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Arlington County Board incumbents fought to hold their ground against independents over Amazon incentives and housing topics at a debate Monday evening.
At the Arlington Chamber of Commerce’s candidate forum at U.Group in Crystal City (2231 Crystal Drive), Democratic incumbents Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol faced off against independent challengers Audrey Clement and Arron O’Dell.
One of the moments of back-and-forth criticism among the candidates came over the redevelopment of a number of market-rate affordable housing complexes in the Westover neighborhood. Clement has frequently criticized the County Board for what she said was the “preventable demolition” of the Westover garden apartments.
The redevelopment was by-right, meaning the developer did not need County Board approval. But Clement said the County Board could have designated the apartments part of a historic district and preserved the homes.
Overall, Clement argued that development drives up costs to build housing and that even dedicated affordable housing units come at a steep cost.
“The average cost of a new [Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing] unit is in excess of $400,000,” Clement said. “Most of the units are not affordable. Because the units are not affordable, the income-qualified people who move in, 30 percent of them have to have rent subsidies to pay the nominal amount of rent that they do pay. The taxpayers are hit twice, they have to pay their own rent and their own mortgage and they have to pay someone else’s because the cost of building that unit was astronomical.”
Dorsey fired back that rather than use the historic district designation, the County Board is working to change the regulations to protect affordable communities from redevelopment.
“In the Westover reference that Ms. Clement talked about, while she thinks the Board has done nothing, what we did do was take a courageous stand… and stopped the perverse incentive that led people to take affordable communities and turn them into by-right townhouses,” Dorsey said. “We paused that option and put it into the special exemption process so that we created options to preserve that housing.”
“We’re studying ways that can be better purposed to provide long term, market-based affordable housing,” Dorsey added. So you have to figure out where you’re doing harm and stop doing harm to create new options to preserve affordability both through direct subsidies and through the market.”
O’Dell, meanwhile, said the County should do more to accommodate for “tiny apartments” aimed at people moving to Arlington immediately after college, who may need an affordable place to live but not a lot of space.
“When you talk about housing affordability, you need to have a variety of types of units,” O’Dell said. “We should look at the lower incomes that fall into the 60 percent bracket and give them opportunities to possibly move in and look at places to live.”
Cristol said the County should work to open the door to other types of housing, pointing to the recent legalization of detached accessory dwelling units as an example and noting the large amount of land in Arlington zoned for only single-family housing.
“One of the most important things we can do is legalizing alternative forms,” said Cristol. “There are so many housing forms that could offer folks not only an opportunity to rent but [also to] buy and it’s literally illegal to build them in huge swaths of the county… There’s room for creative ideas, this is an area where we need partnership in the private sector, particularly for those who develop housing.”
(Updated on 9/11/19) The D.C. area needs 374,000 new homes in the region to keep up with population growth and prevent a Bay Area-like increase in housing prices, according to a new report.
Local leaders will vote on a resolution expanding their housing goals at the next Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) meeting in D.C. on Wednesday, September 11. The vote comes after the Urban Institute’s 130-page report on the region’s housing needs, which predicts 220,000 families could be at risk of displacement if the goals are not met.
Senior Research Associate Leah Hendey, one of the report’s authors, said there exists a “window of opportunity available right now” for leaders to fix the housing unit shortage before it displaces more residents and makes business difficult.
In Arlington, the study noted 20,000 households may be at risk of displacement. Rising housing prices in the wake of Amazon’s arrival combined with the county’s dwindling stock has long worried advocates that lower-income residents could be pushed out.
“The arrival of new businesses, jobs, and residents could intensify today’s housing challenges unless the region’s leaders come together to address them,” noted the report.
“Overall 29% of Arlington residents are cost-burdened,” Hendey told ARLnow today (Friday). “So they’re paying more than 30% of income.”
However, the report also found that many renters could afford higher rents, but chose to live in lower-rent housing units — which likely further exacerbated the affordable housing squeeze for those at lower income levels.
