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

It is my hope that Amazon will commit a significant portion of their $2 billion Housing Equity Fund to households that are low income or have an income that is under 50% area median income (AMI).

If a fund is being created and advertised as creating affordable housing it should do that, instead of primarily providing average market rate rental housing. Amazon’s recent commitment at Crystal House was primarily for those making 60-80% AMI. That is a housing supply that we have in abundance (see image 1). Additionally, this is middle class housing, not affordable housing.

For renters in the 60-80% income bracket participating in the affordable housing program, there is a maximum rent allowed of $1,935. That is higher than our natural market rate average rent of $1,908 for a 1 bedroom apartment in Arlington (see image 2). If funds continue to be invested in housing development that primarily produce 60-80% AMI units, it would be inaccurate to qualify their investment as a philanthropic community benefit, as it is higher than the market average.

Our community is lacking in both <30% AMI rental units and 30-49% AMI units, compared to the population that exists in those income brackets (see image 1).

In Amazon’s press release, their stated goal was for the Fund to support their commitment to affordable housing and to ensure moderate to low-income families can afford housing in the communities that they operate. While their commitment to moderate income housing in Crystal House and other local investments is appreciated, it is necessary to provide investment towards low-income populations in their next round of distributed funds.

If Amazon is to fully commit to providing affordable housing, they should do so for the population most in need — those making under 50% AMI. If the Housing Equity Fund does not increase focus towards their stated commitment to low-income families, this should be viewed as failing to achieve their goal.

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

This Sunday is the last day to provide feedback on “Plan Lee Highway“, a multi-year planning process for the corridor that has now produced specific proposals for development levels, street improvements, stormwater impact, and other significant changes.

My biggest piece of feedback on Plan Lee Highway and every ongoing area and sector plan is the lack of consideration for our schools. We should be including school generation factors in our area and sector planning process.

Plan Lee Highway is one of three ongoing planning processes for entire areas of our county in addition to Pentagon City Planning and the Clarendon Sector Plan. For background, I am currently serving on Pentagon City Planning which has allowed me to dig into the “why” of this situation.

Background on Student Generation Factors

An average generation factor is available in the annual Arlington Profile and school facilities staff can further refine that generation factor based on neighborhood. For example, an apartment building in Crystal City will generally produce slightly more children than an apartment building in Rosslyn.

On average, a market rate apartment with an elevator produces .066 students per unit whereas a single family detached home produces .489 students. This means single family homes generally produce 7.5 times more than one apartment building unit.

In terms of Plan Lee Highway, I will use two examples of how these factors impact the planning process:

  • If we consolidate 10 single family homes into one 5-7 story elevator apartment building that has ten units per floor we would reduce our students generated from 4.98 students from the single family homes in that area to 3.3 – 4.62 students from the new apartment building. This is an example from Area 3 at the north east intersection of Lee Highway and Old Dominion.
  • If we transform a zero population shopping center into two 7 story elevator apartment buildings with 10 units per floor, we increase the number of students in that area from 0 to 9.24 students. This is an example from Area 2 in the south east corner of Lee Highway and George Mason.

While each example either increases or decreases expected school seat generation, it is at least a known quantity. We have the data to produce a seat generation factor and the Planning Department should be able to ballpark the estimated number of units we can expect in these study areas over the next few decades.

Contemplating Schools in Area/Sector Plans Rather Than a Building by Building in the Site Plan Review Process

We are reviewing school impact too late in the planning process.

Right now, we determine the school seat impact each time a new construction project is brought to the Site Plan Review Commission. That means that those new anticipated seats will be brought on in a year or two. As a result, we have a seemingly biannual fire drill about how to shift kids around to accommodate changing enrollment projections.

If we contemplate changes to school seats in the area/sector plan process, we can anticipate the number of seats added decades in advance instead of our usual fire drill situation.

This is also important for the reservation of limited public facilities and open space. In a 2019 memo county manager Schwartz identified a number of potential new school sites which is a useful tool to use in these area/sector planning processes.

In the chance that we do not have the land availability in the future for new schools, we also need to know that. Will we need to develop a fund for land acquisition? When? These are the types of answers we would only know with this long-range perspective found in area and sector planning.

Precedent for an Imperfect Estimation for Infrastructure Impact

We already have estimated infrastructure impact equations in the Comprehensive Planning process as it relates to transportation. In my capacity on the Pentagon City Planning group we had 2-3 meetings on the “level of service” calculation for roads/public transportation and almost an entire meeting for bike infrastructure level of service. All of these projections are important infrastructure considerations, but also produce an imperfect result that we can generally accept.

