Press Club

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

This is my last column. Over the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of sharing my views about housing with you. I don’t know if I changed anyone’s mind, but I do know I stirred up some conversation (and plenty of clicks for ARLnow). I hope ‘Making Room’ has at least inspired you to reflect on what Arlington means to you and the role that secure housing plays in your life.

When I moved to Arlington in 2015, I would never have thought I would become a local online guest columnist. My foray into Arlington housing politics began in October 2017. After Trump’s election, I vowed to get more politically engaged. That led me to canvas for Ralph Northam and to start following local races.

It was at a candidate forum, featuring soon-to-be-elected Erik Gutshall, that the attitude of Arlington’s political constituents crystalized for me: As a newcomer (with a child no less) I was a burden: I was the reason for more apartment buildings and more crowded schools. I was the reason for higher property tax assessments and higher County budgets. I was the reason for fewer trees.

Housing wasn’t a top issue for me until then. I knew that housing was expensive in DC. For my two-bedroom in Arlington, my husband and I paid three times as much for the same size space as we did back in the Midwest. But I didn’t realize that a vocal minority of Arlington’s influential citizens actively blocked or scaled back new housing. I didn’t realize that for many of my neighbors, density is the enemy.

But density can be an unparalleled opportunity to advance the economic and social progress of our community if we let it.

Density means more places to live and allows for housing to meet different needs. Density allows our communities to be diverse in age, race, income, and family type.

Density means more livable streets. Density helps us have walkable neighborhood schools. Density allows people to participate in the community without a car. This could be an older adult or a younger teen, or anyone in between.

Density brings people together, which builds community and helps ensure a healthy civil society and democracy. It helps businesses thrive by having more customers nearby.

Density helps households have a smaller carbon footprint and allows for a more efficient use of public resources. Density allows people to live closer to the things that they value.

Embracing density means looking to the future, rather than the past.

Arlington is lucky enough to be part of one of the most economically dynamic metropolitan areas in the country. Because we have the privilege of an unparalleled job market, robust transportation and other amenities, we have an obligation to welcome more people.

The most important lesson I’ve learned in the past four years of political engagement in Arlington is that people who value density, especially renters, ‘transients,’ young professionals, and newcomers, need to show up. We need to advocate for housing that supports not only how we live now and how we want to live in the future, but also serves the needs of those who will follow. We need to advocate for affordable housing for people who are often left out of the planning process.

Arlington won’t change because people read my column and had a change of heart about getting a duplex next door. But it can change when our leaders hear more from the people who see the opportunities that density will bring — for ourselves and our neighbors.

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

The worst thing about working from home is being subjected to the near-daily onslaught of gas-powered leaf blowers.

The region is waking up to these noxious machines. The Arlington County Board took an important step on Tuesday, Nov. 16, when it appropriated funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to replace gas-powered landscape equipment with other options.

Leaf blowers are a drain on quality of life. Their piercing noise shatters concentration or the enjoyment of the outdoors. They spew noxious gas into the air. They can destroy insect habitats. But as a collective, we have come to expect leaf-free surfaces wherever we go. The pressure to maintain this appearance means that leaf blowers are ubiquitous.

But a movement against it is underway. I was visiting the Courthouse farmers market a few weeks ago and saw a table from Quiet Clean NOVA, a group petitioning the Virginia legislature for the local authority to regulate gas-powered yard equipment.

The person staffing the booth shared my hatred of leaf blowers. But he was surprised to hear that I live in an apartment building. He assumed that the scourge of leaf blowers only affected people who lived near homes with yards. But leaf blowers are a plight inflicted on just about anyone with a window facing outside. They are a quality-of-life concern that our leaders and property owners should take more seriously.

In my current unit, which faces a mostly landscaped and hardscaped courtyard, staff come almost every day to blow leaves from the sidewalks. In my previous building, which faced a public street and a private greenspace, crews from different landscape companies, hired by different property owners, would spend an hour or more blowing leaves and other debris from one end to the other.

Quiet Clean NOVA is hoping to change these practices, through law if necessary. They would like Arlington to join D.C., California, and other jurisdictions to ban the two-stroke engines that are the loudest and most polluting of the lawn care machinery. Because of the Dillon Rule, Arlington would need state approval to regulate or ban these devices.

