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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
(Updated at 8:25 p.m.) When many Arlingtonians take a look at the sort of impact Amazon has had on Seattle since setting up shop in the city, they can’t help but feel nervous about how the tech giant might transform the county when it arrives.
The city has seen everything from skyrocketing housing prices to nightmarish traffic congestion stemming from Amazon’s rapid growth into one of the largest companies in the world, and leaders there have felt compelled to take new steps to bridge the growing inequality between the city’s tech workers and the rest of its residents.
It all provides plenty of reason to be wary of what lies ahead for Arlington once the company starts bringing its new headquarters to Crystal City and Pentagon City. But local leaders and regional planners are trying to deliver a clear message to quell those concerns — Seattle and D.C. could not possibly be more different.
“A lot of people are influenced by the Seattle example… and they think, ‘We don’t want to end up like that, our problems are already bad,'” County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said during an Amazon discussion yesterday (Wednesday) live-streamed on the county’s Facebook page. “But some of these fundamental economics are very different. I’m not saying we’ll have no problems, but I’m pretty confident we won’t have Seattle’s problems.”
For one thing, it helps that the D.C. region is quite a bit larger than Seattle and its suburbs. Chuck Bean, the executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, estimates that the D.C. metro area is “about 40 percent bigger” than Seattle’s, so there’s “a lot more absorptive capacity” for the workers Amazon will bring here.
It doesn’t hurt either that Bean believes has the region has “an advanced, mature transit system that Seattle didn’t have,” giving people the ability to live a bit further away from the headquarters without necessarily relying on a car.
“Perhaps it’s a bit too mature, but we’re working on that,” Bean said, in a reference to the lengthy efforts by local leaders to get Metro working properly again.
Amazon has pledged to deliver 25,000 new jobs at its new headquarters, but officials have consistently reiterated that only a small portion will likely live in Arlington itself, and many already live elsewhere in the region. The way Dorsey sees it, the county is only likely to see about 20 percent of Amazon’s workers live in Arlington, equivalent to about 5,000 people in all.
In a county of 230,000 people or so and a broader region of millions more, he hopes that such an addition won’t be nearly as disruptive as it was in Seattle. Bean also points out that Amazon’s 25,000 jobs is just a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.1 million jobs his group believes the region will add over the next 20 years.
“Their population grew by 40 percent from when Amazon was founded to about two years ago,” Dorsey said. “That’s a tremendous amount of growth in a short period of time for any community to sustain. They’re not going to have anywhere near that impact, based on that path of growth here.”
Dorsey also notes that Amazon’s employees “earned significantly more than other Seattle workers,” especially when the company was first growing in size. Based on the tech firm’s projections, Dorsey expects that Amazon’s workers will earn “about what the typical higher wage employees in this area already earn” — as a condition of the state’s deal with Amazon, the average salary of the company’s workers needs to be at least $150,000 per year, with that amount increasing each year.
Dorsey acknowledges that there is the chance that adding more wealthy workers will drive up prices around the region, particularly for rent. But Eric Brescia, a member of Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing, says it’s not that simple.
“Intuitively, when you bring more high-income people in, it creates more demand to drive up prices,” Brescia said. “But the price of housing is not only just a function of what the demand is, it’s how does the supply compare to the demand.”
To demonstrate the difference, Brescia drew a comparison between how San Jose managed the explosive growth of Silicon Valley and Charlotte shepherded growth in its financial services sector.
Brescia, an economist for his day job, pointed out that Charlotte has since a 40 percent boost in jobs over the last two decades, while San Jose saw just a 17 percent bump. Nevertheless, home prices in Charlotte only rose by 18 percent in that same period, while they rose by 160 percent in San Jose — adjusted for inflation.
In his mind, the difference comes down to housing production — Charlotte and its suburbs added 400,000 new homes over the last 20 years, while San Jose managed just 100,000.
“This is an illustration that the presence of high-paying jobs does not inherently make housing unaffordable if we’re nimble enough to build housing to accommodate that,” Brescia said. “And I think this region as a whole is really going to have to be thinking of land use policy, transportation policy to determine where these homes are going to go.”
