Making Room: Invest in Arlington’s Affordability

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

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of joining the board of the Alliance for Housing Solutions (AHS).

The Alliance advocates for affordable housing in Arlington that meet the needs of all income levels and stages of life. This includes both committed affordable housing developments that are income restricted for low-income residents and market-oriented solutions such as ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) that will provide unsubsidized lower-cost housing.

This year, Arlington is at a cross-roads that will determine our commitment to affordable housing. I hope you’ll join me and other AHS supporters to call on the County Board to grow our stock of committed affordable housing with a strategic investment of $25 million in the Affordable Housing Investment Fund.

The Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF or “A-Hif”) is a low-interest loan program that helps developers build and preserve committed affordable housing in Arlington County. It is a revolving fund that receives money from private developers (like $20 million from Amazon for the first phase of HQ2), federal grants, and County contributions.

The County Board distributes AHIF loans to worthy projects, which affordable housing developers use to build or renovate multi-family properties. These developers then repay their AHIF loans, putting the money back in the fund to be used for future projects. This revolving fund is a catalyst for affordable housing developers to get the financing they need to increase our supply of income-restricted units.

In the last twenty years, low-income Arlingtonians have faced increased rent pressure. Because of increased demand and redevelopment, we’ve lost over 16,000 unsubsidized apartments in the open low-rent market that had been affordable to lower-income households. The County is attempting to make up the deficit by investing in committed affordable units. But they’ve only been able to reach half their goal each of the last five years. That means we’re falling further behind, as 28,000 Arlingtonians try to find decent affordable housing on an income of $36,000 per year.

Since adopting the Affordable Housing Master Plan in 2015, the County Board has allocated an average of $14.3 million to AHIF and added only 298 units each year, when their annual goal is 600 units. We now have a 1,500 unit deficit and only 9% of our housing stock is affordable to families making 60% of the Area Median Income or less, which is about half of what we need to accommodate our low-income neighbors. We can’t keep taking the same action and expect better results. This year, the Board needs to take bold action by allocating $25 million to AHIF, an increase of $9 million.

The County Manager released the FY 2021 budget, which includes only $2.7 million more for AHIF. Another $2.3 million could come from Columbia Pike Tax Increment Financing and potentially another $2 million from a future increase in the County’s cigarette tax. If adopted, this could increase AHIF by a maximum of $7 million. The County Board would have to vote for all of these options, and the amount would still be below our goal of $9 million in new funds.

The County Manager has proposed additional funds to support housing programs, including $800,000 more for Arlington’s housing grants and $400,000 more permanent supportive housing, plus an additional $250,000 for a pilot program to support housing for youth aging out of foster care. These are increases to valuable programs, however, they do not address the fundamental problem of Arlington’s low supply of housing affordable for low-income families.

AHIF is the only tool that can increase the supply, so that families who receive housing grants, for example, have a place to live. Investing more in Arlington’s Affordable Housing by increasing the AHIF will mean that developers can submit more plans each year and help us reach our goal of 600 new affordable units each year.

Right now, the Arlington County Board is accepting citizen feedback on the Fiscal Year 2021 budget. Thanks to an improved commercial real estate market and higher property tax assessments, the Board has additional funds to make valuable investments in our most pressing priorities. They need to hear from you about the importance of our Affordable Housing supply, and specifically the need to increase the AHIF contribution by $9 million in the coming budget.

How you can help:

  • Sign the AHS petition asking Arlington County to increase AHIF funding to $25 million and dedicate additional funds to our lowest-income households.
  • Write to County Board Members to tell them you support allocating $25 million for AHIF in fiscal year 2021. Download our letter template, customize, and mail it; or send an email to all five County Board Members.
  • Share with your neighbors so they can join us in advocating for members of our community who are most vulnerable to displacement. Download our flyer, or share our information via social media.

Speak at a County Board meeting on March 21, and especially at the March 31 budget hearing. Watch for changes to these meetings in response to COVID-19.

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.