With schools constituting almost half of our operational budget and a significant amount of our capital improvement plan’s bonding, it seems negligent to not include these calculations in the same way we calculate other infrastructure impact in our comprehensive plan.

Conclusion

My opinion is not against increased density around major transportation corridors such as Metro and state highways like Lee Highway. Encouraging growth along corridors with accessible public transportation and lower commuting times is better for the environment and a diversity of housing supply will help create varying housing costs (see page 5 in the Arlington Profile 2021 for varying housing type costs).

I would find it hypocritical though to advocate for this added density without also advocating for sufficiently planned infrastructure to support that added density, and encourage us to incorporate schools in our comprehensive planning.

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

For the past week I have been fuming at the ears mad about the situation at the Serrano and the impossibly difficult situation any Virginia renter that lives in poor housing conditions lives with.

Even after appreciated commitments from local leaders, systemic failures in local code enforcement and bare minimum renters rights laws in Virginia continue as a result of systemic failures. A long-term assessment of the system that has allowed this situation to happen must be taken.

Policy action items laid out in this column include near-term code enforcement by Arlington County and long-term policy changes in the General Assembly such as bare minimum living standards being included in building code, strengthening of law for the prohibition against retaliatory eviction, warranty of habitability, and remedy when a premise is condemned.

Long Term — Changes in the General Assembly

Include Bare Minimum Livable Standards in Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code

Livable building standards are currently included in the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (“the Act”) instead of in Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (“Code”). Basic living standards that were broken at The Serrano include significant mold presence, rodent infestation, and other utility grievances. Not having these standards included in code is a problem for multiple reasons.

To prove a violation of the Act a tenant must hire a professional expert to attest to these standards being violated in court after attaining a lawyer. Hiring a professional expert is a significant expense even if you are a low income resident that would qualify for free legal counsel from Legal Services of Northern Virginia. If these basic standards were included in Code a county inspector would be able to require correction of the violation or issue an abatement order and/or write a letter of attestation for use in court. These options aren’t currently available since it is not required by code.

For example, DC Housing Code requires rental dwellings: be free of insects and rodents, have A/C that is 15 degrees less than outside, have heating equipment that heats to 68 degrees, water temperature that can reach 110 degrees, paint that is not flaking, removal of lead paint, mold removal, no plumbing leaks, among other things.

Strengthen Prohibition Against Retaliatory Eviction

One of the most heartbreaking stories we heard on the most recent Tenant-Landlord Commission call was the stories of retaliatory actions by AHC’s property management team. This made some scared to bring up problems in fear of retaliatory action that could lead them to being evicted.

Technically Virginia law has a prohibition against retaliatory eviction but proving it is next to impossible. Judges generally will not apply retaliatory eviction to the landlord’s refusal to renew a lease. Other states presume that an eviction brought within a certain period (e.g., 6 months) after the tenant asserts rights is retaliatory. This presumption should apply to a refusal to renew as well.

Warranty of Habitability

Many states have a warranty of habitability for items such as heat and running water. To enforce the warranty of habitability, a tenant need not be current in rent nor have provided written notice to the landlord. In a non-payment of rent case, if the tenant proves the housing conditions entitle them to a rent abatement (a rent credit) equal to or greater than the unpaid rent, the tenant gets to stay.

Remedy When Premises are Condemned

Under existing law, if the rental premises are condemned, the tenant must vacate immediately. The tenant is entitled only to the return of unearned rent and the security deposit. The premises did not fall into such disrepair overnight. Instead, the premises must have been deteriorating for months. There should be a rebuttable presumption that the tenant is entitled to a refund of the last three months of rent. 

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

From the local to state to federal level it finally feels like there is momentum to make an impact on climate change. In order to meet our collective goals, it is incumbent upon us all to take responsibility for these aspirations in our everyday actions.

Arlington released bold energy goals in the 2019 Community Energy Plan. The county resolved to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2025 for government operations, achieve 100% community renewable electricity by 2035, and become carbon neutral by 2050.

In 2020, Governor Northam signed the Clean Economy Act (sponsored by Arlington’s Rip Sullivan) that directed sweeping environmental standards. It set a path to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, required Dominion Energy to supply 30% of their power from renewables by 2030 and close all carbon-emitting power plants by 2045, made it “in the public interest” for generation of that 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind and 16,100 megawatts of onshore wind and solar, expanded net metering for solar credits on Dominion electric bills, required expanded energy storage capacity for solar by Dominion, among many more provisions.

Today on Earth Day, President Biden pledged to cut US emissions of greenhouse gasses in half by 2030 — a goal twice as ambitious as what President Obama originally agreed to upon the initial signing of the Paris Climate Agreement. A significant amount of funding will be found in the upcoming Infrastructure Bill for improvements to the grid, public transportation, and other items.