“That didn’t really surprise us,” said Hendey. “People want to minimize their housing costs so they have money for other things.”
The Urban Institute’s data indicates that Arlington would need 9,700 more housing units renting at under $800 a month, and 4,100 units under $1,300 a month, to meet its needs. On the other hand, the report pointed to a surplus in higher-end units: 18,600 more units than needed in the units in the range of $1,300-$3,500 or more a month.
Henley summarized the report’s recommendations for meeting affordable housing needs as a “three-prong framework” to focuses on preserving existing stock, producing more of the right kind, and protecting renter and buyers from displacement.
The authors recommend not just ramping up construction of additional housing stock, but also finding ways to streamline permitting processes and make use of public land and vacant lots.
The report also recommends allowing more multi-family projects on properties zoned for single-family housing, through the use of accessory dwelling units. It found that 73% of Arlington’s residential space is zoned for single-family houses, which is lower than D.C.’s 80%, and Fairfax County’s 95%.
The report itself was funded with grants from the Greater Washington Partnership and JPMorgan Chase.
Earlier this month, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair at Large Phyllis Randall remarked that area residents needed to start understanding affordable housing as meaning suitable housing for the elderly, people with disabilities, and debt-ridden college graduates.
“I want them in the area,” Randall said of her children seeking housing they could afford. “Not in my basement.”
“I think that people view the word affordable housing as only for poor people, or of people with extremely low incomes, but I think that everyone need housing that is suitable for them.” Henley said. “We need the housing market to work for everyone.”
Graph via Urban Institute
The majority of local leaders agree that Northern Virginia needs more affordable housing and bus transit — though they differ on the details.
Local leaders discussed issues ranging from housing to the area’s overall economic health during the Northern Virginia Regional Elected Leaders Summit co-hosted by several local chambers of commerce at George Mason University’s Arlington campus earlier today (Monday).
Arlington Board Chair Christian Dorsey said he was working with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to develop a “policy overlay” to help guide affordable housing across the region.
“We have one,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. “It’s just entirely not deliberate, not coordinated, and not successful.”
Wilson and Dorsey both said that each jurisdiction has its own issues — like zoning for accessory dwelling units — but a guiding document could help align governments’ goals to fill the region’s growing housing need. One problem leaders believe is better solved together is how to build affordable housing that’s accessible to public transportation.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Penelope Gross said the skyrocketing price of housing near Metro stations bars the people who most need access to Metro from living nearby. Dorsey agreed that building affordable, transit-accessible housing was an important regional priority, and a better idea than building housing away from transit.
“We can’t just continue to grow housing and then try and build the supports with transportation infrastructure to meet where we built the housing,” said Dorsey. “That’s stupid.”
Phyllis Randall, Chair at Large of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, said she has tried to explain to constituents with kids that the people who benefit from affordable housing includes recent college graduates.
“I want them in the area,” she joked of her own children. “Not in my basement.”
Outgoing Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart, the only Republican on the stage Monday, was also the lone dissenter in that conversation. He pointed out that Prince William held a “disproportionate” share of affordable housing in the region, but still could not build enough because of restrictions on breaking up large, multi-acre lots that local leaders refused to amend.
“We need to let the private sector solve this problem,” he said.
Metro, Buses, and Shutdowns
Dorsey, who also sits on the WMATA Board of Directors, told the audience that the transit agency expects to conclude its Blue and Yellow line shutdown in Alexandria on time. That was welcome news for Alexandria’s leaders.
“It has been a difficult summer,” noted Wilson, who said that the silver lining of businesses hit hard by the shutdown is that more residents have been using the public bus system than ever.
Due to growing ridership this summer, the mayor announced Alexandria will extend its water taxi service to the Wharf through the December. The water, he said, was the region’s largest “untapped resource” when it came to transit development.
Gross and Dorsey both echoed support for more bus transit to help move more people and alleviate the region’s traffic woes, with Dorsey saying he wants “to see the attention to Metro’s buses that is paid to rail.”
