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County Leaders Don’t Expect to See Seattle’s Problems with Amazon Spring Up in Arlington

(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

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As Amazon Looms, Lopez Pushes for More State Money to Fund Affordable Housing Development

(Updated at 3 p.m.) With Amazon gearing up to move into his neck of the woods, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) is angling to substantially beef up state spending on affordable housing development.

Lopez, who represents a variety of South Arlington neighborhoods surrounding the tech company’s planned headquarters in Crystal City and Pentagon City, is eyeing a two-pronged approach to the issue in this year’s General Assembly session.

Both of his legislative efforts involve the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, a pot of money Lopez helped create back in 2016 to offer low-interest loans for developers hoping to build reasonably priced housing. Though state lawmakers have only allocated a few million dollars to the fund for the last few years, Lopez hopes to simultaneously ramp up appropriations for the program and find a more stable source of funding for it going forward.

Leaders in Arlington and Alexandria have both committed to send more resources to local programs targeting housing affordability in the wake of Amazon’s big announcement, but those efforts will only be designed to target the communities surrounding the tech giant’s new office space. And with most prognosticators predicting that the 25,000 Amazon employees set to descend on the area will choose to live all over the Northern Virginia region, Lopez sees a clear need for a state-level solution.

“This is a statewide problem,” Lopez told ARLnow. “And I believe affordable housing is a quality of life issue in Virginia, and it’s something we should be funding in the same breath as transit, transportation, environmental protection and education.”

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has already proposed sending $19 million to the housing fund over the next two years as part of his latest budget proposal. That change would make $20 million available for the current fiscal year, and another $10 million available the year after that.

But Lopez is envisioning an even larger amount heading to the fund, and he’s planning on proposing a one-time, $50-million influx to make a difference right away.

The amount might seem small compared to the state’s mammoth budget, but Lopez expects it could make a big difference — he points out that the fund has already helped kick start two projects along Columbia Pike in just the last few years alone.

Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Arlington-based Alliance for Housing Solutions, notes that the trust is “currently a small source of funding that is spread fairly thin across the state.” That means even Northam’s proposal, to say nothing of Lopez’s more ambitious ask, would be a “quantum leap” forward for the state, according to Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.

Federal housing dollars are really diminishing, so it’s increasingly up to state and local governments to fund this stuff,” Krocker said. “Arlington has been a leader on this…but the state of Virginia is being fairly negligent, to put it mildly, in providing resources through the trust fund.”

Accordingly, Winters expects even a modest increase would prove to be meaningful, in Arlington and elsewhere.

“Even though it is small, any source of funding to help fill the gap in an affordable housing project’s budget is very valuable and can help make some more projects feasible,” Winters wrote in an email.

Yet Lopez also sees a clear need to make affordable housing funding a bit more predictable going forward.

Currently, Lopez laments that he has to go “hat in hand” to appropriators on General Assembly committees, urging them each year to set aside money for the trust fund. He’d much rather see lawmakers set up a dedicated funding stream to ensure regular, stable contributions to the loan program each year.

Accordingly, Lopez is backing a bill to establish such a funding mechanism — in essence, the legislation would pull away an annual percentage of surplus revenue from state “recordation” taxes, or levies on home transactions.

He’s proposed such legislation in the past, and acknowledge that it could face an uphill battle this time around — lawmakers with power over the state’s purse strings may be loathe to give up any budgetary discretion, after all.

Even the one-time cash infusion could prove difficult for Lopez to achieve, considering that Republicans have already declared Northam’s budget proposals “dead on arrival,” as a fight over tax revenues brews in the General Assembly.

“We’re all very concerned that with Republicans being so opposed to the governor’s amendments… that we’ll really have to wait and see whether the governor’s housing trust fund plans survives these deliberations,” Krocker said.

It doesn’t help matters either that some key lawmakers (and even some Northam administration officials) shied away from including more affordable housing money in the state’s proposal to Amazon, arguing localities and developers are better suited to fund this kind of development.

But Lopez is “hopeful” that the grave concerns raised about the housing market in the wake of Amazon’s announcement could help change minds on the issue, and he’ll certainly have allies among Arlington’s legislative delegation.

“Housing will be an issue here for at least a decade or more,” said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District). “Amazon coming in won’t change all that dramatically, but it does increase the urgency for affordable housing and putting funding behind this.”

File photo

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Parking Emerges as Key Concern as Virginia Square American Legion Redevelopment Advances

As plans advance for the redevelopment of the American Legion post in Virginia Square, neighbors are raising a familiar question for developers in Arlington’s densest areas: what about parking?

The Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing hopes to eventually buy the 1.3-acre property at 3445 Washington Blvd and transform the current home of American Legion Post 139 into a building with 160 affordable apartments. The nonprofit would set aside space on the ground floor of the development for a new Legion post, and it even plans to reserve half of its homes for veterans.

APAH has been working to make the project a reality since the American Legion agreed to these plans back in 2016, and the proposal is very nearly ready to earn some key county approvals — the county’s Site Plan Review Committee will scrutinize the project at a meeting for the third time tonight (Monday), and the group could soon advance the proposal to the Planning Commission.

But it seems the nonprofit has yet to allay the concerns of nervous Ballston and Virginia Square neighbors worried that the new development will bring more cars parking on their streets.

“We are concerned that given the number of 2- and 3-bedroom apartments planned, the expectation that families will live in them, and the fact that our neighborhood does not have access to walkable elementary or middle schools, it’s not feasible to assume residents without a car or that even one car per unit will be sufficient,” Cara Troup, the treasurer of the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association, wrote in a Dec. 7 email to county staff.

APAH plans to build a one-story underground garage with 96 parking spaces in total, and the developer does acknowledge that it’s providing less parking than the county’s zoning standards demand.

However, the nonprofit believes that the development’s proximity to public transit options should mean that most residents won’t rely on cars. A transportation study of the site commissioned by APAH points out that the property may not quite be along a Metro corridor, but does sit “directly across” from the busy Fairfax Drive and its nearby Virginia Square Metro station.

