our region is destined to become another San Francisco, where affordability challenges have forced lower income people out and led to 2-hour commutes. Yet, we will always need child care workers, office cleaners and other workers whose role you may not have thought about. Virginia Hospital Center, for instance, needs personnel 24/7 to sterilize, process and distribute surgical equipment. But turnover costs are high if those employees are commuting from far suburbs and being tempted to take a position in other hospitals they pass on the way to Arlington.

No one wins if such workers have to commute long hours because living in or near Arlington is unaffordable. Ensuring that people of all economic backgrounds can thrive here is part of assuring Arlington’s vitality. Arlington is at a critical–some would say even risky–juncture as it tries to balance inclusivity with economic growth.

Could you live in Arlington with a family of four if you made less than $35,000 per year? About 9,000 households do, and they are facing increasing challenges to stay here. It will take both the government and private sector to make structural course-corrections to ensure residents of lesser means can continue to contribute to and share in our community’s prosperity.

Increasingly, businesses acknowledge the importance of local economic inclusivity. This means going beyond traditional corporate giving and volunteerism to make systemic community-level changes. Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., points out that Business Roundtable members recognize the priority of “investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term.”

Last spring, the Shared Prosperity Partnership–the Urban Institute, Kresge Foundation, Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, and Living Cities–selected the Arlington Community Foundation (ACF) to convene local large businesses, along with our government and nonprofit partners, to address the displacement of Arlington’s low-income residents. We are examining new practices for workforce development and housing affordability and seeking innovative private investments to help households making under $35,000 stay in Arlington.

What specifically can businesses do to make structural impact? Here are a few examples.

1. Voluntarily offer a living wage. The MIT living wage calculator for Arlington indicates that an individual needs to make $17.44 per hour to cover the most basic expenses, yet the Virginia minimum wage remains $7.25. Companies can voluntarily set living wages for their employees, cleaning contractors and other vendors. For example, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Reagan National and Dulles airports, set annually adjusted wages of nearly $15 per hour for airport vendors and just over $12 per hour for 4,500 support services employees such as baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants. This improves retention in jobs that keep our airports secure and fully functioning.

2. Offer full-time, consistent hours and health benefits. Too often, low-wage workers are forced to adapt to unpredictable swings in shifts that interfere with ensuring consistent, safe child care arrangements and maintaining a second job.

3. Work with the community to provide training and apprenticeships. Virginia Hospital Center has partnered with several community programs to pilot a full-time apprenticeship program paying $14 per hour, with full health benefits and health care career pathways for crucial hospital jobs such as the “sterilizers” mentioned earlier.

4. Invest in reduced housing and childcare costs. Ironically, Arlington’s lowest-income households cannot afford the County’s “affordable” housing because their monthly income will not stretch enough to cover the costs of even the subsidized rents. To help fill this gap, the Community Foundation is collaborating with large businesses, developers and other organizations. We aim to build private investment funds of $21M for construction of units targeted to households making less than $35,000 and $20M for a private rental subsidy program. It’s promising that Amazon and the Shooshan Company have seeded these funds with gifts of $3 and $1 million respectively.

We’re tackling childcare costs in much the same way — developing a new private fund for childcare scholarships for the working poor to supplement inadequate state funding.

Such efforts — from workforce development to finding ways to create more affordable housing and child care — are a start toward fulfilling our ambitious targets toward economic inclusivity in Arlington. Key Arlington-based businesses are stepping up by providing a more solid economic footing for the low-income workforce and helping to mitigate their displacement from Arlington. We hope that more companies will join in to reset our community’s path to sustainability.

Anne Vor der Bruegge is Director of Grants and Initiatives at the Arlington Community Foundation. She has lived in Arlington since 1982 and has worked for 25 years in Arlington nonprofits, County and Schools.

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