For Dorsey, who once drew headlines for proclaiming that the county should not “protect” certain neighborhoods from density, that illustrates the County Board’s challenge in the coming years.
He points out that Arlington is currently dominated by large swaths of neighborhoods with only single-family homes, particularly in the areas outside of Arlington’s Metro corridors. As county Housing Director David Cristeal noted, the majority of the homes in Arlington are apartments, but the majority of the square footage is occupied by single-family homes.
As more Amazon workers move in, Dorsey expects that officials will need to do something to confront that trend and avoid “inefficient sprawl.”
“Our community has to embrace a conversation about what it really means to grow the supply,” Dorsey said. “Our community in Arlington, and our region in general, devotes a lot of its housing to one house per lot. And if we think about equitable growth, growth that’s diverse and inclusive, that can’t be the sole way we do it.”
That could mean everything from expanding the county’s previous efforts to allow more “accessory dwelling units” on single-family lots, or encouraging the redevelopment of some single-family homes into duplexes.
But Dorsey also admitted that some more drastic changes could be necessary in terms of increasing density throughout the county. If officials don’t embrace that mindset, Brescia fears Arlington could wind up facing some of those Seattle-sized problems it hopes to avoid.
“If some more flexibility isn’t gradually allowed in more regions of the county, we’re increasingly going to be single-family neighborhoods with $2 million dollar homes versus people in very small apartments near the transit corridors, and really nothing in between,” Brescia said. “Some people get scared when you talk about those things, but the question is how to gradually grow so you don’t have that divide.”
Photo via Facebook
Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.
By Christian Dorsey
Amazon’s embrace of Arlington as one of two sites for its corporate headquarters expansion stands as one of the more significant events in the history of our county. Already, camps have emerged that are unabashedly for or against welcoming the world’s largest online retailer. Yet for many, there are significant questions when assessing whether Amazon in Arlington stands as a positive development.
Implicit in some of these questions is a concern: “Can embracing Amazon be consistent with my progressive values?” It is a concern that I have wrestled with, and I believe that the presence of Amazon in Arlington can be consistent with my progressive values and even accelerate our moving toward a more equitable and inclusive community. Here are a few ways in which this could happen, if the County Board and our community hold firm to a path of equitable growth and inclusive opportunities.
A Better Deal for Residential Taxpayers
Arlington faces a near-term budget deficit where the costs of delivering fundamental government services are growing faster than our revenues. My County Board colleagues and I will work with the county manager to find efficiencies in service delivery and raise revenues as necessary. The high commercial vacancy rate — around 18 percent — means that residential taxpayers shoulder more of the load for delivering government services than when the tax base was evenly split between the commercial and residential sectors.
Amazon alone does not solve that, but its planned absorption of 4-6 million square feet of office space in Pentagon City and Crystal City, along with the yet-unknown investment Amazon will spark, means that Arlington will be on the path toward the commercial sector paying for a larger share of our community’s needs in housing, infrastructure, schools, parks and sustainability programs.
Increasing Our Housing Supply to Encourage Affordability
Many are concerned that Amazon in Arlington will have the same deleterious effects on housing affordability and homelessness that have occurred in Seattle. Without effective intervention, those concerns could be realized. However, leaders across our metropolitan region have committed to increasing the region’s housing supply so that we accommodate projected employment growth, while stabilizing prices overall.
In 2019, the jurisdictions that compose the Washington Council of Governments are looking to develop a regional plan for housing, and here in Arlington, the Board expects to consider proposals to permit exterior accessory dwellings and to encourage preservation of market-rate affordable housing through Housing Conservation Districts. We will also begin exploring zoning ordinance flexibility to permit housing types that are more affordable by design, and our investments in committed affordable units will be enhanced by $15 million each year for the next 10 years that the commonwealth of Virginia will devote to Arlington and Alexandria.
Jobs and Opportunities
Amazon is planning on investing $2.5 billion to construct the Arlington headquarters and to accommodate at least 25,000 permanent jobs. My goal is to work with Amazon to implement a competitive Project Labor Agreement (PLA) so that jobs needed to construct, renovate and equip their buildings are quality jobs where workers will earn livable wages with robust labor standards. These temporary jobs — along with half of the permanent jobs that are expected to be entry-level, support and junior positions — provide a significant opportunity to expand job opportunities. I am committed to seeing that Arlingtonians who are underserved and underemployed have a chance to compete for those jobs.
