County Readies Zoning Changes to Encourage Construction of New, Detached Accessory Dwelling Units

Arlington officials now look set to further loosen rules around the creation of “accessory dwelling units” sometime this spring, changing some zoning standards to allow more property owners to build the homes on their land.

County staff are now circulating a draft policy recommending that local leaders allow property owners to build the homes, commonly known as “mother-in-law suites,” with a five-foot setback from the street and property lines.

The County Board has long sought to see more people build “ADUs” around Arlington, viewing them as low-cost way to beef up the county’s housing options. Officials have become especially interested in the homes as they’ve debated ways to improve access to “missing middle” housing, or homes that offer rent prices somewhere in between new, luxury apartments and subsidized affordable homes.

The Board worked in 2017 to loosen regulations on ADUs and expand their creation in Arlington, but those changes only impacted apartments to be created within a single-family home, like in a garage or attic. The rule tweaks also allowed property owners to convert existing detached buildings on their lots into ADUs, but they did not allow anyone to build new ADUs unattached to other buildings on the property.

This latest proposal would change that. County staff examined the potential for one-foot, five-foot and 10-foot setback requirements, and they settled on the middle option as the best way to balance competing priorities.

“The five-foot setback balances privacy and separation concerns, design flexibility and the county’s housing goals regarding increasing housing options,” staff wrote in documents presented at an open house earlier this week.

Staff estimate that altering the setback requirements in that way would allow the owners of 42 percent of all homes in residential zoning districts to build new ADUs. They expect that a five-foot setback would allow some space between property lines and ADUs, and create enough room for direct sunlight to flow into all buildings on a given property.

Officials declined to side with a one-foot setback requirement, noting that it would allow for considerably less privacy, with buildings right up against property lines. Yet they found that it would only slightly increase the number of properties where ADUs could be built — 44 percent of residential properties would be eligible, staff estimated.

They also found that buildings so close to property lines are subject to more stringent fire safety-related building requirements, whereas buildings five feet away are not, “potentially decreasing the cost of construction for the owner.”

As for the 10-foot setback option, staff found it would substantially decrease the percentage of eligible properties — they calculated about 37 percent would qualify — while also creating the potential for buildings on sites to feel more clustered together, creating “the perception of greater massing on the site.”

It helped, too, that staff found that other, similarly sized localities around the country use the five-foot setback standard.

Staff found that Charlottesville, Seattle, Santa Cruz, California and Los Angeles County all use a similar guideline — only Portland uses the 10-foot standard, while no other localities staff examined use the one-foot setback. D.C., however, allows ADUs to be built right up to the property line, as the city has gone through its own efforts in recent years to expand access to the homes.

Staff plan to convene a series of additional meetings on the setback proposals in the coming weeks, with plans to send them to the Planning Commission for debate by May 6. The County Board could then take action by May 18.

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In a Bid to Add More Housing, County Readies New Accessory Dwelling Unit Rules Changes

After months of work, Arlington officials are gearing up to advance a new round of regulatory changes designed to encourage the creation of accessory dwelling units around the county.

The county plans to hold an open house on the new regulations tonight (Tuesday), specifically on policies governing how far the homes can be set back from the street.

Commonly known as “ADUs,” or “mother-in-law suites,” the homes can include everything from basement apartments to those located above a house’s garage. The County Board passed a series of revisions to Arlington’s ADU regulations in 2017, in a bid to prompt more people to create those units and beef up the supply of reasonably priced homes in the county.

Those changes were primarily targeted at allowing homeowners to more easily create ADUs within existing structures, rather than building new ones. The rules changes also allowed property owners to create an ADU in an existing structure detached from a single-family home, like a garage, but they could not build any new structures on properties for such a purpose.

Still, the Board vowed to subsequently consider rules changes allowing people to build free-standing ADUs on properties. The homes are broadly seen as a key way to provide “missing middle” housing, or homes that fall in between luxury apartments and subsidized, affordable homes, and advocates have long championed additional ADU rules changes.

But, to allow for any new construction, officials would need to change the “setback” requirements, which stipulate how far the homes can be located from the street. County Manager Mark Schwartz has been developing proposals for such rules changes, but has yet to unveil them in a public setting.