APAH also sought to reassure the SPRC that it generally restricts residents to one car per household and will offer them reduced rates on bikeshare memberships, according to notes from the committee’s Dec. 10 meeting.

The nonprofit plans to set aside 20 spaces to serve visitors and staff for the American Legion post specifically, so it doesn’t expect that the group’s new headquarters (set to include new space for a variety of support services for veterans) will put a strain on parking on the area. But neighbors remain convinced that there just isn’t enough room for the people who will live in the new building, perhaps prompting more cars to push for space in the neighborhoods behind the development on 13th and 14th Street N.

Many of the streets in area are already subject to parking restrictions under the county’s permit program. But zoned parking in the county only bars unauthorized cars from neighborhoods from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays — the program was originally designed as a way to bar commuters from D.C.-adjacent areas.

That’s prompted Troup to push for new parking restrictions running from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, in order to ensure that APAH’s new residents don’t simply drive their cars to work and then park them on nearby streets at night. She even envisions that change coming as a condition of the county approving the development.

County officials are currently eyeing changes to the residential parking program as part of a two-year study of its efficacy, likely making any such change an uphill battle. But, until that work wraps up later this year, neighbors are adamant that they want to see more parking required for developments like APAH’s new building.

“Arlington’s zoned parking regulations need to be updated to reflect these present day conditions to include restricted parking into the evenings and on weekends,” Lyon Village Citizens’ Association  President John Carten wrote in a letter to county planners. “It may be the case that lifestyles and transportation options today are such that the parking ratios for certain projects do not need to be what they were in the past. However, until county parking policies are updated to increase restricted parking hours beyond the outdated business hours approach, Lyon Village and similarly situated neighborhoods are being put in a very difficult position when [asked] to support projects with parking ratios lower than historical norms.”

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As County Board Picks New Leadership, Officials Pledge Focus on Equity in Managing Amazon’s Arrival

With newly reshuffled leadership on the Arlington County Board, local officials are pledging a focus on equity as Amazon arrives this year, particularly when it comes to housing in the county.

The Board’s annual organizational meeting came with little in the way of procedural surprises last night (Wednesday). Vice Chair Christian Dorsey earned unanimous approval take the chair’s gavel, replacing outgoing Chair Katie Cristol, while Libby Garvey was elevated to take his place.

But the meeting still represented a major turning of the page in the county. Not only was the gathering the Board’s first since Matt de Ferranti’s swearing in, returning the Board to unified Democratic control for the first time since 2014, but it was a chance for Board members to sketch out a vision for how they plan to confront what looks to be a difficult year.

Naturally, Amazon proved to be the elephant in the room as officials delivered their annual New Year’s remarks. In kicking off the Board speeches, Dorsey framed his upcoming year-long chairmanship as one that will have “an emphasis on equity,” especially when it comes time to “expertly manage” Amazon’s growth.

Dorsey noted right away that he’s “only the third person who looks like me to ever serve as chair” of the Board — he joins Charles Monroe and William Newman, now the chief judge of Arlington Circuit Court, as the only black men to hold the gavel in the county’s history.

Accordingly, he said that history will guide his focus on “ensuring that Amazon’s gradual growth here benefits our entire community,” especially as the county prepares to confront some tough budget years while it awaits a projected revenue boom from the tech giant’s presence.

“Taken together, budget gaps today, and significant investment and commercial growth in the near term, present us with the dual responsibility of ensuring that today’s austerity doesn’t disproportionately burden the marginalized and most vulnerable, and that better times don’t leave those same people behind,” Dorsey said.

Board members agreed that a key area focus for leaders on that front will have to be changes to the county’s zoning code, as officials work to allow different types of reasonably priced homes to proliferate around Arlington. Cristol and Board member Erik Gutshall both praised the Board’s past work on housing conservation districts as a good first step, but both emphasized that the county needs to do more to meet its own goals for creating new affordable homes each year.

“Amazon’s arrival has focused our community energy on protecting our middle class from being priced out permanently,” Cristol said. “We can’t squander the opportunity to tackle this hard and important zoning reform work in the year ahead.”

De Ferranti agreed that the county should be fighting for a “significant public and private investment in affordable homeownership and rental housing” as it finalizes its incentive package to bring Amazon to Arlington.

But he and Gutshall also emphasized that a commitment to environmental equity should guide the county’s negotiations with Amazon, arguing that officials should work with the tech company to ensure its new campus in Crystal City and Pentagon City is “net-zero energy,” meaning that Amazon’s buildings generate as much energy as they consume. Gutshall even went a step further, proposing that the county join the growing calls for a “Green New Deal” from some of the newest Democrats heading to Congress, arguing that the “trade-off between the environment or the economy is a false one.”

Yet Board members pledged to keep a more local focus as well, particularly when it comes to Amazon’s impacts on the county’s already crowded classrooms.

Officials are hopeful that county schools will able to handle the gradual arrival of Amazon employees and their families, but Gutshall and Cristol both called for renewed long-range planning efforts for new school buildings.

De Ferranti was even more specific, saying the Board should build future budgets to “put the county in a position to fund the building of another high school” — the School Board is currently in the midst of hashing out plans for new high school seats at the Arlington Career Center, but whether or not that facility will provide the equivalent of a fourth comprehensive high school for county students remains an open question.

Through all of these difficult discussions, however, Garvey urged everyone — from local officials to activists — to strike embrace “civility.” The year-long debate over Amazon has already promoted plenty of tense meetings and raised voices, and the new vice chair argued that “Arlington Way has gotten rather frayed around the edges” in recent months.

“People sometimes jump to the assumption that intent is nefarious, or are all too quick to take offense when no offense was intended,” Garvey said. “We have to set some basic standards, and then follow through by not allowing people to violate those standards and stay in the discussion, or at least not to dominate the discussion so that everyone else decides to leave.”