I have engaged many in the community on concerns about offering incentives to a company as big as Amazon headed by the wealthiest man in the world. I don’t like it either. Yet as an elected leader, I must deal with the world as it is while trying to shape it into the world most of us want it to be. The County Board stood firm that any direct incentive offered to Amazon would not divert existing revenues. Our staff has proposed granting them an increment of the transit occupancy tax growth (mostly paid by non-Arlingtonians) that occurs after they establish here. The other incentives that staff proposed are investments already identified in our capital improvement program, envisioned in our Crystal City Sector Plan or are current policy priorities.
Furthermore, the commonwealth of Virginia will fund hundreds of millions of dollars in projects devoted to transportation such as improvements to Route 1, a bicycle pedestrian connection to the airport and a second entrance to the Crystal City Metro station, and affordable housing. On top of that, a graduate campus for Virginia Tech will be constructed just across our border in the City of Alexandria along with as yet undefined contributions to K-12 education and other local universities. These state investments would not be realized without Amazon coming to Arlington. They serve to catalyze job growth, housing investment and a transformation of the built environment in both Pentagon City and Crystal City.
With the opportunities comes the responsibility to ensure that we realize the benefits of Amazon while avoiding and mitigating adverse consequences. The path Arlington must pursue is one of equitable growth, where Amazon builds in a manner consistent with our approved plans and community benefits are secured commensurate with their impact, and inclusive opportunities, whereby Arlingtonians seeking stable employment or better jobs are given priority consideration by Amazon’s recruiters. I am confident this can become a shared vision with Amazon and I personally welcome our community demanding that this vision become our reality.
Christian Dorsey is Vice-Chair of the Arlington County Board, a principal director of the WMATA Board of Directors, a commissioner on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a member of the Transportation Planning Board, and member of the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Amid persistent concerns that Amazon’s army of new workers will displace low-income Arlingtonians, county leaders plan to redirect their existing investments in affordable housing to better serve the areas impacted by the new headquarters — but the county won’t be upping its financial commitment to spurring the construction of reasonably priced homes.
While critics of Arlington’s decision to court Amazon’s HQ2 have focused on everything from the headquarters’ potential impact on county schools to its transportation systems, the tech giant’s impact on housing prices has perhaps drawn the most scrutiny of all.
The D.C. region has already seen a housing crunch in recent years, and all manner of experts have theorized that the arrival of Amazon’s thousands of highly paid workers will only worsen the county’s challenges. Accordingly, Virginia’s offer to Amazon includes a frequent emphasis on the region’s commitment to addressing local housing woes, and it touts a $150 million investment in affordable housing by Arlington and Alexandria over the next decade. The state has also pledged massive investments in existing programs through its Virginia Housing Development Authority.
But the details of the proposal contain a bit more nuance. The county won’t achieve that affordable housing investment by increasing its annual contributions to various housing-focused programs; rather, it will earmark about a third of those funds for projects creating affordable homes in Crystal City, Pentagon City and along Columbia Pike.
“We’re hoping that will help us create 1,000 new committed affordable units in that area,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow. “And that’s joined by the new commitment from the state, so we’re clearly making this a priority.”
The county currently sends about $21 million to affordable housing efforts each year, county economic development spokeswoman Cara O’Donnell said. That includes just over $14 million to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to encourage affordable developments, and contributions to other loan repayment programs for low-income renters.
That means about $7 million each year will be dedicated to housing affordability programs impacting the neighborhoods surrounding Amazon’s new headquarters. Cristol also hopes to increase that amount as new tax revenues from the company flow into county coffers, though Arlington will need a few years to truly feel those revenue impacts.
Michelle Winters, executive director of the Arlington-based Alliance for Housing Solutions, was hoping to see the county step up its total commitment to affordable housing funds immediately, not simply move money around. She points out that, even with the county’s existing efforts, Arlington has seen dramatic declines in its “market rate” affordable homes, which are designed with prices to match the current housing environment. The number of “committed affordable” homes, where housing prices are controlled, has also not kept pace with growth, she points out.