That is set to change later this afternoon. The exact shape of the proposals remains unclear, however — a county spokeswoman could not immediately provide details on the proposed regulations. Michelle Winters, the executive director of the affordable housing advocacy group the Alliance for Housing Solutions, also said she was unsure when the county will release the details of the proposal publicly.

The ADU meeting is set for the Ellen M. Bozman Government Center (2100 Clarendon Blvd) in conference rooms C and D from 4-8 p.m. Any zoning changes discussed there would likely need to be scrutinized by both the Planning Commission and County Board before they go into effect.

Courtesy photo

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Amazon ‘Felt Welcome’ in Arlington Before Moving In, But Still Plans More Extensive Outreach

When Amazon first started seriously considering Arlington for a new headquarters, the company went so far as to send employees out to local coffee shops and bars to gauge how people around here felt about the tech giant moving in.

The company’s head of worldwide economic development, Holly Sullivan, says Amazon employees were regularly surveying Crystal City locals about the prospect of becoming the neighborhood’s newest, and largest, occupant. And by the time the tech firm was ready to select Arlington for the project, she had full confidence that Amazon would be greeted with open arms.

“We have a lot of that local knowledge now,” Sullivan assured a crowd of hundreds of business executives and government officials at Bisnow’s HQ2-Apalooza event today (Thursday) in Potomac Yard. “Even before we announced our Arlington plans we felt welcome here.”

That sort of confidence in the community’s response was critical to Sullivan and the rest of the company’s executives — after all, when Amazon officials feared that New York City leaders were insufficiently welcoming for the other half of the company’s headquarters, Jeff Bezos’ firm simply pulled the plug.

“We think we could’ve gotten New York done, but at a certain point you have to ask, at what cost?” Sullivan said. “We want to locate in a community that also supports us.”

The company certainly received a warm welcome at Thursday’s event. Billed as a chance for business leaders to learn “how you can benefit” from Amazon’s arrival in Arlington, the high-priced gathering of executives offered a largely rosy picture of how the company might change the D.C. region.

Of course, not everyone around the county is quite so eager to see Amazon move in, and some of the company’s critics made their presence felt at the otherwise chummy event. A handful of protesters with the “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition temporarily disrupted the proceedings, holding signs and chanting “Pay to play is not okay, we want a public hearing today.”

Sullivan joked that she was glad the event “welcomed some of our friends that like to follow me around the country,” but the demonstration was organized by local activists, who have grown frustrated with Amazon’s approach to engaging with the community.

This is now Sullivan’s second appearance in as many weeks at a ticketed event for local business leaders, and some critics (and even county officials) would rather see the company engage directly with the communities that might be most affected by Amazon’s impact on the region’s housing market.

Sullivan argues, however, that the company has indeed already done some of that outreach work and is committed to doing more. For starters, she says the company plans to create a “steering committee,” pulling together Amazon executives, local government officials and education leaders to discuss the future of the new headquarters and its impact on the region.

Considering that the company has yet to outline any plans for aiding affordable housing efforts in the area, or even what its exact plans for construction in Arlington might look like — the company is still waiting on the County Board to approve an incentive package for the the new headquarters to formalize many of its plans — advocates in the region are enthusiastic to hear that the company is ready to come to the table with local leaders.

“Amazon has an opportunity to create a model of a tech community that is inclusive, that’s different than what we’ve seen in Silicon Valley and Seattle,” said Nina Janopaul, the CEO of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing.

For officials who have long struggled with working across jurisdictional lines, that sort of collaboration could also be quite meaningful, said Stephen Fuller, one of the region’s preeminent economic forecasters.

He argued during the event that Amazon’s promised 25,000 jobs may not put a strain on the region’s housing all on their own, but that the tens of thousands of additional jobs that flood into the area to support Amazon may well challenge the area.

For instance, Fuller’s researchers project that new companies moving into the region to support Amazon could induce demand for as much as 41 million square feet of new office space in the area — for context, Amazon plans to build anywhere from 4 million to 8 million on its own.

“The growth is really coming and we need to take a moment to think about this beyond Amazon,” Fuller said.

