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Progressive Voice: How Arlington Has Changed, Needs to Change

Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the authors’.

By Gabe and Dolores Rubalcava

The editors of Progressive Voice recently talked with long-time Arlington residents Gabe and Dolores Rubalcava to hear their opinions on how Arlington has changed over the past decades, and what strategic decisions are most important now for county decision-makers.

PV: As an Army family, you moved to Arlington from Ft. Hood, Texas in 1991. Since then, you’ve both worked and raised a family, with all four children now college graduates in their careers. Over time, what have you seen as the most significant changes in Arlington?

Dolores: All the development has been the biggest change. When we first drove up, I thought, “No way this is close to Washington D.C.”…this was a cute little sleepy town…there were one-story houses in Ballston…the miniature golf course there had just been taken down.

Gabe: I was working at the Pentagon and a friend had told us to “find a house inside the Beltway” if we could [to avoid a long commute], so we squeezed ourselves into a smaller place close to Carlin Springs, even though we paid more than we would have farther away. Then later we moved [to the Bluemont area] to a bigger house.

Demographics have changed. When we got here, there were a lot of Vietnamese, Salvadorans. We were one of the few Mexican families. When the Vietnamese got more money they moved to Fairfax. Now we’re seeing Eritreans, lots of Mongolians.

PV: What county decisions and trends have concerned you or pleased you?

Dolores: The development has attracted new people, visitors . . . on the flip side, I wish the south side would get better. For one, the streetcar on Columbia Pike being nixed was so sad. Businesses were looking forward to it, restaurants were so hyped up about it.

Gabe: So instead of the streetcar, people were talking about what buses could do. But . . . that hasn’t happened. In the end, what did we get? Nada. So that was a promise not kept.

PV: How do you think Arlington County should change moving forward?

Gabe: Today it seems in Arlington we have people ’til they are about 30-35 years old, then they move out, whether because of children, or need a bigger house. So a big question is: what could Arlington do to keep people after that point? And then there are older people like us. I want to stay here until we kick off.

PV: What are your ideas to address such needs?

Gabe: On housing, we have to get more creative with solutions. What does it take to change the dynamic? Like recently they approved an apartment building with 228 apartments, and of those, you know how many committed affordable housing units? 12! Just one was set aside for [people with] disabilities! It’s well within our power to fix that. We’re a county with a $1 billion budget.

The county makes decisions on land use. Let the market decide the price point. But, do we want people to stay in Arlington? Let’s look at the duplex idea, other housing ideas so more people could stay here when they want to start families. Most of all, do not be afraid to try something. Sometimes we overthink solutions until we are overcome by events, or we fail to take advantage of the committee recommendation . . . we really do have an educated populace — let’s take advantage of it!

PV: What changes in county decision-making would you like to see?

Gabe: In my 30 years in Arlington, I’ve been on nine or so boards/committees. I guarantee you staff came up with the decision points. There’s this “invisible hand” moving to the decision . . . all of a sudden you have the “staff recommendation.” Did they get input [from the advisory group]? Maybe they got input, but the input was not necessarily taken. Do we really track the recommendations, how many are really approved vs. submitted — or are these committees the place where good ideas go to die and therefore a place to silence the troublemakers?

Dolores: And then people wonder, “why ask if it was already decided what you [the County] wanted to do?”

Dolores: Another thing . . . after 9/11, the county and state did a huge community plan if anything like that ever happened again, like lessons learned. I was saddened that nothing like that came up during the pandemic. I hope they are studying that . . . because where are people going to get information, safety, what to do . . . in a better way.

Another big decision the county could influence . . . childcare. We know that without good childcare, kids are not as healthy, families are worse off and workers cannot return to work. But the decision-makers don’t want to put money into childcare to attract the kind of workers they want to have.

Dolores: I feel blessed . . . in Arlington, we have safety, good schools . . . but I want to see more support of the humanity part of it.

I often think, like during the pandemic, what would Gabe and I do if we didn’t both draw a paycheck? Most important, how can we change the dynamic in outreach to low-income families?

For example, when the vaccine appointments were starting for coronavirus, we registered with the county . . . all seven of our family . . . and none of us got called. I wound up getting mine at work and Gabe got his at the V.A. A friend of mine and her group within the Arlington Latino Network went talking to people in restaurants, mostly Spanish-speaking people, and got 3,000 people registered for the vaccine, but that wasn’t the county doing it. So how could that change so the county is going to them, not telling them, “go to this website, check this line”?

Dolores: Our conversation is not to put blame on anybody, it’s just a different perspective. Can they [county] see it through a different lens? That’s what it would take.

Note: Arlington County creates an annual profile that highlights characteristics and changes in Arlington, such as education level; racial/ethnic demographics, and household composition (for instance, since 1980, the majority of households have been single persons or non-related persons vs. families).

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