This fall, the Arlington County Board will vote on a controversial proposal to make condo development easier along Columbia Pike. The County should reject this proposal and focus our bonus-density programs on low-income renters at risk of displacement and let market-rate development (fueled by better zoning) serve aspiring homeowners.
The Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Form Based Code (N-FBC) is a set of regulations that allows a developer to build to a much higher density in the corridor in exchange for public benefits, including Committed Affordable Housing (CAFs). Currently, a developer using the N-FBC must commit 20-35% of the net-new units in their project as Affordable for households making up to 60% AMI. This applies for both apartment buildings and condo or ownership projects.
The problem is that homeownership is expensive. Arlington staff have found that even when they find families at 60% AMI that qualify for the reduced-price mortgage, the condo fees and maintenance costs can put them at the brink. A job loss or unexpected expense can put them in serious financial jeopardy.
Because the staff still want to encourage condo development along Columbia Pike, they have proposed raising the income level for these units to 80% and 100% AMI. They did not provide evidence that families at this income level will succeed in homeownership where lower-income families struggled. They also fail to mention in their presentation that under these new rules, the developer could sell a Committed Affordable unit for up to $441,000, rather than $264,600. The CAF units are also allowed to be smaller with fewer amenities than the market-rate units. This “public benefit” comes at considerably less cost to the developer, with no change in the number of units they are expected to provide.
Stakeholders in the Columbia Pike corridor have expressed concern that this proposal could exacerbate displacement of low-income renters. The area contains some of Arlington’s last remaining “market-rate affordable” apartment buildings, which are at risk of redevelopment at a higher price point.
The proposal to increase the income limits for Committed Affordable ownership units to moderate-income households is an inappropriate use of the bonus-density system. Arlington County should use its Committed Affordable housing program to prevent displacement, not underwrite homeownership. And while moderate-income families have few ownership options in the current housing market, strengthening rental options would be a better public policy goal than getting a few more households into condos they might not be able to maintain.
Leaving Arlington to buy a home is a choice, not displacement. Displacement means losing options for housing affordable at your income. It could be that your rent rose faster than income, your building was redeveloped at a much higher price point, or your building was demolished.
Ownership might seem to be a remedy for displacement because it offers permanence. The truth is that homeownership is expensive. The permanence that it provides can also be a weight. Instead, Arlington should explore other options to provide stability for lower-income families, which can benefit renters at all income levels and the community at large. This could include working with landlords and property managers to offer long-term leases, flexible lease terms, and low, predictable rent increases.
You might argue that we need to encourage Committed Affordable ownership housing so that low-income families can build equity. First, it is important to know that Committed Affordable ownership properties include deed restrictions that prohibit selling at market rate, which means that the property can’t serve as a nest egg.
But more fundamentally, homes cannot be both source of wealth and broadly affordable. We must pick one. And making homes broadly affordable is the far more equitable option. Arlington should explore community land trusts and other models that allow renters to build equity without relying on steep increases in housing prices.
Providing stable housing in a high-opportunity area will provide more long-term benefit to low-income families than homeownership. We can assist families who desire to own a home in Arlington by allowing the market to provide smaller-scale housing options through zoning changes, rather than subsidies. Arlington should commit to using bonus density and other publicly sponsored programs to support vulnerable households who are a risk of displacement.
If you would like to engage with the County staff on this topic, they are holding a webinar at 12:00 on Tuesday, September 15.
Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch, and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.