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Redevelopment of American Legion Post into Affordable Housing Complex Wins County Approval

County leaders have now given the green light to plans to redevelop the American Legion post in Virginia Square into an affordable housing complex, a project widely hailed as an innovative effort to provide reasonably priced homes to veterans.

The County Board voted unanimously Saturday (Feb. 23) to approve plans from the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH) to replace the Legion’s current home with a new seven-story structure. The building will have room for 160 apartments — half will be set aside specifically for veterans, and all of them are guaranteed to be affordable to people of more modest means for the next 75 years.

The development, located at 3445 Washington Blvd, will also include 8,000 square feet on its ground floor for American Legion Post 139 to stay on the property. The Legion has owned the roughly 1.3-acre property since the 1930s, but opted to sell it to APAH in 2016 after the nonprofit sketched out plans for a new complex decided to helping local veterans.

“Unfortunately, the high cost of housing has put Arlington out of reach for many,” APAH Board of Directors member Rich Jordan wrote in a statement. “But we are excited that this project, the first collaboration of its kind, will welcome more veterans home to our community.”

The building will include a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, all at varying levels of affordability. Most will be designed to be affordable to people making 60 percent or 80 percent of the area median income — that works out to a yearly annual salary of $49,260 and $65,680, respectively.

However, some will be set aside for people making 30 percent of the area median income, a level of affordability that projects around Arlington only rarely achieve. Someone would have to make around $30,000 a year to qualify for the homes.

“We are adding much-needed affordable units to our inventory, and many of them are large enough for families,” County Board Chair Christian Dorsey wrote in a statement.

The project will also include an underground parking garage for residents, with a total of 96 spaces. Of those, 20 would be set aside to serve the Legion post specifically.

That represents a smaller number of parking spaces that the county’s zoning laws would typically allow at a development of this size. But county officials opted to sign off on the plans anyway, reasoning that many people living at the building will likely rely on the area’s Metro station and bevy of available bus stops to get around.

Even still, parking was a key concern for some neighbors. Some local leaders worry that the building’s larger apartments will attract families, who will bring cars and take up street parking in the neighborhoods adjoining the development.

The Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association and Lyon Village Citizens’ Association both floated the idea of tweaking zoned parking limits in the area — the streets surrounding the development, like N. Kansas Street and 12th Road N., are currently off-limits to people without permits from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Some neighbors proposed a 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. limit instead, but county officials weren’t inclined to grant that request.

In a staff report, the county noted that it’s still in the middle of a lengthy review of the residential parking permit program, with a moratorium on most changes to parking zones while that review moves forward.

That’s now set to wrap up sometime early next year, and county staff told the Planning Commission that they’re hesitant to make any zoned parking changes in the area until then — the County Board did, however, roll back some contentious restrictions in the Forest Glen and Arlington Mill neighborhoods earlier this year.

“In the future, if parking increases along 12th Road N. by non-Zone 6 permit holders, the hours of the RPP restriction could be evaluated based on the program’s guidelines at that time,” staff wrote in the report.

APAH also plans to construct a new section of N. Kansas Street running north-to-south between 13th Street N. and Washington Blvd, a move that staff hope will break up the area’s “superblock” feel. The new road will include some dedicated space for pedestrians and cyclists, and the developer is also planning to widen Washington Blvd near the project.

Eventually, the county also hopes to see 12th Road N. extended to provide an “east-west” connection across the property as well, though that will likely be finished only once the adjacent YMCA redevelops that property to allow for a new recreational facility and some new apartments on the site. A developer is also hoping to add 255 new apartments near the intersection of Washington Blvd and N. Kirkwood Road in the coming years.

APAH expects to fund the bulk of the $78.4 million project with federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit cash, though the nonprofit will also work to raise $3 million in private financing.

The Board also approved a $5.79 million loan for the project Saturday from the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a key tool designed to spur affordable development in Arlington. APAH expects to ask for another $5.375 million loan from the fund next year.

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New Bill Would Let County Waive Fees for Affordable Developments, A Key Change Sought by Advocates

A new bill just passed by state lawmakers could soon allow localities like Arlington to start waiving many fees for new affordable housing developments, a change that advocates expect could have big impact on the county’s housing crunch.

