Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
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.
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Arlington and its neighbors have become more segregated in the last 10 years while fair housing legislation at the state level faces significant roadblocks. Arlington’s fair housing enforcement, education, and commitment to equity practices in housing policy and programs are beginning to show signs of improvement but much more needs to be done.
Join the NAACP Arlington Branch, HOME of Virginia, and Equal Rights Center for the 2nd Annual Arlington Fair Housing Conference on April 15th to discuss the threats and opportunities to advancing fair housing policy across the state and within Arlington.
The half-day, in-person event will feature speakers from fair housing advocacy organizations and government agencies including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and focus on fair housing policy trends in Virginia and Arlington County. The conference aims to advance the understanding of issues and policies related to equity and affirmatively further fair housing among local officials, advocates, and members of the public.
2nd Annual Arlington Fair Housing Conference
Is home ownership a goal of yours in 2023? Now is the time to make it happen! Grab a (virtual) drink with the area’s top Real Estate experts, learn all about the home buying process and on how you can get $1,500 towards your closing costs immediately!
Did you know the average Arlington renter will spend $150K in 5 years of renting? Stop paying down someone else’s mortgage! Join us for a Rent vs. Buy Happy Hour on Wednesday, April 5th at 6 p.m. via Zoom. If this time doesn’t work, we also are offering times convenient for your schedule!
A lot has happened in the local market since the beginning of the pandemic. Sip on your drink of choice and learn from Northern Virginia, Arlington and Washingtonian Magazines top producing agents! We will discuss the latest market updates, the home buying process and rent vs. buy cost savings. Please RSVP by clicking here.
Call/text Manavi at 703-869-6698 with any questions!
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