“It’s going take additional analysis to determine if this will actually be enough to meet the needs arising from Amazon and other growth in the region,” Winters said.
More intense Amazon skeptics, however, believe that anything short of a full-court press from the communities surrounding the new headquarters will spell disaster for renters in the area. State Del. Lee Carter (D-50th District) fully expects that Arlingtonians priced out of the county will soon flock to outer suburbs like his Manassas-area district, causing a ripple effect throughout the Northern Virginia region.
“I live in a one bedroom apartment in Manassas; my rent’s going to go up, and I’m going to get priced out of my own district,” Carter said. “It speaks to the flawed conventional wisdom around economic development. It says that more jobs are always good: but at what cost?”
County officials don’t see the situation as being quite so dire, however. They note that up to 20 percent of the workers Amazon plans to hire likely already live in the area, and that employees will arrive gradually in Arlington over the next few years, not simply show up all at once and disrupt the housing market overnight.
Arlington leaders also believe they’ll have more tools at their disposal to address housing affordability by the time Amazon starts truly ramping up its hiring.
One key way the county earns money for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) is by forcing developers to make contributions to it as they win local approvals for massive new projects. Amazon won’t be building much in Arlington right away, choosing to move into some existing space in Crystal City to start — that’s an outcome affordable housing advocates feared, as the company won’t be required to chip into the AHIF until it starts sketching out construction plans.
But County Board member Erik Gutshall points out that Amazon has big plans for future construction in the area, which will eventually result in “straight contributions” to the AHIF. Amazon has already purchased large tracts of land in Pentagon City from developer JBG Smith, and could opt to fully re-develop some of the existing buildings it’s leasing someday.
“Over time, everything is going to be new,” said Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey. “They’re not just going to stay in existing 1960s buildings. Permanently, they’re building new stuff.”
Yet Winters argues that programs like the AHIF can only do so much to create new affordable housing in the county. She credits the county for some of its work to preserve some older, moderately priced homes, but urged officials to do more, with greater urgency.
“While additional subsidy and investment is absolutely needed, it’s not the only thing that it’s needed,” Winters said. “We absolutely need to ramp up the pace housing is added to the county.”
Other urbanists are willing to call for even more transformative changes to make that happen, now that Amazon has arrived.
Or, independent of Amazon's decision, all localities in DC metro need to build more housing, *esp* in wealthy nhoods w/ good schools, transit, and jobs. That means North Arlington, Ward 3, Bethesda, etc. https://t.co/I3rg9A8egE
— Jenny Schuetz (@jenny_schuetz) November 13, 2018
Cristol acknowledged that “the one thing we can’t address through public policy is speculation in the market,” and early estimates suggest that speculation will be no laughing matter — McEarney Associates, a group of Northern Virginia realtors, released a report estimating that overall home prices will rise anywhere from 20 to 30 percent in the wake of Amazon’s announcement, with appreciation rates “north of 15 percent” in the immediate vicinity of the new headquarters.
Accordingly, Cristol does see a need to “meet the supply challenge,” but she’d prefer to double down on some of the county’s existing efforts to loosen zoning rules for “accessory dwelling units” or allow more renovations to older duplexes, rather than pursue more dramatic changes.
“We need to increase our urgency in expanding housing options among that ‘missing middle’ housing stock,” Cristol said.