New legislation backed by Dels. Lamont Bagby (D-74th District) and Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) would let officials across the state pass ordinances to do away with any building permit fees or other local levies on affordable housing plans, in a bid to ease the construction of such projects.

The bill unanimously passed the state Senate last week, after earning similarly swift approval in the House of Delegates, and now heads to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for his signature. The legislation was designed as part of a broader package of bills aimed at bringing housing costs down, due not only to rising concerns about Amazon’s impact in Northern Virginia, but also to new research showing the Richmond and Virginia Beach areas with some of the highest eviction rates in the entire country.

“Every Virginian deserves a safe place to call home,” Bagby wrote in a statement. “By supporting more affordable housing, we can address the devastating impacts of Virginia’s high eviction rates.”

Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Arlington-based Alliance for Housing Solutions, told ARLnow that the county doesn’t currently waive fees for affordable developments, but could well embrace such a tactic in the near future.

She points out that a coalition of affordable housing advocates called for the county to take just such a step in a 2017 report outlining potential strategies for officials to meet their own goals for building more reasonably priced homes.

Arlington officials have already struggled to meet those goals for creating homes guaranteed to remain affordable to renters of modest means, known as “committed affordable” units, prompting housing advocates to pen the report and press for progress. And with Amazon bringing its 25,000 (or more) highly paid workers to the county, Winters believes its conclusions are all the more important for leaders to consider.

“The report estimated that waiving ‘permit and tap fees’ for affordable housing projects would save $1.4 million per year, or allow the addition of 16 more committed affordable units each year,” Winters said.

That would only be a small change in the grand scheme of the county’s housing needs — the county created or preserved 515 affordable homes last year, short of the 585 homes officials hope to produce each year — but housing researchers still expect waiving such fees would make a meaningful difference.

“Although the total amount of fees imposed by local governments during the development review process can vary by locality, affordable housing developments operate under extremely complex financing mechanisms and tight margins,” said Andrew Clark, vice president of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Virginia, wrote in a statement. “Reduction or elimination of these local fees could be a significant incentive for a private-sector development considering an affordable housing development and could also help incentive the private-sector developer to re-invest those savings into amenities, building materials or labor.”

The report, titled “Fulfilling the Promise: Meeting the Production Goal of Arlington’s Affordable Housing Master Plan,” uses the recently completed “Columbia Hills” project backed by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing as an example of how county fees impact such projects.

APAH spent about $91.1 million on the project in all, but that included close to $701,000 in fees including building permit fees, sewer and water levies and zoning review costs.

“If all of these fees had been waived for this affordable project, it would have reduced the costs of development, freeing up resources for the development of eight (8) additional [committed affordable units],” the advocates wrote.

The report also notes that other cities around the country have already adopted such a strategy. In Austin, Texas, for instance, the city waives fees on a sliding scale based on what portion of a development’s homes are priced to be affordable to people making less than 80 percent of the area median income.

Of course, it might be a tough pill to swallow for county leaders to forego any revenue while times are tough for Arlington financially.

But officials have seen some reason for optimism about the upcoming budget recently, and Winters says county workers have already assured her that they plan to examine the impacts of waiving affordable development fees as part of a broader study of Arlington’s permitting process.

Photo via @APAH_org

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Planners Say D.C. Region Has Enough Room to Meet Amazon-Induced Housing Demands

Arlington and other localities around the D.C. region have enough room to add the housing necessary to keep pace with the Amazon-driven population influx expected over the coming years — but actually realizing that potential won’t be easy, regional planners say.

Researchers with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a coalition of local leaders, have warned in the past that the region needs to add about 100,000 more homes through 2045, or else risk seeing rent prices creep up even higher and more people pushed into the outer suburbs.

Their latest data, unveiled yesterday (Wednesday), suggest that localities across Northern Virginia, Maryland and D.C. have already put plans in place to meet even that large number.

The vast majority of that work was completed before Amazon announced its plans to head to Arlington (to say nothing of the news that it’s canceling its New York City plans as well), but officials are confident that region’s population boom of the last few years has spurred the right kind of planning work to account for the tech giant’s arrival as well.

But planners are also cautioning the region’s leaders that everything from land-use policies to the high cost of construction to “not-in-my-backyard” sentiments are sure to confound their efforts to actually meet that demand for new housing.