Arlington County is hoping to launch part of its digitized permitting systems next month.
Starting September 9, residents and businesses will be able to apply for some permits online, as well as ask questions and check on the status of pending applications, in what officials hope will be a “welcome relief” for local businesses.
“The new system will lead customers seamlessly from the County’s website into online permit applications,” said county planning department spokeswoman Jessica Margarit.
“Customers will be able to apply online 24/7 from their computers or mobile devices,” Margarit said in an email Wednesday. “The system will accept completed applications, uploaded plans and supporting documents and online payments. Customers will be able to check the status of their applications, track their permit’s process and receive email notifications about their application(s).”
Officials tested the system over the summer, which found bugs related to how users upload files, search for permits, and receive update notifications. All of those problems have been addressed, according to Margarit.
In a second, future phase of the project, the county will digitize 21 additional types of permit, including those for building permits, inspections, and accessory dwelling units (for which the Arlington County Board recently loosened the requirements.) For now, residents will need to continue applying for the second phase permits in person at the county’s Courthouse office.
Arlington Board Chair Christian Dorsey previously acknowledged the digital database was a long time coming, but said it would be a “a welcome relief for many of our community’s businesses.”
The county is hosting public meetings about the changes at county government HQ in Courthouse on Thursday, August 22 and Tuesday, September 17 from 3-8 p.m., and on Wednesday, September 18 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
The Progressive Voice opined this week that it may be time to take measures that rein in growth.
It is slightly ironic that the growth in high rise housing has helped give Democrats a virtual lock on local elections is also causing consternation among “progressives.” It is also amusing that progressives complain about traffic and parking while many of them are advocating for eliminating travel lanes on already congested streets, stopping scooter rentals and eliminating parking spaces.
Growth is just one of the things Democrats have been fighting with each other about in Arlington.
Also on the list, whether to provide subsidies to big corporations like Amazon; the debate over preserving neighborhood schools when redrawing boundaries versus making diversity the priority when setting new lines; whether a strong, experience prosecutor is more important than an unknown and unproven Commonwealth Attorney who promises to reform the office; disagreements over whether accessory dwelling units were bad for neighborhoods; and changing the name of Washington-Lee to Washington-Liberty high school.
The anti-Trump sentiment that drove Democrats to the polls in 2018 overshadowed the issues facing the county as well as the check to one-party rule that having an independent voice on the County Board provided.
The Board read the results differently. They went on a post-Vihstadt spending spree, including millions to build more bus stops on Columbia Pike. They voted to raise their own pay by as much as 60%. Yet things like ongoing water main breaks and the recent flooding reminded voters that basic local governance decisions on things like infrastructure have often not received enough attention.
There is undoubtedly continued discontent with how our elected officials are making decisions. One option is for Democrats to run more candidates in primary contests against incumbents in future years. But there is tremendous opportunity to partner with the Independents and Republicans who want to see our county run well and in a fiscally responsible manner.
It might even be time for the community to come together and back a write-in campaign for John Vihstadt. And since it’s a two seat County Board year, maybe a Vihstadt-Stamos write-in ticket? If Vihstadt’s win in 2014 sent a shock wave through the establishment, imagine if it happened again without his name appearing on the ballot.
Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
It’s the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, and everyone seems to be gearing up for the holiday weekend — assuming you’re not already out of town.
Unless you’re one of the thousands of residents who lost power during the storm, or suffered damage to your cars and houses. As of 3 p.m. Dominion was still reporting 4,019 customers out of power in Arlington.
The storm was also a somber affair for Arlington’s arbor amorists who lost one of the county’s most prized trees in the squall.
1/6 An old friend has passed. The Reevesland Oak at Bluemont Park in Arlington Virginia fell during a storm yesterday. I always touched, and was touched, by this beautiful tree as I passed by, an inspiration and subject of my camera for many years. @ARLnowDOTcom @capitalweather pic.twitter.com/Zxaihkiz8G
— Dennis Dimick (@ddimick) May 24, 2019
Memorial Day activities like the Arlington National Cemetery’s annual “Flag-In” and flower distribution are continuing nonetheless.