Arlington Losing Big Office Tenant — “BAE Systems Inc. is moving its headquarters to Falls Church as part of a consolidation of its Northern Virginia office space… The move will also further ding Arlington County’s office vacancy rate, which at the end of 2017 was 20.6 percent.” [Washington Business Journal]
Hazmat Situation at Kaiser Permanente — Arlington County firefighters responded to a hazardous materials incident at Kaiser Permanente in Falls Church yesterday. Five people were evaluated by medics and, of them, two were transported to the hospital. [WJLA, Twitter, Twitter]
Red Top Development Groundbreaking Nears — “The Shooshan Co. has teamed up with Trammell Crow Residential on the first phase of its planned Red Top Cab site redevelopment in Clarendon, with groundbreaking slated for early next year. The partners closed Sept. 29 on their acquisition from The Red Top Cab Co. founder Neal Nichols of several parcels along Irving and Hudson streets for a listed consideration amount of nearly $28.2 million, according to Arlington County’s Recorder of Deeds.” [Washington Business Journal]
RIP Lance Newman and Tim Wise — Two notable Arlingtonians have died: “Tim Wise, the longtime president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, died Friday in Fredericksburg after a 10-month battle with cancer and heart trouble… Lance Newman, one of four black students who in February 1959 began attending a previously all-white middle school in Arlington… had died after a short illness.” [InsideNova]
ACSO Launches Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign — “Breast cancer hits close to home for the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office, which has launched a campaign to raise awareness about early detection and preventative care. Over the last six years, two employees at the county’s sheriff’s office have been diagnosed with breast cancer.” [WUSA 9]
Forum Planned to Discuss Accessory Dwellings — “A forum looking at current regulations related to accessory-dwelling units in Arlington will be held on Monday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. at Central Library. Speakers will discuss how changes made to the county’s housing ordinances in 2017 impact the regulatory process, and will look at whether further changes are needed.” [InsideNova]
Arlington officials plan to unveil their long-awaited overhaul of the county’s childcare policies next month.
County Board Chair Katie Cristol announced those plans her first “State of the County” address today (Thursday) while speaking to the Arlington Chamber of Commerce in Crystal City. The overhaul is a substantial step forward in the debate over how to improve the availability and affordability of daycare in the county.
While Cristol said she was broadly “optimistic” about the county’s future, she stressed that the Board needs to take action to bring down the cost of childcare and ease the financial burden on working families. County leaders have been examining a “draft action plan” to tackle the issue since December, and Cristol says the Board plans to unveil a final product and debate it in full at a July 24 work session.
“For many families, child care can cost more than rent,” Cristol said. “In just a few weeks time, the Board will consider a detailed plan to address this… including a new set of land-use strategies, public-private partnerships and more.”
Some items will be able to put into motion immediately, while others will require more Board debate, particularly if they involve zoning changes.
Cristol also stressed the childcare plan would be just one of the Board’s priorities as it moves into the back half of 2018. Following the “Big Idea Roundtables” the county convened to spark conversations among county residents, Cristol said she’s newly hopeful that the Board will be able to revisit its zoning policies to increase Arlington’s supply of market rate affordable housing.
Specifically, she’s interested in tackling the problem of the county’s “missing middle,” or homes available for county residents who might make too much money to qualify for dedicated affordable housing but still can’t afford detached single-family homes or high-priced luxury condos.
Cristol is hoping to find new ways to encourage the development of duplexes, moderately-priced townhouses or even “accessory” homes small enough to fit on another single-family home’s property. The county has already loosened its rules for such construction, known as “accessory dwelling units,” but she believes there’s more work still to do.
“We cannot lose sight of affordability as the fundamental challenge of Arlington’s future,” Cristol said.
She expects that the “overdue” kickoff of planning along the Lee Highway corridor, which the Board found new funding for this year and will start in earnest in the coming months, will have some role to play in that conversation.
Cristol would acknowledge, however, that the specter of Amazon’s arrival in Arlington hovers over any discussion of affordable housing or any other pressing issue in the county.
She declined to “break any news” on that front, but would say that she felt the county’s pursuit of the tech giant’s HQ2 “will make the county stronger.”
“Whatever choice Amazon makes on HQ2, it means the national spotlight has found our county,” Cristol said.
The annual Arlington Home Show and Garden Expo is coming to Kenmore Middle School (200 S. Carlin Springs Road) on Saturday, April 14, 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 12th 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 resilient remodeling — making sure a whole home is resilient to major weather disruptions.
The free, family-friendly event will include 16 workshops covering a wide spectrum of topics, including Accessory Dwellings (ADUs), Energy Efficiency, Universal Design and Aging in Place, and will feature more than 65 exhibitors, including local builders, designers, master gardeners and more. In celebration of the 50 years of the Fair Housing Act the Show will offer a special Fair Housing Seminar for Condominiums.
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 energy efficiency kits for the first 150 visitors, many contractor specials and great food will be provided by Cafe Sazon.