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

TW: suicide, mania.

Arlington has begun an effort to improve mental health services in our community with dollars attached to these priorities. Taking this initial first step is significant, but we still have miles to go. Next Tuesday you can learn more about this topic at the Civic Federation monthly meeting.

Movement on mental health services all started with the overwhelming support for the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. Thousands marched, hundreds of first time speakers came to County Board hearings, and policy change was demanded. The County Board convened and the County Manager appointed a “Police Practices Group” (PPG) to recommend policy changes.

This working group narrowed their scope to four major sections: mental health crisis intervention, police civilian review board, traffic enforcement, and alternative dispute resolution. For purposes of this analysis I will focus on the mental health aspect of the recommendation.

Current State of Play

If an Arlingtonian is facing a crisis situation such as a manic episode, suicidal thoughts, or substance abuse, the response from Arlington is predominantly from the police. There is limited co-response with both a clinician and responding police officer. While it is impressive that ¾ of Arlington’s police force is “Crisis Intervention Trained” (CIT), police acknowledged during this process that their presence with flashing lights and uniforms immediately escalates a crisis situation even with the best trained officers.

There is little that is done for those in crisis after the initial police point of contact. In a situation where you experience a physical medical emergency, like a car crash, there are follow up services that are needed for treatment. Ultimately there are not currently adequate follow up services available for those in mental emergency situations.

With little support from federal or state agencies, we are left to our own devices to create a solution. This issue is too great to continue to push off a response. We have a number of best practice models to look at in other local jurisdictions and our police practices group recommendations put together a great target implementation framework.

What’s Budgeted for Improvements

In the County Manager’s budget there is a proposed $574,000 dedicated to supporting Arlington’s Crisis Intervention Center (CIC) and a medically equipped vehicle dedicated to crisis transit.

Additional staffing will be helpful to taking the CIC closer to being able to have a 24/7 response capacity, since crises takes place at all hours of the day, and provides services from a team of individuals who are adequately trained to respond to these specific types of medical emergencies.

One of those positions will be an emergency services clinician that presumably would be an additional co-responder to emergency calls, bringing our response team to a whopping two people dedicated to respond to the entire county’s mental health related calls around-the-clock.

The additional vehicle would hopefully eliminate the anxiety of flashing lights, from what have otherwise been a police or ambulance transit vehicle, while maintaining the medically necessary materials during transport time.

What’s Next

Some implementation items are process and coordination oriented, while others will require long-term funding commitments. What is included in the Manager’s Budget is able to address some of the important short-term funding oriented goals. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do though that is effectively summarized in the PPG Recommendation.

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

Arlington is beginning to wrap up an important long-term plan for Arlington street safety: Vision Zero.

In July 2019 the County Board resolved to the concept that no death or severe injury in Arlington County streets or trails is acceptable. To achieve these ideals staff and community members have joined the Vision Zero Network to create a comprehensive plan based on analysis of traffic collisions in the county.

Vision Zero recommendations have been made in engineering, enforcement, education, and data analysis. Focus has also been paid to ensuring no one is disproportionately affected by crashes and creating a culture of safety so every member of our community feels responsible for contributing to the safety of our transportation system.

Last year I was able to join this working group and see how it has incorporated some of the best parts of urban planning and also exposed some of the systemic issues that exist in many transportation related planning initiatives.

Two of the most important and impressive parts of Vision Zero has been their data driven evaluation and the partnerships with the many agencies that make up our transportation network. One hurdle to this process, and many other transportation related processes, is a complex network of agencies that are required to be involved in the implementation of these improvements.

The data collected for Vision Zero is vast and detailed. The High Injury Network captures about 80% of all serious or fatal crashes and is able to zero in on just 7% of the roadways in the county. This is further broken down by transportation mode, and hot spot locations.

As shown in the map, a significant amount of these incidents occur on state owned (VDOT) roadways such as Arlington Boulevard, Glebe Road, Lee Highway, I-395 and I-66. If improvements need to be made to any of these areas there is a more onerous process that is needed to alter the landscape of these roads.

In order to receive funding for a project on these roads local jurisdictions must apply to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA). Recently this has been in six year program plans that are conducted every other year. Recently there has also been a decrease in total NVTA funds available from the state legislature.

All of this makes it more likely that local jurisdictions will apply for major funding projects that will have a big impact on our regional transportation network and less likely that localities will apply for smaller projects or improvements that would help with safety concerns like crosswalk improvements.

In my opinion it would be helpful for NVTA to create a small separate fund with an expedited process for smaller scale projects that are needed more immediately for safety improvements.

