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Making Room: Show Renters the Arlington Way in 2020

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

I have lived in Arlington for almost 5 years and I’ve come to see the “Arlington Way” as both a blessing and a curse on the County.

For those not familiar, the Arlington Way as a tradition of citizen democracy, realized through an extensive culture and apparatus for public engagement around most County policies, as well as new commercial or residential developments. The goal is to give residents many opportunities to influence, or at least register their opinion, on a range of regulatory and administrative topics and projects that will have a broad impact.

However, the problem with this reliance on resident voices is the over-representation of the whiter, older, home-owning population. This does not reflect the Arlington’s diversity. County-wide, less than half of housing units are owner-occupied — 44.5%. These households are much more likely to be White than Black or Latino.

Because our tradition and apparatus for soliciting public input privileges homeowners and leaves out renters, many people have the opinion that renters are not invested in Arlington. We saw the manifestation of this attitude in the Sun-Gazette’s November 27 editorial, which argues that renters should not be mobilized to participate in local elections because they “have short-term interests in a community they do not plan to live in forever.” I’m heartened to see the results of ARLnow’s poll show a more inclusive attitude.

But the difficulties in engaging Arlington’s renter majority remain, and it should be the county’s New Year’s Resolution to bring more renters into the civic engagement process. I also encourage renters who are reading this to make a commitment to get more involved in their neighborhoods.

There are many civic organizations in Arlington that are conscientiously working to improve the representation of Arlingtonians in public discourse. My own civic association, Aurora Highlands, has a mix of single-family homes and multi-story apartment buildings. During my year on the executive board, I’ve been pleased by the effort to bring more renters into the conversations. The Arlington Civic Federation, a venerable institute for amplifying resident opinions, is also working to be more diverse as well.

But we can do more to bring renters and other underrepresented groups into to public discourse.

The County Board and its staff should use their influence with developers and property owners to ensure better communication about the Arlington Way with renters. Management companies need to help their residents be part of the community. This isn’t just the community within the building, but the broader neighborhood beyond their doors. Every apartment building, particularly those with professional management, should participate by distributing Civic Association newsletters, letting the Civic Association hold a meeting in their community space, and inviting County staff and board members to speak to residents. Some effort on the part of property managers can go a long way to show that renters want to have a voice in the County.

Happy New Year! Let’s resolve to make 2020 a great year for civic participation from all Arlingtonians.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her husband and son. By day, she is the Development Director for Greater Greater Washington and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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