We shouldn’t wait until elected officials act. We have other options to remove leaves without inflicting damage on our ears or our lungs. Electric options are quieter and fume-free. When clearing leaves from sidewalks and other hard surfaces, a sturdy push-broom can be just as effective. And in many cases, you can just let the leaves stay where they land.

Arlington is sending a clear signal by replacing gas-powered landscaping equipment. By investing in battery-operated tools, our government can showcase that we have other options. I hope that once we hear the difference as we walk through our parks, we won’t go back. The County should also make sure that the owners and managers of the buildings it occupies, such as the Bozman building, which is owned by JBG Smith, switch to other methods of clearing leaves from sidewalks. Ideally, these changes will encourage more private landscape companies to make the transition, without waiting for a ban.

We need to start speaking out about the negative impact of leaf blowers, and ask for quieter, cleaner options. You can sign Quiet Clean NOVA’s petition. You can talk to your elected representatives in Richmond. You can also talk to your building management to see if they will switch from gas-powered to alternatives. One person might not inspire change, but if enough residents ask, we can change the default in landscaping. If you use lawn equipment or employ people who do, you have the power to stop gas-powered leaf blowers from running your neighborhood.

Some nuisances of urban life are unavoidable. Leaf blowers are a menace we have the power to end with minimal drawbacks. Let’s start now.

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

The Site Plan Review Committee begins today for the redevelopment of The Marbella. This project is a fantastic opportunity to bring much needed affordable housing to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

This site plan is an excellent example of using the new zoning tools that allow additional height for 100% affordable projects, resulting in close to 500 net-new units. This project will serve not only the residents of the property, but the entire community. Ideally, the Site Plan Review process will find the best way to fit these new buildings into the neighborhood, while maximizing the opportunity to welcome low-income families into one of Arlington’s high- opportunity neighborhoods.

The Marbella is a committed affordable garden-apartment community spread across three blocks in Radnor-Ft. Myer Heights. It is owned and managed by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), which has an excellent track record for developing and running communities for low-income residents. This redevelopment proposal includes renovating six 3- story buildings and replacing the remaining six small buildings with two new 12-story apartment buildings. The site plan includes amenity space, courtyards, underground parking, and streetscape improvements.

One distinctive feature of the Marbella’s expansion is over 100 units for low-income residents over age 65. Arlington seniors who rent are twice as likely as younger renters to be considered housing-cost burdened, according to recent analysis. This dedicated affordable housing supply will help people remain in Arlington as they age, especially for lower-income seniors who lack generous pensions or retirement funds.

To redevelop and expand their property, APAH is hoping to use a new zoning tool approved by the County Board in April. The zoning for the R6-15 district allows 6-stories by right. APAH is requesting an additional 6-stories because their buildings will be 100% affordable to families earning below 60% of the area median income. This bonus height option was adopted as an interim tool while the County staff work on a broader Multifamily Reinvestment Study.

At 12 stories, the new Marbella properties would be among the tallest in the Ft. Myer Heights neighborhood, but they would not be out of context. The surrounding blocks contain a mix of 3- to 10-story condominium and apartment buildings. The newest property is a market rate building at 6-stories. The entire neighborhood is zoned RA6-15, which means that it is expected to be multifamily residential buildings and they can be up to 6 stories by right. In the context of the neighborhood, the remaining detached, single-family homes and two-story townhomes are more out of place than the future 12-story building will be.

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

From flash floods in Arlington to wildfires on the West Coast, climate change is an increasing threat to life and property. This is not a future problem, but a current crisis. We have only a few years to reverse human-made emissions.

Transportation is one of the United States’ largest contributors to greenhouse emissions. Helping people drive less must be part of any climate change solution. Research also shows that multifamily housing requires less energy to heat and cool compared to detached homes. The densest parts of the D.C. region also have the lowest per-person energy consumption. The best thing we can do for our planet, for ourselves and for the next generation is to allow more people to live in these low-carbon neighborhoods.

But density and urban development is sometimes demonized by self-described environmental activists. Some groups focus only on the loss of trees in urban neighborhoods, ignoring the acres of trees that are bulldozed for sprawl development and the broader climate benefits of compact communities.