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Kaine, Warner Hope to Lend a Hand on Affordable Housing Issues to Prepare for Amazon’s Arrival

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has never been much of a fan of the name “Crystal City.”

As a longtime Alexandria resident, the state’s senior senator has had to spend plenty of time in and around the Arlington neighborhood that will soon become home to Amazon’s vaunted new headquarters, all the while rolling his eyes at its moniker.

“I’m not sure ‘National Landing’ should be the name, but I’d be so glad to get rid of ‘Crystal City,'” Warner quipped Thursday (Dec. 13) at a roundtable discussion hosted at George Mason University’s Virginia Square campus.

Luckily, his colleague on stage, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), had an alternative suggestion for the Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yard corridor ready to go: “Warner Plaza,” he said, prompting a round of laughter from the crowd of Northern Virginia business leaders and politicians.

That light-hearted banter aside, both senators acknowledged that the county will soon face far more dire problems than just naming its neighborhoods. Kaine and Warner both see Amazon’s impending arrival as a huge net positive for the county, and the state as a whole, but they also expressed a desire to take some action to help address the thorny issue of affordable housing in the area.

Kaine sees room for Congress to lend a hand, perhaps by expanding the federal “Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.”

The program is designed to incentivize affordable development, and Kaine teamed up with Democrats and Republicans alike to introduce a bill last year expanding its funding by 50 percent. His office estimates it would create or preserve 1.3 million affordable homes over the next decade, about 400,000 more than would be possible under the program’s current funding levels.

“We don’t have to recreate the wheel,” Kaine said. “We can take things that work and do more of them. It’s already a good program to create workforce housing, but we can do more of it.”

Considering the county’s challenges finding cash for its own affordable housing loan fund, more help from the feds would likely come as quite welcome news indeed for Arlington leaders. But, despite its bipartisan support, Kaine’s legislation on the subject has yet to make any progress.

Warner envisions a more local approach to the matter. While the state already has its own housing development authority, which is set to pour tens of millions more into affordable housing initiatives as part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed deal with Amazon, Warner thinks the area’s localities could stand to team up as well.

“I think there needs to be work done on a regional housing authority to make sure there will be affordable housing, and make sure people don’t get pushed out of their homes,” Warner said.

Warner does expect, however, that Congress can help out by ensuring stable federal funding for Metro in 2019.

Though the rail service did manage to score its first dedicated revenue stream this year, thanks to commitments from Virginia, Maryland and D.C. lawmakers, it remains subject to the whims of Congress for another $150 million or so in cash each year. And with Amazon bringing thousands of workers to the area, many of whom will likely rely on the Blue and Yellow lines to reach the offices, Metro’s health has been a key focus as officials look to prepare for the company’s arrival.

As Democrats prepare to assume control of the House of Representatives, Warner fully expects the “odds and leverage [for more Metro funding] will go up” next year. But that doesn’t mean he’s counting on adding more federal funds for the service, either, considering that Republicans still control most levers of power in D.C.

“I would love to say we could plus up that number, but I don’t think that’s in the cards with this Senate and this president,” Warner said. “But if we can get $150 million again, let’s take the money and run.”

Beyond the housing and transportation challenges Amazon may well exacerbate in the area, Warner echoed the views of his colleagues around the state that the new headquarters will be a “game changer” for the region.

With such high office vacancy rates even in a prosperous part of the state like Arlington, Warner says the region had a “level of vulnerability that I’m not sure the whole business community appreciated” before Amazon tabbed Arlington. Of course, he hopes that that tech company doesn’t simply bring prosperity for Northern Virginia when it gets here.

“I know it’s a little bit of heresy to say with an Arlington crowd, but I hope to find some Amazon contractors and partners to put jobs downstate too,” Warner said. “As the commonwealth makes a substantial investment, an investment that is about one quarter per job what New York overpaid for, by the way, we need to show that it will benefit the whole commonwealth.”

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New Report Shows County Continues to Lag Behind Affordable Housing Goals

Arlington officials managed to create or preserve 515 homes guaranteed to remain affordable to low-income renters this year — but the size of that number masks the fact that the county still isn’t meeting its own affordable housing goals.

In a report released this week evaluating Arlington’s progress toward fulfilling the standards of its “Affordable Housing Master Plan,” county housing staffers trumpeted the 221 new “committed affordable” units officials helped developers build in Fiscal Year 2018.

The county also managed to preserve another 294 existing homes to ensure their rent prices remain low enough to be deemed “affordable.” Though the term may seem subjective, officials define it to mean that a home’s monthly rent or mortgage, plus utilities, is “no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income.”

The combined total of 515 units is down slightly from the 556 the county created or preserved last year, though up from 2016’s total of 322 homes.

But the master plan, adopted by the County Board in 2015, calls for Arlington to be making a bit more progress in this area by now.

The document sets a goal that 17.7 percent of the county’s available housing should be affordable by the time 2040 rolls around, meaning that the county will need to create or preserve 15,800 committed affordable units before then. That means the county needs to generate 585 net new affordable homes each year, a standard that Arlington hasn’t been able to hit since passing the master plan three years ago.

And with Amazon on the way, and fears about housing affordability growing, advocates see this latest report as yet more clear evidence that the county needs to take more aggressive steps to solve the problem.

“The county has been off-pace for meeting its AHMP goals since the beginning,” Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, told ARLnow via email. “They need to ramp up the pace in order to meet their own goals.”

Winters also points out that the 2018 numbers may be a bit misleading in considering the county’s progress toward its goals. The 294 affordable homes that the county preserved came courtesy of a loan at the “Park Shirlington” development in Fairlington, which Winters points out “is only guaranteed affordable for three years until the developer comes back with a proposal for long-term affordability (which may include fewer affordable units in the end).”

