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Making Room: Getting and Keeping People Housed is Essential for Coronavirus Recovery

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

It is impossible to follow Virginia’s “stay-at-home” order if you do not have a home.

The emerging economic crisis across the country, as layoffs skyrocket, could leave millions of people with unaffordable housing, or even homeless. It goes without saying that increased homelessness and crowding within homes puts our community at risk for an even worse outbreak than we are already experiencing. For this most obvious reason, the County Manager’s proposed budget for FY 2021 puts a high priority on funding acute housing needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arlington’s FY21 budget had to undergo a complete makeover in the past month, given the expectation of lower tax revenue and higher costs from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the County Manager has wisely prioritized support for housing in the coming year. This includes:

  • Maintaining the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF), Arlington’s revolving loan program for creating and preserving long-term housing for low-income families, at its FY 2020 level of $16 million.
  • Increasing the funding for Arlington’s housing grants, which provides rent vouchers to eligible low-income residents.
  • Increasing the funds for permanent supportive housing, which helps residents coming out of homelessness.

The County Manager also introduced a new contingency fund to address emerging needs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Crucially, this fund designates $2.7 million “to ensure that the basic needs of food and shelter are met for our residents, particularly those who have lost their jobs.”

This is a critical area of need that will not only help residents in the greatest need, but support overall public health by giving vulnerable residents a home to shelter in during the pandemic. In the original FY 2021 budget, the County Manager proposed an increase the Affordable Housing Investment Fund. However, shifting this money to address acute needs is prudent giving the current crisis.

It is unfortunate that this budget does not include new funding to support the Housing Arlington initiative, that held promise for addressing the systemic issues limiting our housing supply and prohibiting moderate-priced housing. We must increase our production of housing, both market-rate and subsidized, in order to keep people in housing that is affordable at their income. An ample supply of housing at all price points is a public health priority.

Disease spreads in conditions of crowding, not density. And while programs like the Missing Middle Study cost money now to fund staff time and community engagement, they could lead to new tools for increased housing affordability without county funds, such as reducing permitting burdens and updating zoning regulations.

In the immediate term, however, we need to help people stay in the housing they already have. That is why the County also needs to consider expanding the qualifications for the Housing Grants program. Restrictions on these funds prevent them from assisting some of Arlington’s most vulnerable residents.

The County should work with the Department of Human Services and other relevant stakeholders to find ways to include immigrant households that lack documentation and individuals who have never had a prior lease in their name, which could include young people aging out of foster care or people experiencing domestic violence.

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.

Housing is critical to public health. Arlington needs to be judicious with its funds and continue to look for ways to support housing for our neighbors in the midst of this pandemic. The Arlington County Board will vote on the FY 2021 budget on Thursday, April 30. Let us keep everyone housed and beat the virus together.

 

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