Douglas Stewart, Transportation and Smart Growth Co-Chair for the Virginia Sierra Club, shares how environmentalists and anyone concerned about sustainability can advocate for housing policies that will help address climate change:

The Sierra Club recognizes that we can’t address climate change without addressing our nation’s housing crisis. The lack of diverse, affordable housing options in developed areas with transit networks where jobs and services are concentrated is a major factor in increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Locating housing farther away from these centers increases traffic and, in Virginia’s transportation sector, accounts for 48% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Average Annual Household Carbon Footprint in 2013 (UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network)

“Infill” is the development of new homes, jobs, shops and services in existing urban and suburban areas and small towns. By enabling people to live closer to jobs and services, infill development reduces driving and greenhouse gas emissions while providing other quality of life and economic benefits. Research by the Coalition for Smarter Growth has demonstrated that more compact development reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 10-40%. Other research has shown that more compact, mixed-use communities also reduce household transportation costs, which are often the second biggest household expense after housing.

Arlington has 11 Metrorail stations, around which more housing could be built, including housing that is affordable to lower-income residents. However, a recent report by the Brookings Institution indicates that a large proportion of new housing is in areas that have fewer jobs and transportation options, such as Loudoun and Prince William Counties, while job-rich areas like Arlington are not building enough housing.

Arlingtonians who are concerned about climate change and equity can help reverse this trend and focus on new growth in walkable, transit-oriented communities with a range of housing options for all incomes. With 3.8 million members, the Sierra Club works to advance climate solutions and ensure everyone has access to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment. The Sierra Club derives its grassroots power from members and volunteers in local groups and state chapters, including the Potomac River Group that covers Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church.

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

In the Spring of 2018, I had the great fortune to participate in Arlington Neighborhood College. This county program brings together a group of residents who want to be more involved in the County’s civic life.

Over the course of eight weeks, we were introduced to a diverse range of Arlington County staff and elected officials, as well as the leaders of some of Arlington’s central public-facing institutions.

I recommend the program to anyone interested in being more engaged. The application is due on Friday, Sept. 17. You don’t have to be a civic association president or a frequent visitor to County Board meetings to be accepted. Neighborhood College is for emerging leaders of all kinds. My class of 2018 had long-time and new residents, with a variety of languages, professions and civic interests. The program is for people who live or work in Arlington and “want to improve their communities, are interested in addressing local issues and are willing to devote time and energy to community activities in Arlington County.”

The program, as I experienced it in 2018, had many strengths. The curriculum was divided between leadership skill-building and informal presentations by representatives for Arlington’s key governmental and civic institutions. The program should exemplify what Arlington values in civic leaders and should introduce the central gatekeeping institutions that form the Arlington Way.

For me, the leadership training had limited value. We usually practiced by discussing benign topics, rather than the critical issues that we are concerned about. Our conflict resolution and listening practice did not take advantage of genuine differences of opinion and perspective within the group.

The facilitators did a great job of bringing in representatives from all aspects of Arlington community management and governance. However, in my civic engagement over the three years since I ‘graduated’ from Neighborhood College, it seems that many of our most important decisions are made in a web of public and semi-public meetings that can be opaque to newcomers.

For example, we didn’t hear from representatives of County commissions, such as Planning or Transportation. These groups play a significant role in making recommendations to the County Board and they are often a first or second step for community involvement.

A truly engaged Arlington citizen needs to know the ins and outs of many bureaucratic processes. For example:

  • How do you read the County Board’s agenda and sign up to speak?
  • How does the site plan process work?
  • How does the budget process work?
  • How does someone become a client of PathForward (formerly ASPAN) or AFAC?
  • What happens if someone is arrested?
  • How do you get a stop sign added to your neighborhood?
  • How do school boundaries get drawn?

To be effective neighborhood advocates and engaged citizens of Arlington, we need to learn how these processes work. To train a cohort of Arlington leaders, Neighborhood College should encourage participants to dig into these issues and practice leadership skills through real-world cases where citizens engage with County staff and officials.

Neighborhood College is a great opportunity for Arlington County to think about the meaning of civic engagement and what residents need to learn to be full participants in the Arlington Way.

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

I am becoming a kindergarten parent this year and so I’m officially joining the Arlington Public Schools community. During the past 18 months, I’ve watched with sympathy as kids were kept out of school.