Of course, Housing Director David Cristeal notes in the report that the “desirability” of Arlington as a community has “made it much harder to find modestly priced housing, which lags behind demand,” complicating any effort to preserve affordable homes. The county has taken some steps to address that issue in recent years, particularly by creating new “Housing Conservation Districts” to protect older homes, and the Board has mulled expanding that program moving forward.

Yet Winters has often urged the county to use those districts to incentivize property owners toward affordable redevelopments, upping the number of affordable homes on the same property. Her group and others on the Board, including newly elected member Matt de Ferranti, have agitated for increased contributions to the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund as well, increasing Arlington’s ability to hand out loans and promote affordable developments.

Without taking more drastic steps now, Winters fears that the county will become even more unaffordable for low-income renters. She points out that the report also shows that the number of small, two-bedroom homes in the county continues to decline in favor of new single-family home construction, and that’s before the development boom most observers expect that Amazon will kick off in the area.

“This is evidence of our disappearing, older, more modest and previously affordable homes, replaced by larger high-end new construction,” she wrote.

Photo via Park Shirlington

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Amazon-Focused Town Hall Reveals Community Concerns Over Tech Giant’s Power

How might lowly local officials be able to bring one of the world’s largest companies to heel?

That’s the prime question on the minds of many Arlington and Alexandria residents worried about how Amazon might soon reshape their communities.

And while county and city leaders are optimistic that the tech giant will prove to be a reliable partner in the region, they’re also admitting that they don’t have all that many tools to push Jeff Bezos and company around.

“We have to focus on using the policy tools that we do have,” said County Board Chair Katie Cristol at an Amazon-focused town hall in Crystal City’s Synetic Theater last night (Monday).

Public speakers at the event, which was hosted by WAMU 88.5’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, fretted over how localities might address everything from the company’s labor practices to its commitment to hiring a diverse workforce.

Leaders in attendance sought to reassure nervous neighbors that localities will be able to extract community benefits from the company as it builds new space in Pentagon City and Crystal City. County Board member Libby Garvey even expressed optimism that “Amazon is going to affect us, but we’re going to affect Amazon too” when it comes to changing the company’s culture.

But concerns abound that Amazon’s status as the new economic engine for the area will give it unprecedented bargaining power in any dispute with local leaders.

“The County Board works really hard and wants to do the best they can for us, but Amazon, at any point, can say ‘No,'” said Roshan Abraham, an organizer with Our Revolution Arlington, a progressive group that has opposed the county’s pursuit of Amazon. “They always threaten to pack up and leave, it’s what they always do…  We have very little leverage, particularly at the political level.”

Part of the problem for local leaders is that state law limits their ability to pursue some of the most aggressive pro-worker measures favored by Amazon skeptics. Virginia’s legislature, long dominated by Republicans, has adopted a series of measures designed to make the state more business friendly — perhaps most notably, Virginia is a “right to work” state, limiting the ability of unions to charge workers fees for representing them.

Several members of local unions urged officials to press Amazon to sign “project labor agreements” ahead of any new headquarters construction, or a contract with a union to lay out the working conditions for a project before construction gets started.

But Virginia has laws on the books designed to limit government agencies from requiring such agreements, and Cristol pointed out that “the state has made it very clear that we can’t use those” in many situations.

However, she did pledge to urge Amazon to work with unions and offer fair working conditions on its construction sites — and the question gave her a chance to underscore just how meaningful it might be if her fellow Democrats seized control of the General Assembly in next year’s elections.

Other attendees were similarly nervous that the county won’t be able to force Amazon to fork over cash to spur the development of more affordable housing, particularly as the arrival of the company’s planned 25,000 workers strain the region’s housing market.

On that front, however, Arlington officials are confident that they’ll be able to use their existing development process to require Amazon to chip in more money for its Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to incentivize reasonably priced development. Of course, that will have to wait until the company starts building new facilities, which could take years yet.

In the meantime, housing advocates are optimistic that the tech giant is committed to the issue of housing affordability, and could agree to some select contributions on its own.

Carmen Romero, vice president of real estate development with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, said both Amazon and its major landlord in Arlington (JBG Smith) have told her they “want to be at the table” when it comes to discussions about creating new affordable developments. She even suggested that JBG could agree to donate some small portion of the large swaths of land it owns in Crystal City and Pentagon City to a nonprofit like her group, allowing for new affordable homes in the immediate vicinity of the headquarters.

“It’s very fair to ask Amazon to join us at the table as part of the philanthropic community,” Cristol said. “If they’re going to be a major player here, we’re very interested in seeing a big commitment from them.”

Alexandria Mayor-elect Justin Wilson added that the mere fact of Amazon’s interest in the region has already changed the conversation at the state level. He noted that state lawmakers were previously reticent to commit to major affordable housing funding, despite Northern Virginia leaders “banging our heads against the wall in Richmond,” but officials agreed to send an additional $15 million to the Virginia Housing Development Authority as part of the offer to Amazon.

“This was important to Amazon,” Wilson said, drawing a few laughs from skeptics in the audience. “But we were able to make the argument to the state government that this was something that had to be part of the package to help us attract a major employer.”

For Amazon opponents, however, it’s not enough that the company and state might voluntarily agree to measures to offset the impending impacts on the county.

Abraham’s group is pushing the concept of a “community benefits agreement,” a deal that a coalition of neighbors would strike directly with the company to ensure it invests in the community’s priorities, as an alternative to government officials haggling on their behalf.

It may not be enough to answer all their concerns, but he expects it may be a better path to pursue than hoping local politicians can win battles with a company owned by the world’s richest man.

“If we get Amazon to make these commitments to our community now, that, I believe, is the best way we have of protecting ourselves,” Abraham said.