But even aside from the storms, the holiday preparations and latest Metropocolypse, it’s been a busy week for Arlington. Here’s a few tidbits from around town you might have missed:
- County Board Paves Way for More Accessory Dwellings Units
- Meridian Pint Plans to Open in Dominion Hills Tomorrow
- County Board Approves Transportation Funding for Projects Near Amazon HQ2
- Feds Seek Settlement with APS, Alleging English-Learning Students Need More Help
- National Park Service: Gravelly Point Not Ideal for Boathouse
What are your plans for the weekend? Let us know, and feel free to discuss any other issues of local interest, in the comments below.
A new county initiative aims to help find ways to solve Arlington’s affordable housing shortage.
County Manager Mark Schwartz introduced “Housing Arlington” during Thursday night’s Arlington County Board meeting. Billed as an “umbrella initiative” for the county’s existing affordable housing programs, Schwartz said it will help officials and the public brainstorm solutions together.
During presentations Thursday night, county staff said Arlington has lost 17,000 market-rate housing units since 2005. With 58,000 more residents expected by 2045 and current rent for a 2 bedroom apartment averaging $3,000 per month, they said the squeeze for affordable housing is likely to worsen.
“If we are successful in this event, we will create and preserve more housing for Arlington residents,” said the Housing Division Chief David Cristeal.
The county currently creates affordable housing in a couple ways, including by subsidizing its construction with the Affordable Housing Innovation Fund (AHIF) and by subsidizing rent for low-income residents.
In 2015, the county officials pledged to create 15,800 affordable housing units before 2040, but have since fallen short of the yearly creation benchmarks.
“Housing Arlington is different first because it’s a County Board priority to bring solutions sooner… and the expectations are higher,” said Cristeal, adding that the initiative means the Arlington will be “even more focused on this challenge” and will be “more proactive” in collaborating between public and private sectors.
The initiative will focus on addressing the shortage of affordable homes for low-income and middle-income residents, per its website, and plans to leverage the county’s existing housing programs along with zoning tools and private-public partnerships to accomplish that goal.
Schwartz noted during last night’s meeting that Arlington’s “dilemmas of costly housing can’t, and should not, be solved with AHIF funding.”
He added that the money he and the County Board increased for AHIF’s budget this year “is a really good step” but that “it will never meet the full scope of the need.”
“We know residents across generations are facing pressures from multiple angles, and this interconnected solution allows our community to be responsive and efficient,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey in a press release. The challenges don’t exist in silos and their solutions don’t either.”
Schwartz says the public has submitted ideas to the county before which are now research-able due to the Housing Arlington initiative. The ideas include:
- Can publicly-funded housing be created specifically for teachers?
- Should individuals let public safety staff live in accessory dwellings on their property?
Schwartz mentioned the initiative was also a response to the “strong headwinds” the county faces in addressing affordable housing with Amazon coming to town.
The hearing to approve Amazon’s incentive package was dogged by activists who fear the company’s “HQ2” will hasten gentrification. Several residents shared how their rent has already increased since the company scouted its new headquarters in Pentagon City and Crystal City.
“What I’m sensing is a real concern about loss and vulnerability,” Dorsey during the March hearing in between protests.. At the time, Dorsey added that the “the history” of Arlington neighborhoods was that of gentrification and increasing property values.
“We never really had a way to stop it,” Dorsey said.
The Housing Arlington initiative will be housed in the Housing Division of the county’s Community Planning, Housing and Development Department (CPHD), per its website. Funding details for the new initiative were not shared.
The Housing Arlington initiative is scheduled to hold its first public engagement forum at Kenmore Middle School on Wednesday, May 29 from 6-9 p.m.