Arlington’s public schools were closed, or in a hybrid model, because elected leaders didn’t prioritize the mitigation strategies in our community that would have allowed safe in-classroom instruction. I was lucky to have my kids in full-time daycare for most of the pandemic. We were never exposed to Covid-19 from the center, despite limited mitigation practices.

I watched the Aug. 11 Return to School Town Hall with apprehension. For a school system that seemed incapable of prioritizing in-person learning or delivering on the obvious mitigation strategies to allow that to happen for over a year, I had lost a lot of hope. But my son is turning six soon and I have a philosophical and practical commitment to public education. I was prepared to trust the system and hope for the best. This town hall laid out a comprehensive plan to provide multiple layers of protection for students and staff at APS.

From the outset, Superintendent Duran unequivocally stated that APS will remain with five days of in-person instruction “unless the governor orders the schools to close.” To limit the disruption of quarantine, if a classmate tests positive close contacts will only be defined as anyone within 3 feet, or within 6 feet if both students aren’t wearing masks.

And APS is backing up this commitment with concrete mitigation strategies that address the Covid risk on multiple fronts:

  • Weekly testing of asymptomatic students through an opt-in program. This will take place at each school through a rapid antigen test, to detect asymptomatic cases before they spread
  • Mandatory vaccination or weekly testing of all APS employees (announced in conjunction with Arlington County’s policy after the Town Hall)
  • APS announced a universal mask mandate even before Governor Northam issues this for the entire state. Masks are readily available at each school for anyone to use
  • Certified air cleaning devices have been installed in every classroom, with the goal of delivering four to six air changes per hour. Opening windows is encouraged if the weather allows

Arlington staff should build on these plans to do even more to protect kids and maintain in-person learning:

  • Vaccines should be required for all eligible students
  • Outdoor lunch should be the norm, not just an option when it is most convenient. If staffing is a problem, call on parents to help
  • APS should distribute high quality masks for all children, staff and visitors
  • The facilities’ teams should continue to improve the ventilation and filtration of classrooms, especially for unvaccinated elementary students
  • APS should expand the definition of close contacts while the virus is spreading faster in the community and notify the entire class of a positive Covid test so families can opt to test and/or voluntarily quarantine

These steps would make in-person school safer and more sustainable as we wait for the delta variant to peak (which could occur as early as mid-September, according to some experts).

Every family will evaluate the risk and reward of in-person instruction in their own way. I was committed to sending my child to kindergarten even without these mitigation strategies. But knowing they are in place makes me confident that he is protected in the coming year.

If you haven’t yet registered your child for public school, there is still time. APS also has open slots in the Virginia Preschool Initiative, a state-funded program to offer free early learning for children in low-income families.

For everyone who doesn’t have children, you can help make the school year successful by getting vaccinated and taking precautions to mitigate community spread. As we’ve said since the beginning of the pandemic, we are all in this together.

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

The Langston Boulevard Corridor (formerly Lee Highway) runs along the southern portion of Arlington’s most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods.

The lots are large, the homes cost a fortune and rental options are few. Arlington County is considering zoning changes along Langston Boulevard that would allow new types of housing, including duplexes, triplexes and small apartments that would be attainable as rental or ownership for moderate-income Arlingtonians.

If you want Arlington staff to take an important step forward by allowing transitional zoning, including missing middle housing, at the edges of the Langston Boulevard Corridor, let them know by August 3.

The Plan Lee Highway process is a revisioning of several neighborhoods surrounding the existing commercial nodes to create more walkable communities, increase the development opportunity, and form a new sense of place. The Plan Lee Highway Concept Plan will come out in the fall.

Langston Boulevard is an ideal place to showcase the benefits of Missing Middle housing. As Arlington’s northern-most arterial road, with regular bus service and a Metro station on each end, it can easily accommodate more residents while allowing people to drive less. To become a modern Main Street, new and existing businesses need more customers to live and shop near their homes. Duplex, triplexes and small multi-family dwellings will provide less expensive homeownership opportunities and more rental units in an area that is financially out of reach to most Arlingtonians.

Missing middle benefits all types of Arlington residents. Young families have more options for their starter home. Senior citizens can find something nearby when they want to downsize. Homeowners have more options if they want to redevelop their property. Gentle density makes our neighborhoods more vibrant, which supports more local businesses and nearby amenities and services. North Arlington has the least affordable housing in Arlington because it has the largest homes, the largest lots, and the fewest rentals. Let’s allow landowners to build the types of housing that fit existing market needs.