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Morning Notes

Reminder: Yellow Line Shutdown Starts Today — There will be no Yellow Line service today through Sunday, Dec. 9 as Metro works to repair the Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac. Yellow Line riders can instead take the Blue Line and/or free shuttle service. [ARLnow, Twitter]

New ‘Clarendon Circle’ Traffic Restriction — Work on improvements to the busy “Clarendon Circle” intersection are underway and have resulted in at least one traffic pattern change. During construction, drivers will not be allowed to make the “tricky” left from eastbound Washington Blvd to Clarendon Blvd, and will instead have to follow a detour via N. Kirkwood Road. [Twitter, Arlington County]

Civ Fed Prepares Tree Canopy Resolution — “The Arlington County Civic Federation in December will weigh in on the development plan of Upton Hill Regional Park and, more broadly, on Arlington government policies on retaining or removing trees during redevelopment on public land. A resolution demanding a temporary halt to current development plans at Upton Hill was introduced at the Civic Federation’s Nov. 13 meeting and will be debated and voted on Dec. 4.” [InsideNova]

Minor Bluemont House Fire — Firefighters extinguished an out-of-control fire in the fireplace of a Bluemont house Saturday night. No injuries were reported but the home, on the 900 block of N. Frederick Street, suffered some smoke damage. [Twitter, Twitter]

Another Traffic Nightmare at DCA — As if the gridlock caused by the Veterans Day shutdown of the National Airport Metro station wasn’t bad enough, the traffic nightmare repeated itself Sunday evening, during one of the busiest travel days of the year. Some drivers reported spending hours trying to get to and from the airport. [NBC Washington, Twitter]

CBS Looks at Clarendon’s Vpoint Apartments — On Saturday morning, CBS News took a close look at the vPoint affordable housing project in Clarendon. The project, which converted a stand-alone church to a combination worship space and apartment building, is potentially a model for other communities struggling with affordable housing. At the time, however, the redevelopment faced lawsuits and other community opposition. [YouTube]

Amazon News Roundup — Arlington saw only modest successes in its quest to pitch itself as a tech hub over the past few years, but Amazon’s arrival changes that narrative in a big way. That said, half of the jobs Amazon brings to Arlington will be non-technical. Meanwhile, Amazon may benefit lower-income residents in New York City more than in Arlington, as subcontractors in New York will be subject to the state’s $15 per hour minimum wage; Virginia’s minimum wage is currently the federal $7.25 per hour minimum. And Nashville, some say, will be the biggest winner in terms of Amazon’s new presence boosting the local commercial real estate market.

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Arlington Commits to Only Limited Affordable Housing Measures As Part of Amazon Deal

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.

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.

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As Amazon Rumors Intensify, Advocates Worry Arlington Won’t Press for Affordable Housing Help

As all signs continue to suggest that Crystal City will soon become home to at least half of Amazon’s new headquarters, affordable housing advocates are increasingly concerned that Arlington won’t force the tech giant to take action to mitigate the new office’s impact on housing prices in the county.

The company’s abrupt decision to split its “HQ2” between Crystal City and New York City, as detailed in a flurry of national news reports, means that Arlington could see only half of the 50,000 new jobs Amazon promised along with the new headquarters. Nevertheless, fears linger that the arrival of even a portion of those workers would further squeeze the county’s already tight housing market.

County and state officials have steadfastly refused to release any details about their pitch to Amazon, including details on potential economic incentives for the company, or any community benefits designed to account for how a sudden influx of thousands of workers might drive up housing prices and demand.

Amazon has also been mum on how it might set up shop in Crystal City, but speculation abounds that the company would move into the thousands of square feet of vacant office space controlled by JBG Smith, the area’s largest property owner. The real estate firm was intimately involved in assembling Crystal City’s HQ2 bid, and Arlington officials have salivated over the prospect that the company could reverse the county’s high office vacancy rate in one fell swoop.

But should Jeff Bezos and company move right in to that vacant space, experts worry that the county won’t have the ability to extract any cash for Arlington’s main tool for spurring the development of reasonably priced homes: the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, commonly known as the AHIF.

The program offers low-interest loans for new construction or redevelopment efforts to add more affordable housing in the county, and the county regularly requires developers behind high-density projects to contribute to the fund, in order to offset the impacts of that development on the rest of the county.

Yet Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, points out that Amazon could well avoid any such contribution, despite bringing thousands of highly paid workers to the area. After all, the company may simply prove to be a very, very large office tenant, and not plan any new construction in the county for years yet.

“These fees are a major component of how we pay for affordable housing in Arlington,” Winters told ARLnow. “But we just don’t know what kind of deal they’re potentially making with Amazon.”

Through a spokeswoman, Arlington Housing Director David Cristeal confirmed that the “county does not require AHIF contributions if a tenant moves into existing space without building anything new.”

“A developer or building lessee would not need to contribute to AHIF if they move into an existing building without requesting additional density and/or a site plan amendment,” Cristeal wrote. Site plan amendments, in general, are reserved for major construction projects.

County Board Chair Katie Cristol agrees with Cristeal’s assessment, noting that the “mechanisms for achieving contributions to the AHIF are tools available to us during the land-use process” only.

“The time at which we’d achieve something like that is as the building is built, not as a tenant moves in, which makes sense,” Cristol said.

What that means for the county’s potential deal with Amazon, Cristol can’t say. She says the county still has yet to work out the details of just how the tech giant would move in to Arlington, making it a bit too early to speculate on technical questions like potential AHIF contributions.

However, she did point out that the whole point of Arlington luring Amazon in the first place is to generate new tax revenue, which the county could then direct into the AHIF or other measures to preserve and create affordable housing.

“The reason to bring in new tenants to Arlington generally is they fund all those things,” Cristol said. “Whether it’s the AHIF, housing grants, public schools, transportation costs… It can be easy to lose sight of that.”

Of course, there are plenty of experts skeptical of just how much Amazon’s arrival will actually juice county revenues, especially if Arlington signs off on hefty tax breaks to lure the company here in the first place. For instance, the government accountability group Good Jobs First, an intense Amazon critic, estimates that localities can end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for each job that a major new investor generates.

Kasia Tarczynska, a research analyst with Good Jobs First, notes that the county could always limit the tax breaks it offers the company and “use that money for affordable housing, public transit and workforce development.”