Flickr photo via woodleywonderworks
The annual Arlington Home Show and Garden Expo is coming to Kenmore Middle School (200 S. Carlin Springs Road) on Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
The home show is a community event — not a commercial event. The goal: to educate Arlingtonians about the best ways to add value to their homes and improve their overall quality of life.
Now in its 13th year, the home show is a one-stop shop for all things related to improving and building homes including permitting, financing and choosing the right contractors. This year the show will focus on informing visitors about value remodeling — making sure that every dollar invested in home improvement achieves the best return.
The free, family-friendly event will include 18 workshops covering a wide spectrum of topics, including Accessory Dwellings (ADUs), Energy Efficiency, Smart-on time and on budget-Contracting, Landscaping, Going Solar and the well established Landlord Seminar that deals with the legal and practical nuts and bolts of being a landlord. The Show features more than 65 exhibitors, including local builders, designers, master gardeners and more.
Attendees can also discuss their home improvement or building plans with representatives from a number of Arlington County agencies, who will be available for one-to-one consultation.
Admission and parking are both free. There will be a raffle for a 50-inch television, free LED bulbs for visitors, many contractor specials and great food will be provided by Cafe Sazon.
The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
Last year Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated a generally well-liked incumbent with a wealth of seniority and influence in a heavily Democrat Congressional district in New York City. She did it despite being outspent somewhere in the range of 18 to 1. It shocked the media and so-called political establishment.
It also inspired other candidates to forego “waiting their turn” to run for office. This year four sitting Democrats in Arlington are facing intraparty challenges for the nomination to their party’s ballot slot in November. It would not be surprising to see a similar challenge in next year’s 8th Congressional District race as well.
While AOC’s success may be inspiring, it did something that hurts long-shot challengers this year. It eliminated the element of surprise. Seeing such a high profile upset, incumbents generally become sufficiently scared to take these challenges seriously.
Thus far, two of the races stick out based on the only metric we have available to us: campaign finances. Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has raised nearly $108,000 in her race against Theo Stamos for Commonwealth Attorney. However, Stamos holds a $50,000 plus cash on hand advantage.
The school board race between Reid Goldstein and David Priddy is also financially competitive, but only because both candidates reported anemic fundraising. Neither candidate has even $10,000 available to spend as of March 31st.
Surprises could happen, but the safe bet so far is on incumbents to win.
As for election season more broadly in Virginia, it appears as though Democrats looking to take control of the General Assembly may not be able to count on big financial support from their three statewide officeholders. According to the most recent fundraising reports, money has dried up considerably after scandals rocked the Democrats in Richmond. For a visual, check out the Virginia Public Access Project.
The fallout is not limited to fundraising. Governor Northam’s office announced yesterdaythat he is backing out of his scheduled speech for the Virginia Military Institute commencement this spring.
Finally, we are one week away from the County Board’s approval of next year’s budget, including what is almost certain to be a sizeable tax hike and multiple fee increases.
Also of note on the packed April meeting agenda:
- $11.5 million subsidyto keep the Drug Enforcement Agency offices in Arlington.
- Pay raises for county staff. The Board report for this item is currently unavailable, so we do not yet know what the raises will be.
- Advertising public hearingson the modification of accessory dwelling unit (ADU) regulations.
- Renaming the portion of Route 1 in Arlington from Jefferson Davis Highway to Richmond Highway.
Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
Arlington leaders agree that Amazon’s impending arrival in the county demands urgent action to address housing affordability — but there’s a lot less agreement on what sort of policy response is necessary to hold down the area’s skyrocketing housing costs.
Some of the changes officials are envisioning are relatively modest ones, expanding on existing efforts that began long before the tech giant announced its plans to bring 25,000 workers to the area. After all, many have argued that the new headquarters set to pop up in Crystal City and Pentagon City won’t prompt the sort of explosion in gentrification that Amazon’s opponents fear.
Other experts see a need for more ambitious tactics, like allowing more development in Arlington to flood the market with more homes. That could well be a politically explosive change in the county, particularly if it means increasing density in Arlington’s oldest residential neighborhoods.