Langston Boulevard already has a smattering of small multi-family housing, some of which is now considered “nonconforming” because zoning laws became more restrictive after they were built. Changing the zoning will enhance the existing neighborhood character. Increased density around the East Falls Church Metro Station is especially important because the station has low ridership and was considered for closure by WMATA in a recent budget proposal. Putting more residents within walking distance of the Metro makes good use of this public asset.

Unfortunately, staff have received significant negative feedback from neighbors who are resistant to change. Positive comments about new housing options show our leaders that Arlington is full of people who are looking toward a future of Arlington that is inclusive and sustainable. That means allowing more people to live in opportunity-rich neighborhoods like those along Langston Boulevard.

The Arlington Way is designed to heighten the feedback of older, wealthier, and more established Arlington residents, not to achieve a representative sample of our community (which is 60% renters), or to highlight the perspective of those most in need. “Eternal vigilance is the price of low density,” County Board Member Leo Urbanske said in 1962 when he voted to dissuade “lower income people” from coming to the county by banning three-story walk-ups. Sixty years later, this attitude still holds sway in the county.

Those of us who embrace density, who want housing options for renters and non-millionaires, and who want a place for newcomers, people aging in place and everyone in between, need to show this same vigilance by sharing feedback with the County Board and staff at every opportunity. Please send your comments in favor of missing middle zoning along Langston Boulevard to [email protected] by August 3!

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

Every year, Arlington loses market-rate affordable housing (MARKs) as redevelopment and reinvestment turns older, lower-cost apartments into newer, higher-cost apartments.

We also lose committed affordable housing (CAFs) when the income and rental restrictions on properties built with public funds expire, typically after 30-60 years.

In 2027, Arlington could lose 500 MARKs and CAFs near the vibrant and desirable Ballston area when the term of committed affordability at the Ballston Park Apartments expires.

This would be a huge blow to the County’s Affordable Housing goals. Staff, advocates, and tenants should start now to create a plan to preserve this affordable housing stock as the landlord pursues it’s likely goal of redevelopment.

Ballston Park is a perfect case study for Arlington’s forthcoming Multifamily Reinvestment Study. Part of the Housing Arlington initiative, the Multifamily Reinvestment Study “seeks ways to stem the loss of market-rate affordable housing that occurs in multifamily apartment communities when property owners rehabilitate, redevelop, or add new units.”

The fate of Arlington’s aging garden-style apartments is one of the biggest challenges to current housing policy. They provide lower-cost housing to thousands of residents, largely due to their age and condition. But these properties are on scarce land that allows multi-family buildings as by-right development. They are prime targets for demolition and development as higher-cost townhomes, with no requirement to preserve or support affordable housing.

Ballston Park will present a greater challenge for preservation than previous efforts.

First, the property has limited parking lots, which means not as much space to build new housing at a higher price point to offset the cost of preserving affordable units. Second, Arlington doesn’t have the option of using historic designation to force the property owner (in this case Paradigm) to negotiate and maintain affordable units.

To preserve affordable homes for the hundreds of families at Ballston Park, and other tenants at low-cost, aging apartments throughout the County, Arlington should pursue three objectives:

1. Find policies that preserve 100% of the existing MARKs and expiring CAFs

The County should not be satisfied with partial preservation of our endangered market rate affordable housing (MARKs). Preserving the existing stock of lower-cost housing is more effective than building new Committed Affordable Housing (CAFs) using developer contributions or Arlington funds.

One nearby example is the Residential Affordability Zone as part of the South Patrick Affordability Strategy in Alexandria that is working toward 1-to-1 replacement of expiring CAF units at aging properties along Route 1.

2. Make it easier to build at a higher density in Arlington’s ‘unplanned’ areas

Ballston Park, like many garden-style apartments, is in an “unplanned” area of the County. This means that while the zoning allows for multifamily dwellings, there are few options for building above the baseline density. Developers have little reason to pursue anything but the by-right zoning on the site, which means they build the most expensive housing that the plot allows, and the community gets no additional housing and no public benefits.