“In Boston, for example, as part of the incentive package, the city said it would invest $75 million in affordable housing, instead [of] giving that money to Amazon,” Tarczynska wrote in an email.

But that’s where the county’s secrecy around its offer to the company, which has been criticized by liberal and conservative activists alike, stymies further analysis.

Even still, Winters and Tarczynska both expect that the county could still work out a deal with Amazon that involves a contribution to the AHIF, or other affordable housing measures, even if it wouldn’t be strictly required by county ordinances.

“If I were Amazon, I would pay in more than what would ordinarily be required, because their own workers would benefit from more affordable housing in the community,” Winters said. “This is one of the biggest companies in the world… I’d imagine it could be considered the cost of doing business for them.”

Ben Beach, the legal director for the Partnership for Working Families, notes that plenty of other local officials have negotiated for such concessions as large companies have sought to move in to their communities. The question on his mind is whether Arlington officials will do the same.

“Local governments have a wide range of tools at their disposal; the question is simply political will,” Beach wrote in an email. “And in this case, we know there is substantial public money involved, so there’s really no excuse for anything less than a gold standard community benefits package.”

Photo via JBG Smith

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In a Bid to Preserve Affordable Housing, County Allows For More Changes to Older Homes

The Arlington County Board has signed off on some zoning changes to make it easier for the owners of older townhouses and duplexes to renovate or expand their homes.

The Board voted unanimously yesterday (Tuesday) to amend the county zoning ordinance to allow for more changes to “nonconforming homes” — structures built before the county’s zoning rules took effect back in 1942 that might not match current standards. The move will simultaneously remove some headaches for certain homeowners and help preserve affordable housing options for the county’s middle class.

The county’s old rules have frequently frustrated the owners of certain types of homes, who were previously barred from commissioning even simple renovations without enduring a lengthy county appeals process. That incentivized tear-downs over renovations, which in turn reduced the county’s stock of market rate affordable housing.

“This is the kind of stock we hope will age over time and become more affordable,” Board Chair Katie Cristol said Tuesday. “I feel so strongly that this is a move for the better, not only for these individual homeowners, but for the preservation of this stock, that will allow the current and next generation of Arlington’s middle class to move in and own a piece of this community, or rent a piece of this community.”

County planner Kellie Brown told the Board that the changes could allow for interior “by right” renovations at more than 600 homes, which won’t require extensive county review, and exterior additions or expansions at roughly 1,500 partially detached homes or townhouses. While the changes will impact all nonconforming homes in areas zoned “R2-7,” county staffers say that the bulk of the impacted houses are located along Lee Highway, Columbia Pike, Wilson Boulevard, and in Nauck.

John Quirk, who owns a duplex with his wife in the North Highlands neighborhood near Rosslyn, counts himself among the homeowners who plan to take advantage of the change. He launched a petition urging the Board to make just these sort of zoning changes last December, after the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals denied his family’s attempts to convert an unused attic into a third-story bedroom.

“At first we didn’t even know you were prevented from doing that, so we were really frustrated,” Quirk told ARLnow. “But this is just an example of the government working for people. The Board was very receptive to all this.”

Quirk says he worked with his neighbors and other homeowners to make the Board aware of these challenges, and he credits the county’s “measured approach” in studying the issue in more detail before moving ahead with the changes.

He also lauded the Board for living up to its stated goal of preserving affordable housing in the county, noting that he and his wife were considering moving elsewhere in Northern Virginia, as they “can’t afford a $1.1 million house in Lyon Village.” Quirk fully expects that plenty of others have faced the same problems maintaining a reasonable “work-life balance” of commuting into D.C. while coping with Arlington’s rising housing costs, and he looks forward to starting work on his own duplex sometime early next year.

“By living in these smaller homes, we’re a demographic that creates population density,” Quirk said. “And that makes Arlington the great, walkable community that it is.”

Quirk noted that he encountered virtually no opposition during his push for the zoning changes, and Board member Erik Gutshall similarly lauded the effort’s “broad community support” Tuesday.

The lone complaints about the issue came courtesy of local activist and frequent county government critic Jim Hurysz, who charged that allowing more renovations will actually drive up the prices of the homes in question and hurt the very middle-class residents the county hopes to help.

“Mr. Gutshall ought to be very happy at least, as he owns a construction company,” Hurysz said.

While the affordable housing advocates with the Alliance for Housing Solutions agree that there is “some possibility that streamlining additions to two-family homes may increase their values, and thus reduce affordability,” they too supported the changes as a key way to preserve older homes.

“We believe that the typical arrangement and size of the homes and housing type itself will help maintain its relative affordability over time, particularly when compared to the typical single-family home in Arlington,” Executive Director Michelle Winters wrote in an Oct. 18 letter to the Board. “Furthermore, these kinds of changes can help provide more opportunities for middle-income households to stay in Arlington to raise families rather than leaving in search of other housing options.”

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County Weighs Allowing More Renovations, Additions to Older Duplexes and Townhomes

Arlington could soon make it easier for owners of older duplexes and townhomes to renovate the buildings or tack on additions.

Plenty of Arlington homeowners looking to make a change to a home built before the 1940s have encountered a vexing conundrum in the county’s zoning ordinance; the building could well be deemed “nonconforming” with Arlington’s zoning rules, as it wasn’t built to match the standards the county’s been using since 1942. That means any sort of renovation or addition to the home would require extensive county review, and could ultimately be prohibited, restrictions that have persistently frustrated property owners over the years.

But the County Board is weighing a change to loosen some of those restrictions on two-family homes in some sections of the county.

Not only could the change result in less headaches for homeowners, but county staff expect it would help preserve more affordable housing around Arlington, a key conundrum officials have looked to address in recent years.

“Staff finds that the proposed amendments… allow for reinvestment in existing housing stock that contributes to the overall diversity of housing countywide,” staffers wrote in a report prepared for the Board ahead of its meeting this weekend. “These proposed changes are intended to remove zoning barriers that have existed for decades that limit the type of reinvestment and renovation activities for nearly all of the county’s supply of two-family, and some one-family, dwellings.”