Overall the Vision Zero program will be a significant help in creating regular system-wide checks for street safety and reducing serious injury or death in our community. The last opportunity for feedback closes this Sunday February 28th and I encourage everyone to provide your own thoughts on the process.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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

This year every campaign finance reform bill is expected to die in the General Assembly. That is extremely problematic considering we aren’t even aiming for federal standards.

Federally, candidate committees have a $2,800 limit on donations from individuals per election or $5,600 if there is a primary and general election that year, and corporations are banned from contributing at all. Nonaffiliated PACs (thanks to Citizens United) can accept $5,000 from individuals per year and corporations are able to contribute.

In Virginia we do not have any contribution limits. This legislative session bill were introduced that aimed for a floor below the bare minimum and committees with Democratic majorities still killed these reform including:

Senate: Prohibit campaign contributions over $20,000

YEAS — Adam Ebbin (D – Arlington/Alexandria), Deeds (D), Surovell (D), Mason (D), McClellan (D), Boysko (D). 

NAYS — Janet Howell (D – Arlington/Fairfax), Lionell Spruill (D), John Bell (D), Reeves (R), Ruff (R), Peake (R), McDougle (R), Dunnavant (R).

Senate: Prohibit campaign contributions from public utilities

YEAS– Ebbin (D – Arlington/Alexandria), Deeds (D), McClellan (D), Boysko (D), Bell (D).

NAYS — Howell (D-Arlington/Fairfax), Spruill (D), Surovell (D), Mason (D), Vogel (R), Reeves (R), Ruff (R), Peake (R), McDougle (R), Dunnavant (R).

House: Prohibit campaign contributions from public utilities

KILL THE BILL — Reid (D), Sickles (D), Bloxom (R), Runion (R).

VOTE ON THE BILL — Rasoul (D), Mundon King (D).

If you look at a breakdown of the latest campaign contributions you will see a correlation between large corporate donations and how our local legislators voted. Read More

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

While Virginia prohibits municipalities from banning dogs based on breed alone, this discrimination still persists in housing.

In Arlington where 70% of homes are in multi-unit buildings, and 60% rent, this law is essentially rendered useless for a majority of our population.

Virginia Code states that “No canine or canine crossbreed shall be found to be a dangerous/vicious dog solely because it is a particular breed, nor is the ownership of a particular breed of canine or canine crossbreed prohibited.”

While it is reasonable to ban animals that have been deemed dangerous or vicious, and ban dogs or animals all together, it seems unreasonable to allow for certain breeds of animals but not others — particularly when this practice is banned at the municipal level. This has an adverse effect on certain breeds that are at high risk for euthanasia, such as cross-breeds of pitbull terriers, and the living situation of their owners.

For a real world example of how flexibility on breed discrimination in housing plays out here in Arlington, I will use an experience that I went through three years ago when I had a roommate with a pitbull terrier. My experience in search of housing with a pitbull was what initially spurred my advocacy for renters rights.

At the time we could not find a single two bedroom apartment in a building that would allow for pitbull related breeds. We had to move into a single family household that was run by someone I would classify as a slumlord. At the time, small landlords were exempt for basic services such as providing running or hot water, which were not working 30% of the time we were living in this home. Since the sweeping improvements provided by the 2019 Tenant Landlord law that is now illegal. Having a breed restricted dog is one of many factors that discrimination plays in people moving into questionable living situations.

Locally, Prince George’s County, Maryland banned pitbull related breeds in an effort to decrease serious dog bites in the county. In their own Vicious Animal Task Force it was found that this ban did not reduce biting incidents from pitbulls to any degree of significance. Despite this, in Prince George’s 900 pitbulls are impounded a year because of this law and 80% of them are euthanized.

While I am glad that Virginia is one of 22 states to have breed specific legislation (BSL) to ban breed discrimination, it is unhelpful that this does not extend to housing. I would encourage the Board to look at options of extending our state requirement of banning breed specific discrimination to housing units, if not prohibited by Dillon Rule.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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

This week Metro released a devastating budget for FY 2022 in order to balance a $500 million deficit.

In more ways than one this pandemic has continued to exacerbate systemic problems that already exist in our society, and Metro’s budget is one of those evident examples. There are multiple reasons why even with federal stimulus that we will continue to have budget issues for the foreseeable future.

During the pandemic, service cuts already have made it difficult for essential workers. With these proposed “doomsday” cuts to service, those workers will be driven further off the ledge of stability. Shift workers that have hours being cut are having to pay for a $30 round trip Uber versus a $6 Metro trip, and that is unsustainable to continue through July 2022.

