Arlington, VA

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

I am proud to be a board member of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing in Arlington. Below is my own modified and condensed version of the letter AHS sent to the Arlington County Board regarding the FY22 Budget.

During this time, we have become more aware than ever how vitally important a safe and affordable place to call home can be. Today, a home is not only where we rest our heads at night but it is also where children receive much of their education and many adults either work or take refuge from the danger created by this rampant virus.

Arlington expects to receive $46M in federal assistance through the American Rescue Plan. Using these funds, the County Board should make the following changes to the FY22 budget:

Increase Investment in AHIF and Realign Income Levels Served

The Manager’s proposal slashes the total Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) allocation from last year’s level of $16 million to less than $9 million by cutting out all one-time funds for the program. Funds from the American Rescue Plan should be used as one-time funding to bring AHIF to at least $18.7 million in FY22.

In early 2020 AHS was advocating for a $25 million County allocation to AHIF, a level that is still warranted. Funding received from developer contributions, including the Amazon Metropolitan Park contribution, should not be used as a replacement for ongoing General Fund support.

Furthermore, recent data show that Arlington has a significant shortage of housing options for our lowest-income neighbors. The County should prioritize AHIF funding to include a share of units designated for residents making 30% of AMI, and also to buy down higher priced units within Committed Affordable properties so they are available to residents at the greatest need.

Update the Housing Grants Program for a Post-COVID Environment

The Manager’s proposed budget wisely increases the Housing Grants and Permanent Supportive Housing programs by 26% and 28% respectively, including the continued increase in maximum allowable rents. At a time when many Arlingtonians have dropped into lower income brackets during the pandemic, this increase in tenant-based housing assistance will help cushion that fall for some.

This would be an ideal time for the County to consider what changes it should make to the long-term design and eligibility of the Housing Grants program for post-COVID needs. This should include expanding eligibility within the program to cover additional groups who are currently unable to receive assistance (such as children aging out of foster care).

The County should lower the percent of income paid toward rent from the current 40% of income to a more reasonable 30% of income. Aligning with federal standard of housing affordability would allow very low-income recipients to a larger financial cushion to cover other important and often unpredictable expenses.

Retain Local Commitment to Eviction Prevention and Flexibility Added During COVID

The budget includes $5 million in emergency rental assistance as part of the COVID-contingent. Beyond money, the flexibility added to the program during COVID should be retained permanently. Flexible local dollars are extremely important as well because of the need for financial assistance that covers expenses or households not eligible for federal or state funding.

In the past year emergency assistance programs have allowed an extended time for assistance and increased caps on assistance received for each household. These changes allow a more realistic “runway” for residents to resolve delinquencies and develop a near-term financial plan to recover. In addition, flexibility during the pandemic helped residents pay past due rent, legal and late fees, and other related costs will go a long way toward keeping people housed even after COVID recedes.

Support Staff and Consulting Capacity to Ensure Success

The budget should also make investments in longer-term approaches to affordable and attainable housing. The board should restore the planning capacity within CHPD, specifically the principal planner position that is slated to go under a temporary hiring freeze. Arlington needs a person with experience and leadership to help develop and implement flexible zoning regulations that can expand supply at lower price points throughout the County.

Limited capacity within the planning division means opportunities for multifamily, mixed income, walkable housing is lost out to another block of by-right million-dollar homes. We can’t afford delays. Improving our zoning will make so many of our housing expenditures more efficient for decades to come.

Finally, the County should improve ongoing oversight of the CAF portfolio, including both AHIF-financed units and Affordable Dwelling Units obtained through the site plan process. Staff should conduct proactive outreach to residents to ensure their needs are being met, and partner with housing owners, managers, and community organizations to employ the highest standards toward tenants’ quality of life and the stewardship of the County’s affordable housing inventory. The long-term success of the County’s affordable housing program depends upon the positive experiences and support of residents, partners, and neighbors of committed affordable housing.

With these changes to the Manager’s proposed budget, Arlington will make strides at keeping people housed as we recover from the pandemic. This is a critical juncture, and we must do everything in our power to prevent compounding this stress with the risk of becoming increasingly housing cost burdened, losing one’s home, or being forced to leave the community.

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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