Or perhaps there’s a need for a more creative approach — some progressive activists are championing the creation of a “community land trust,” a strategy embraced elsewhere around the country to allow for the communal ownership of affordable homes.
It presents local leaders with a series of choices that could well define the county’s destiny for decades. And with Amazon’s workers set to start arriving by the thousands next year, officials won’t have long to make up their minds.
‘We should never let a crisis go to waste,” said County Board member Erik Gutshall. “Amazon is bringing a sharp focus to these fundamental issues, and it’s providing us with the opportunity to double down on the sort of planning we’ve done for decades.”
Building on existing efforts
County Board Chair Christian Dorsey agrees that the urgency of addressing housing affordability has been “magnified” since Amazon’s momentous mid-November announcement.
But, fundamentally, he says “the world, as I see it, in terms of housing strategy is not very different than it was” before officials knew they’d won a new Amazon headquarters.
“We’ve identified the tools we’d like to deploy,” Dorsey said. “Now we have to do the hard work of deploying them.”
For instance, the county has long relied on its “Affordable Housing Investment Fund” to provide loans to developers building affordable homes. Those projects often include apartments guaranteed to remain affordable to renters, known as “committed affordable” homes, that are most valuable for people at the lowest end of the income scale.
The County Board allocates cash to the fund each year, and that contribution has recently hovered around $15 million annually. The county is facing a budget squeeze in the coming fiscal year, but as tax revenue from Amazon’s new properties and workers trickles in over the next few years, Gutshall believes the Board should “earmark some of that specifically” for the loan fund.
Similarly, he notes that the Board will also be able to force Amazon to send cash to the program as it builds new offices (most of which will be located in Pentagon City), as developer contributions are the Board’s main tool for seeding the fund with money.
But as market forces persistently push the costs of new development higher, researchers believe the county also needs to preserve the affordable homes it already has.
“Buying up and preserving existing middle-income housing, that stretches public subsidy dollars much further than trying to build stuff from scratch,” said Jenny Schuetz, who studies housing policy with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “The county should be doing more of that preservation work and they should be focusing on that area near the new headquarters.”
The Board has indeed worked to preserve some affordable homes already by setting up “housing conservation districts” to protect older, “garden apartments” designed to be affordable to middle-income renters. Officials first passed the policy in 2017, with plans to eventually allow developers to replace protected homes with even larger affordable developments, but there’s been little movement on the issue since then.
Gutshall argues that the county needs to “accelerate” some of that work, as it seeks to expand “missing middle” housing, commonly understood as homes that fall in between apartments and single-family houses. The Board already loosened some of its regulations for accessory dwelling units, or “mother-in-law suits” on the same property as another home, and Gutshall wants to further tweak zoning rules to allow for more duplexes and small apartment buildings to be built around the county.
“We need to be thinking about how we can keep the character of residential neighborhoods, but still open up housing types and allow for better transitions on the edges,” Gutshall said. “At the same meeting we vote on the Amazon deal, I would love to see a ‘missing middle’ directive… to really identify key areas where think we can make some rapid progress addressing this.”
Touching the ‘third rail’?
Yet the scale of the affordability challenge confronting Arlington has convinced many experts that such changes aren’t enough.
Many observers see a clear and urgent need to ramp up the supply of housing more rapidly, even if that means the construction of the same sort of high-end apartments that are already commonplace in the county. Those homes themselves might not be affordable for low-income renters, but experts argue that any new apartments will have a positive impact on the market as a whole.
“People moving into those new homes come from somewhere,” said Eric Brescia, a member of Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing, who also works as a Fannie Mae economist. “Think of it like the market for cars. A lot of poorer people buy used, not new, at first. New apartments help free up the older stock for people of more modest means.”
But the question becomes where those new apartments will fit, and that leads to some very thorny debates for local leaders.