County staff estimate that the change, targeted at homes zoned “R2-7,” would affect as many as 1,488 structures around the county, giving those homeowners the chance to make a range of changes “by right” instead of pursuing county approval first.

Staff noted that the Board of Zoning Appeals, which hears requests from the owners of nonconforming homes, has reviewed 12 cases involving “R2-7” homes over the last two years alone. In all, they believe the bulk of such homes are concentrated “along Lee Highway, Columbia Pike, Wilson Boulevard, and in Nauck.”

The county also doesn’t expect that these “proposed amendments will significantly alter existing neighborhood character where these one- and two-family dwellings occur,” a fear frequently cited by zoning officials reviewing previous cases.

Staff added that the county will “consider opportunities to encourage development of new, two-family dwellings” in the future, noting that officials could someday commence a more detailed study of “missing middle” housing in the county, or homes falling in the price range between affordable housing and luxury apartments.

The county’s ongoing review of “housing conservation districts” to promote the preservation, and perhaps redevelopment, of older apartments and duplexes will also offer more clarity on the matter in the coming months.

The Board will take up these zoning changes at its meeting Saturday (Oct. 20).

Photo via Google Maps

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County Board Contenders Split on How Much Cash to Send to Affordable Housing Loan Fund

There isn’t much daylight between the two contenders for County Board this fall on affordable housing issues in Arlington, but the pair is offering different answers on one key matter: how much money the county should chip in to encourage affordable development.

Independent incumbent John Vihstadt and Democratic challenger Matt de Ferranti have both stressed the importance of preserving affordable homes in Arlington as part of their respective campaigns, and both did so once more in responses to a questionnaire from the advocates at the Alliance for Housing Solutions, released yesterday (Wednesday).

Both candidates also offered many of the same solutions for preserving affordable housing, like an increased reliance on housing conservation districts to protect older buildings. But their biggest divergence in answering the group’s questions came on whether the county should increase its annual contribution to its Affordable Housing Investment Fund.

Commonly known as AHIF, the fund is a loan program aimed at encouraging developers to build affordable housing by offering low-interest loans for new construction or redevelopments. Though the fund also draws in some federal funding, tax revenue and developer contributions, the bulk of the cash comes courtesy of a county contribution set in each budget cycle.

The Alliance for Housing Solutions asked each candidate whether the county should increase that annual contribution, particularly as rent prices continue to climb and the potential arrival of Amazon looms. For his part, de Ferranti offered a clear “yes” to that query, arguing that the county needs to strive to create substantially more “committed affordable” units per year, or homes with lower, more stable rent prices.

“We should use AHIF to work to reach our goals, and at the very least should work to get from [creating] 280 [units per year] to a much higher number of units,” de Ferranti wrote. “I fully realize that in this tight budget environment, increasing funding to those levels will be very difficult, but I do not think the levels we have at the moment are sufficient to say that we are truly making a real effort to fulfill our goals.”

Vihstadt would not be so definitive as to say he didn’t want to see an increase in the county’s AHIF contribution, noting that he’d like to reduce Arlington’s office vacancy rate and use the additional tax revenue to increase AHIF funding. But he also made no specific commitment to a funding boost, stressing instead that he wants to “move an increasing portion of AHIF funding from one-time to ongoing [in the county budget] to provide a more predictable and reliable funding stream for affordable housing.”

“This will have the helpful byproduct of allowing us to better plan for new projects,” Vihstadt wrote.

Michelle Winters, the executive director of the AHS, says her group won’t be evaluating the candidates’ answers to these questions, but does point out that “moving funds from one-time to ongoing does not equate to having more funds for AHIF in the budget.”

“It just theoretically helps insulate the ‘ongoing’ portion from potential budget cuts in the future,” Winters told ARLnow. “For example, in [fiscal year 2019], the total AHIF allocation dropped from $15 million to $14.3 million, but the ‘ongoing’ or base portion of that amount was increased from $4.9 million to $6.7 million.”

That difference aside, however, both candidates agreed that the Board should find new funding sources for the AHIF to ensure the program gets the money it needs to succeed.

Vihstadt referenced the possibility of “increased dedicated recordation tax monies and even special purpose bonds” to send more cash to AHIF, or somehow taking advantage of the new “Opportunity Zone” designation created by the Republican tax reform bill last year, which is designed to lure investment to disadvantaged areas through tax breaks.

De Ferranti also raised the possibility of setting aside “dedicated funding for AHIF through a specific revenue stream,” as the “community could more clearly understand the investment in affordable housing” if the county makes clear how it’s funding the AHIF. Like Vihstadt, he also proposed funding the AHIF with a bond as part of the county’s Capital Improvement Plan, which is normally set aside to guide funding for large construction projects around Arlington.

“This would require considerable public engagement to achieve, but it is worth considering,” he wrote.

Photo via Facebook

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Without a Surge in Construction, Planners Warn of a Massive ‘Housing Shortfall’ Across D.C. Region

Arlington and the rest of the D.C. region could face a massive “housing shortfall” in the coming years without a surge in new construction, according to a new analysis by regional planners.

A study presented to the board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments last Wednesday (Sept. 12) suggests that the region needs to add 100,000 more homes than are currently projected to be built between now and 2045.

Otherwise, planners expect the surge in workers moving to the region will drive up housing prices to even higher levels, imperiling the region’s economy and further driving workers out into increasingly distant suburbs.

“The projected gap — or housing ‘ shortfall’ — will only worsen without intervention,” MWCOG researchers wrote. “The region should continue to create and/or preserve housing at a higher rate than has been achieved in the recent past to close the gap and provide adequate housing options to be able to sustain strong regional economic growth.”