The solution is not to halt change and leave these buildings as they are. Aging garden apartments need reinvestment to remain habitable, and many are located in areas of the County that warrant greater density to allow even more people to live near robust amenities. Making it easier for property owners to add more units means more opportunity to preserve existing lower-cost housing alongside higher-cost housing. Read More

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

If the last year has taught us anything, it is that half measure never provide real solutions to our most pressing problems.

In the realm of housing, our leaders should be taking bold action to address affordability and ensure a sustainable future. This means being courageous in championing an end to exclusionary zoning and embracing policies that will allow multifamily housing throughout the County.

Housing affordability and the terrible legacy of exclusionary zoning are making national headlines. In recent weeks, this has been spurred by a proposal within President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to “eliminate state and local exclusionary zoning laws.” National opinion writers have clarified that restrictive zoning policies are antithetical to both progressive values of inclusivity and conservative values of the free market.

As the national conversation moves toward acceptance of inclusive and open zoning, advocates at the local and state level have succeeded in pushing elected officials to act. Communities across the country are making news by taking bold steps to add housing, in the name of racial justice, as well as economic necessity.

The City Council of Berkeley, California, voted to eliminate single-family zoning, a century after it was the first city to establish the practice. This is a symbolic but significant step, recognizing the racist legacy of exclusionary zoning. Other cities in California have made similar moves, including Sacramento and San Jose. This follows Minneapolis’s transformative zoning change in 2018, and statewide zoning liberalization in Oregon in 2019.

Why isn’t Arlington making news on this front?

We were the beneficiaries of the biggest economic development decision of the past decade when National Landing was selected as the location for Amazon’s second headquarters. This decision made news across the country. The anticipated, and ongoing, challenges to housing affordability, displacement, and tenant advocacy also made news.

But Arlington County is not making news with its policy response. Instead, we are taking miniscule steps, deferring to entrenched interests at every point. Everything is undertaken from the perspective of an incumbent landowner who demands a low-density, car-centered neighborhood blocks away from corridors rich with opportunity.

Arlingtonians pushing for affordable and attainable housing, as well as safe streets and reduced car traffic, face a gauntlet of public meetings. It takes hours of our lives to get a half mile of protected bike lane or an extra unit of housing on a single-family lot.

The Vernon Street Duplex is a proposal for a two-unit dwelling on a corner lot along Washington Blvd. Because of zoning rules, the builder must go through the same site plan review process that the County has for large-scale apartment or office buildings. “Missing middle” housing will never be attainable for middle-income families if it is forced to incur onerous planning processes.

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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. Read More

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

The year-long (and counting) pandemic has caused a large increase in the apartment vacancy rate in Arlington.

While stories of an urban exodus are overblown, national research indicates that the pandemic has decreased the inflow of new residents. Some of Arlington’s landlords have responded to high vacancy rates by lowering rents. This is welcome news for renters who struggle to afford payment or want to upgrade their home.

But landlords also have another tactic to fill vacant apartments, by taking long-existing units off the market for long-term tenants and switching them to hotel units or short-term rentals. The County Board should scrutinize these requests and consider the benefits of abundant housing, even if it means large landlords must charge competitive prices. Renters should be the ones benefiting from the lower demand.

Arlington’s vacancy rate is relatively high at 9.4% across the county. This is slightly above what is considered healthy for a rental market (7-8%), but it is still below the rate that would be worrisome. County-wide, landlords have responded by lowering nearly 15%. However, given that Arlington had a 4% vacancy rate before the pandemic, it is not surprising that landlords would look for other options to reduce the number of vacant units they carry.

Dittmar, a locally-based company that owns and manages dozens of older apartment buildings throughout Northern Virginia, has asked the County Board for permission to convert 5% of its vacant inventory at three properties in the R-B corridor as short-term rental units for up to 5 years. (This is a different situation from a new development requesting temporary hotel zoning during its lease-up phase.)

Dittmar’s letter requesting this minor site plan revision, explains:

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Applicant has experienced unprecedented levels of vacancy in residential units. It believes that, as business travel begins to return to the region in the future, there will be a demand for leases of furnished units for less than 30 days. The Applicant seeks to serve this group of people by converting a portion of the residential units on the Property to Flexible Units to allow for a more socially-distanced temporary stay in Arlington.

In their Statement of Justification, Dittmar doesn’t discuss what steps it has taken to fill their vacant units with long-term residents, such as how deeply they have cut rents or other financial incentives they have offered.

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