Anyone walking along one of Arlington’s Metro corridors can see that neighborhoods like Rosslyn and Ballston are already jammed with high-rise developments. Most of the rest of Arlington is reserved for single-family neighborhoods — as much as 87 percent of the county is zoned only to allow for that type of development, according to one recent analysis — but officials might need to reverse that trend as Amazon ramps up the pressure on renters.
“Many people are saying it’s time to look at this exclusive, single-family detached development and how wasteful it is in terms of land use,” said Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance. “But if anything is going to shake communities to their core, this will be it.”
Schuetz points out that these are often wealthy neighborhoods, full of residents “that turn up in large numbers and vote” if they fear encroaching density. But she doesn’t see any choice for the county but examining the prospect of allowing more development in a wider variety of places.
“You have these neighborhoods within a mile, walking distance, of the Metro, but they’re only zoned for single-family homes,” Schuetz said. “It’s just not efficient.”
Dorsey acknowledged that such discussions have always been a bit of “a third rail,” politically, and he understands the impulse of homeowners who might “worry about what more density would look like in their neighborhood.”
“I don’t fault people for wondering if we’re intending for the same density as in Ballston to come to every low-density neighborhood,” Dorsey said. “I get that… that’s why we have to talk about this with real specificity.”
And Dorsey says the Board isn’t considering any sweeping changes to zoning rules across Arlington, even if advocates favor such a move. Instead, he expects a more modest first step is increasing density along some sections of Lee Highway, where the Board is already gearing up an extensive study of its plans for the corridor.
“The potential we have in Arlington is along our major transportation corridors, Lee Highway in particular, where there is more than enough opportunity for substantial amounts of new housing,” Gutshall said. “If we’re able to unlock that, that will carry us through our next 30 to 40 years.”
Following in Bernie’s footsteps?
Beyond these debates about zoning and density, some activists see room for another, very different path for the county to pursue as Amazon looms.
Tim Dempsey has been working with advocates and local leaders on the idea of a “community land trust” since first coming across the idea while reading a bit more about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during his 2016 presidential bid.
While he was still just the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders helped create a land trust, among the first of its kind in the nation. In the unusual arrangement, a nonprofit buys up available land, then builds homes atop it.
Anyone can then move in and pay a mortgage on the homes themselves, while the nonprofit retains the ownership of the land. That protects home prices from wild fluctuations, particularly the sort of speculation that could follow Amazon’s arrival in the county, Dempsey said.
“This prevents the land from falling into a speculator’s hands in the first place,” said Dempsey, who sits on the steering committee for the Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution Arlington
And more than just providing low- and middle-income people with a place to rent temporarily, Dempsey believes this method “allows people to have many of the benefits that come with home ownership, like building equity, tax deductions and having very stable housing.”
“They might not get the full value of owning a home, but they probably would never be able to get into homeownership to begin with, otherwise,” Dempsey said. “This could address long-standing social justice issues when it comes to home ownership.”
Without such a model in place, Dempsey fears Amazon will push already skyrocketing home prices higher and force people out of Arlington. That’s why he’s already brought the idea to many Board members and other local affordable housing advocates, where he says it’s largely earned a warm reception.
That’s significant, because Dempsey believes the county has a key role to play in setting up the trust — the county would likely need to provide the cash to get the effort off the ground, and could take a leading role in acquiring land for any future nonprofit.
Dorsey says he’s certainly willing to examine the issue in more detail. But he urged the trust’s proponents to strive for the true “end game” of such a program, rather than getting hung up on setting up a trust, per se.
“I don’t want to get so focused on the prospect of a land trust that we don’t look for the true essence of this opportunity: how do we acquire property that can be made into affordable housing?” Dorsey said. “It could be a land swap, or allowing an entitlement to build something that’s more dense to get a different opportunity elsewhere.”
Where Dorsey and Dempsey can agree is that such a trust would be most effective if it’s a regional effort.