Metro has been the core of Arlington’s economic growth over the past several decades and served as a regional connector to our neighbors for commuting and leisure. Ensuring its continued success in not just maintaining, but expanding service to Dulles, is essential for us in providing regional housing supply, attracting businesses and jobs that generate revenues at the state and local level, and providing reliable and environmentally friendly transit throughout the region.

Changing workforce patterns

Even after a vaccine is widely distributed, we are likely to see a measurable shift in commuting patterns. It has been made clear that work from home is here to stay. In Congressional hearings, GSA directives, and indicators from government contractors, we have seen concrete intention to continue expanded work from home policies.

Some $763 million in Metro revenues come from ridership and parking. Twenty-two percent of the D.C. region works for the government and that number is even higher if you count government contractors. We cannot expect that revenue to continue in perpetuity. We need a long term plan to rely less on ridership revenue.

Living on a prayer

“We are going to need federal funding. Eventually we will need to change our tax system to provide more funding, but this year is an election year so that won’t happen. We did increase funding a few years ago and we’re really proud of that.”

The above is a summarized response from our state legislative leadership when I asked about the legislature’s planned response to these devastating cuts at George Mason University’s NOVA Leadership Dinner.

First, Virginia is not paying our fair share of Metro funding as it is. With the new stops, we will account for 31% of Metro stops, but will be paying only 27% of state/local contributions. If we were paying our fair share, we would be paying $73 million more annually to Metro. We cannot rest on our laurels and pat ourselves on the back for taking action a few years back.

Second, it is unfortunate that the reasoning for being unable to make changes to our tax code is that it is an election year. It is election year every year in Virginia. Public transportation is a bipartisanly popular topic and should be considered an asset to any campaign, not a deficit. This cannot be used as an excuse to not get things done.

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

Hope is an action. It is fairly useless unless you put in the work. Our democracy depends on participation.

If you believe in stability for our democracy; believe that we are in a climate crisis; that healthcare is a human right; love is love; science matters; and that we must regain global leadership… vote for Joe Biden because our hope for a better future depends on it.

Voting is just your first step of action. Here are other ways to help make a difference in this election and in our collective hope for a better future.

Phone bank and text voters in swing states

I preface this with a reminder about Senator Mark Warner’s last election in 2014 where he was up in the polls by almost 10 points and on election day only edged out his opponent Ed Gillespie by 16,000 votes — so still vote here in Virginia like your life depends on it.

That being said, Virginia is not the heated battle ground it used to be. Two easy ways to make an impact in this election from your home is to participate in phone and text banking in swing states.

Swing states this election include but are not limited to: Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and Minnesota.

Four actions that have been highlighted to me as important in this last stretch by someone that participates on national strategy calls are: 1) North Carolina phone banking; 2) North Carolina ballot curing (reach voters who had their ballots rejected to cure the issue so their vote counts); 3) Florida text banking; and 4) Pennsylvania text banking.

Join local groups that support your policy goals

National politics can be frustrating. Sometimes it feels like you are just another note in the Intranet Quorum (IQ) congressional database unless you have some sort of connection.

What is fantastic about local government is that you can make a tangible difference on almost every issue you care about at the local level. Instead of waiting sometimes decades for things to get done in Congress, get it done here locally or at a state level.

Arlington Commissions

There are over 50 commissions in Arlington. Whatever your passion is, there is bound to be a group of devoted Arlington citizens who are developing policy proposals for the county to implement. Right now there are 15 commission openings and you can apply for them easily online here.

Open Door Hours

Every Monday you can schedule a time to talk to your county board members. If you have spoken at a county board meeting you will notice there is simply not enough time for board members to respond to everyone. For an actual dialogue with your elected officials, office hours can really help you move the ball on policies that are a priority to you.

Have a conversation in-person

It’s easy to repost a meme or share an article on Facebook. Unfortunately it has become hard to have a civil conversation face to face with people that you happen to disagree with.

Locally, I have participated in two organizations that do a great job of bringing people with differing perspectives together that I would recommend.

Make America Dinner Again is hosted by a traditionally conservative Koch brothers organization. Former columnist Matt Hurtt put together one of these conversations pre-COVID that I attended and they now have online options. It was great because I very rarely am able to find a large group of conservatives, libertarians, moderates, liberals, and socialists that would actually come together for civil conversation.

Building Bridges is an organization founded by former Democratic candidate for county board, Vivek Patil. This group will go to rural areas of Virginia and have conversations with local politicians and influencers in those regions to bridge the urban-rural divide in Virginia. They are incredibly good at emphasizing empathy for both sides of the coin during these conversations.

VOTE

Make your plan to vote. Now.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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