The researchers based that warning on population estimates for the region suggesting D.C. and its suburbs will see its employment base of 3.28 million jobs balloon to 4.27 million by 2045 — a forecast that only takes regional trends into consideration and doesn’t specifically account for the arrival of a tech giant like Amazon in the region. By contrast, the planners expect the D.C. metro area to see its housing stock rise by roughly half that amount, going from 2.08 million homes to 2.66 million.

Accordingly, they project that the region will need to add 690,000 new homes, rather than the 575,000 currently projected, in order to have a desirable ratio of workers to homes.

To reach that figure, the analysts expect that the region will need a “sustained housing production of 25,600 units each year” through 2045. The group noted that the region added about 23,500 new homes in 2017, and has persistently upped its housing production each year as the area’s recovered from the Great Recession.

Even still, the researchers note that in the early 2000s, the region was averaging nearly 30,000 new homes built each year, making such a boost feasible.

“Although we are on the right trajectory, it is possible to produce even more,” the analysts wrote.

The researchers urge leaders in Arlington and other localities with access to “high capacity transit stations” to take up such a challenge, particularly by identifying ‘planning and zoning tools and policies to ensure preservation of existing housing and production of new affordably priced units.”

“It is important to note again that this goal of increasing housing production by slightly more than 100,000 units is to ensure a sufficient supply of housing for workers to fill current and anticipated jobs,” the researchers wrote. “Although it will mostly address need from an economic competitiveness and transportation infrastructure standpoint, it will have broad significance for the future of our region and its residents.”

File photo. Chart via Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments

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Density, Development Debates Take Center Stage as Lee Highway Planning Nears

In many ways, the Lee Highway corridor is the last part of Arlington that looks like the rest of the Northern Virginia suburbs.

With high rises coming to define both the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and Crystal City, and neighborhoods along Columbia Pike becoming ever more dense, Lee Highway has remained persistently suburban in character with its procession of low-slung shopping centers and vast parking lots.

But should it stay that way as the county keeps growing? And if not, how should it change?

Those are the questions the community and county planners will try to answer as they embark on a years-long planning process for Lee Highway in the coming months.

With land-use policies last updated in 1955, Arlington officials have long seen the corridor as ripe for a new round of planning. Now, after years of back-and-forth, the county is set to hire a consulting firm and kick off the process in earnest this fall.

“The next big planning frontier is Lee Highway, from Rosslyn all the way out to East Falls Church,” said County Board member John Vihstadt. “The brewing consensus is that it’s appropriate for some increased density. We’re an urbanizing county, but we also have to be sensitive to the neighborhoods that flank Lee Highway.”

Certainly, the question of density along the highway will be among the most contentious issues to be resolved in the planning process. As Vihstadt puts it, “nobody wants to see the Clarendon-ization of Lee Highway,” considering that so many single-family homes sit directly behind the roadway.

Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions and a board member for the Lee Highway Alliance, isn’t so sure about that.

The LHA, a coalition of civic associations and community groups along the corridor, helped spur the start of this new round of planning in the first place, largely out of concern that development was likely coming to the highway and needed to be managed appropriately. Winters reasons that there is room for dense, mixed-use developments along some sections of the highway — she feels it was only the “bad math” guiding the area’s current zoning that prevented the right mix of residential and commercial properties from moving to the corridor in the first place.

“Would the community want another Ballston? Maybe not,” Winters said. “But another Clarendon, especially if it looks like the less dense parts of Clarendon? Maybe.”

Natasha Alfonso-Ahmed, a principal planner on the county’s comprehensive planning team, allows that the county won’t know the best way to proceed until the process wraps up, noting that planners are “going to test every possible scenario” for the corridor.

But, as Winters suggested, Alfonso-Ahmed expects that certain “nodes” on the highway could be rezoned to allow for more density, perhaps creating more walkable communities on the otherwise car-heavy corridor.

In an initial “visioning study” in 2016, the community identified five such areas that could become home to taller buildings and mixed-use spaces — East Falls Church near the Metro station, the intersection with N. Harrison Street and N. George Mason Drive, the intersection with N. Glebe Road, the Cherrydale neighborhood near N. Quincy Street and Lyon Village near Spout Run. Alfonso-Ahmed believes the county could approach each of those “nodes” differently, allowing more density only where it makes the most sense.

“A lot of the communities in that area…want to be able to walk or bike to places like a restaurant or a coffee shop,” Alfonso-Ahmed said. “At the same time, they want to be able to get in a car and go to the supermarket or the cleaners. They’re not totally independent of the car yet, like in other parts of Arlington…The goal is to balance both.”

But what will become of the existing shopping centers on the highway? As Alfonso-Ahmed points out “it’s not like it’s a blighted corridor,” and is filled with plenty of successful small businesses that the county doesn’t want to lose.

That means Arlington officials will need to think critically about what “sort of incentives or tools will be needed for business owners to even entertain” moving, she added. Or perhaps the county could allow for the expansion of those existing commercial areas, which would then bump up into residential neighborhoods.

“Are they comfortable with the encroachment of the commercial properties?” Alfonso-Ahmed said. “If they are, how much of it are they comfortable with?”

Another possibility that intrigues Vihstadt is the expansion of affordable housing options in the area. County Board Chair Katie Cristol agrees, and suggested one “illustrative example” of a change the county might make is rezoning some areas meant for single-family homes to allow for “by-right duplex development” on the edges of neighborhoods.

But, once more, such a change would surely require extensive community engagement to allay concerns about the corridor’s changing character.

To that end, Alfonso-Ahmed expects the whole process will take three years in total, with both a large “community forum” and a smaller working group constantly weighing in on the effort and lots of chances for the community to see the county’s work.

It should all start “before the end of the year,” she said, once the county can pick a consultant to help guide the effort. Though the Board had to scale back some of the process’s funding, thanks to the county’s constrained finances, Alfonso-Ahmed says planners have everything they need to move forward, and are plenty anxious to do so.

“We really want to get it started,” she said. “We know it’s been too long.”

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