Indeed, with Amazon’s workers expected to settle all throughout the D.C. area, experts of all stripes are unanimous that Arlington can’t hold down housing prices on its own, no matter which strategies leaders pursue.
“Arlington can obviously play a part in this, but housing markets are regional,” Brescia said. “And we need more collaboration across the region.”
The vast majority of land in Arlington is reserved for the construction of single-family homes, and affordable housing advocates argue that’s going to have to change if the county wants to adequately handle the region’s looming, Amazon-inspired population influx.
A new report released by the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance last week argues that Amazon’s decision to bring 25,000 jobs to Arlington in the coming years “should create a regional sense of urgency and commitment to address our housing supply and affordability gap,” a sentiment broadly shared among local and state leaders following the company’s momentous announcement. But where the advocacy group strikes a starker tone than other observers is in its policy prescriptions for meeting that challenge.
The NVAHA’s researchers point to data showing that about 86.7 percent of land in Arlington is zoned exclusively to allow new single-family homes, compared to just under 12 percent where multifamily development, like apartment buildings, is permitted.
They believe that sort of zoning scheme not only chokes off the county’s ability to add more housing, and meet its current supply pressures, but also cuts off the potential for people of more modest means to ever move into the county’s more affluent neighborhoods.
Accordingly, the group sees the clear potential for “allowing more diverse housing types in detached single family neighborhoods,” reversing the current paradigm where the “path of least resistance” for developers is simply to build ever-larger single-family homes in those areas.
“It should be noted that efforts to increase density and flexibility in use have been controversial, both within the region and across the country,” the group wrote. “Awareness of the socioeconomic bias that shaped low-density and exclusionary zoning is not widespread, and the predominance of the neighborhood form in many urban and suburban areas has created strong consumer demand for such communities, making discussions of regulatory reform more politically contentious. However, these barriers are not insurmountable and the moral imperative of breaking down exclusionary barriers justifies the effort.”
The NVAHA acknowledges that there is indeed a role for local governments to subsidize the creation of housing that is guaranteed to remain affordable in order to reach the poorest renters, or to prioritize the preservation of existing affordable homes.
But the advocates also stress that the “disproportionate number of higher-income earners” moving into the area means that market realities will make it difficult for county officials and other leaders to build enough housing on their own. That means relying on more private development, they say, while working to ensure that developers don’t only build high-end apartments that are out of reach for people in lower income brackets.
“By-right development should be liberalized to streamline the costly entitlement process and promote more naturally affordable building types and development scales,” the researchers wrote.
They suggest that duplexes, townhomes and other small apartment complexes could be housing options for the county to consider, and they do note that the county has done some work in this area with its strategies to promote the creation of “accessory dwelling units.” Arlington officials did take some steps to allow smaller apartments attached to larger homes, commonly known as “mother-in-law suites,” but the NVAHA sees room for more bold changes on the issue.
The researchers note that discussions around creating more “missing middle” housing, to fill the gap between subsidized affordable units and luxury homes, often concentrate that the new homes “around transportation corridors or the areas near existing mid-density or mixed-use neighborhoods.” Instead, they see a need for more “diversification” of new housing types all across the different regions of the county.
“A broad-based approach diffuses demand over a wider area,” the group wrote. “If demand for such units is not limited to a small number of neighborhoods by government fiat, any potential impacts on roads, school capacity, and neighborhood form are more likely to emerge gradually, enabling adequate planning and preparation.”
Of course, the advocates would concede that Arlington won’t be able to solve the housing affordability problem on its own, particularly as officials expect that Amazon’s workers will choose to live around the entire region. Accordingly, they urged leaders from across D.C., Maryland and the rest of Northern Virginia to confront the issue together.
“These discussions need to happen in Bowie and Bethesda, as well as Arlington and Alexandria,” NVAHA Executive Director Michelle Krocker wrote in a letter introducing the report. “Regional benefits equal regional responsibilities… Will our elected officials put jurisdictional differences aside and respond for the good of the region?”
Flickr pool photo via NCINDC