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What’s Next: Formula for Affordable Housing Contributions from Developers & Housing Segregation 

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

A majority of Arlington’s affordable apartments are not built into typical new apartment or condo buildings, but rather separated into their own building complexes.

Over the course of decades this has created segregated housing in Arlington. Although the dynamic is improving, the equation and incentive structure at the heart of this issue must change.

In 2006 a group of Arlington developers lobbied and successfully codified in the Virginia General Assembly an equation that disincentivizes developers from building affordable units in their market rate buildings. This equation alternatively incentivizes developers to pay a cash contribution to a housing trust fund — in Arlington this is called the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHIF) — instead of building affordable units in normal market rate apartment or condo buildings.

Arlington ordinance provisions (image via Arlington Community Foundation). Source: Arlington Community Foundation: Status Report on Affordable Housing Ordinance Review, November 2020.

According to multiple developers in an Arlington Community Foundation review it is significantly cheaper to simply contribute cash to AHIF than build affordable units in their new buildings.

With the understanding that it is cheaper for developers to contribute to AHIF using this equation than building on site affordable units in mind, the following regional comparison makes the state policy decision to zero-out and force Arlington to use this equation even more starkly disturbing.

Developers are currently paying a cash payment equal to less than 5% of on site units instead of the 6.25%-12.5% of on-site affordable housing units that are typical in our surrounding jurisdictions. This is compounded with the policy conundrum that our affordable units are not in the more “desirable” parcels that developers are building market rate units, like is done in other jurisdictions, and thus creating a segregated housing situation. A double whammy.

I implore our state legislators to reevaluate the unfair discrimination against Arlington in Virginia’s affordable housing ordinance laws. Our County Board is just as capable as any other jurisdiction in the Commonwealth of Virginia to make ordinances that make sense for our community and should not be unfairly zeroed out to abide by this obscure rule.

Nicole Merlene grew up in Arlington County and has been a civic leader in both policy and political arenas. She has been an Economic Development and Tenant-Landlord Commissioner; Community Development Citizens Advisory Committee, Pentagon City Planning Study, Rosslyn Transportation Study, and Vision Zero member; Arlington County Civic Federation and Rosslyn Civic Association Board Member. In 2019 she sought the Democratic nomination for the 31st District of the Virginia State Senate. Professionally Nicole is an Economic Development Specialist where she works to attract businesses to the region. She lives in an apartment with her dog Riley and enjoys running and painting.

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