“We do think we have the capacity in our long-range plans to get there,” Andrew Trueblood, D.C.’s acting planning director, told the MWCOG Board of Directors Wednesday. “But that’s the first hurdle and there’s a whole number of hurdles to get past.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, restrictive zoning and land-use policies are one of the chief obstacles planners identified for local leaders to tackle as they seek to add more homes. Many activists and Arlington officials have already begun discussing the best ways to increase density in the county, and that’s included the fraught topic of up-zoning areas previously reserved for single-family homes.

But those considerations are only one piece of the puzzle, according to the COG’s analysts.

Trueblood pointed out that the region is getting better at concentrating housing in “activity centers” around Metro stops or other public transit options. But as land close to transit becomes more scarce, it also becomes more expensive, ramping up the costs of the sort of development planners are most enthusiastic about encouraging.

Trueblood added that the “unstable construction cost market” has also complicated other development efforts. Other developers have been frustrated by local opposition to dense developments, particularly when it comes in the form of legal action targeting even “by-right” developments, which don’t require extensive government review.

But, in Northern Virginia particularly, officials say that a lack of interest from developers is far from an issue.

“We are not having trouble with the development community coming and wishing to develop,” said Sharon Bulova, the chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “But making sure that those new residential homes and units are affordable is really the challenge.”

Arlington is certainly grappling with that issue as well. County officials are locked in a debate about the best way to meet their own affordable housing goals — possibilities range from setting aside more cash to spur affordable developments to opening up zoning rules to allow a more diverse array of housing types.

Helen McElveen, Alexandria’s housing director, expressed optimism that the private sector will step up in some regard on that front — she noted that dominant Crystal City developer JBG Smith has expressed a particular interest in funding more affordable homes.

But she also cautioned that local governments themselves will always have a dominant role to play in subsidizing apartments affordable to the lowest income renters.

“Affordability won’t happen unless governments act,” McElveen said. “We don’t live in a market with a lot of affordable stock or even workforce stock being delivered… We know we can neither build our way out of this nor preserve everything.”

The COG’s analysts expect that their next steps are to study “the specific challenges (public and private) to developing more housing” in those “activity centers” around mass transit options, and deliver recommendations for overcoming those issues.

That will surely take some time to sort out, but planners say they’re well aware of the urgent need for answers to the questions.

“If we can not keep up with the growth, employers will not expand and our region’s growth is hurt,” Trueblood said. “But if we can produce the housing needed for the region to grow and for economy to be vibrant, we’ll reduce the displacement pressures facing everyone.”

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GOP Ditches Proposal for More Affordable Housing Cash, Angering Advocates Concerned About Amazon

Republican lawmakers have scuttled Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal to ramp up state funding for affordable housing, a move that’s irked advocates hoping for more state help as Amazon starts to move into Arlington.

GOP leaders in both the state Senate and House of Delegates have now put forward budget proposals without the $19.5 million spread across two years Northam had hoped to see flow into the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, a program offering low-interest loans for developers hoping to build reasonably priced housing.

Though the fund would be available to applicants across the state, the governor’s effort to massively ramp up cash flowing into the fund was broadly seen as a small way the state could prepare for Amazon’s expected impacts on the housing market across the Northern Virginia region.

“We are outraged that selected members of Virginia’s money committees stripped this critical support for housing for Virginia families,” a coalition of 40 affordable housing advocacy groups wrote in a statement. Signatories include the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, the Arlington Housing Corporation, the Alliance for Housing Solutions, the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network and the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.

“At a time when the state is approving $50 million in subsidies to Micron and $750 million to Amazon, it is wholly appropriate and necessary to invest $19.5 million in housing,” they wrote.

The Senate’s proposed budget includes just $1 million for the fund over the next two years, while the House proposal includes no cash whatsoever.

Northam had planned to fund the increase as part of a suite of proposals to use $1.2 billion in new revenue generated by the federal tax reform passed in 2017. But Republicans, who hold narrow majorities in both chambers in the General Assembly, have been steadfast in removing those spending proposals from the budget as part of a broader fight over the tax revenues, arguing that the state would be better served by sending the money back to some middle-class taxpayers.

“We started building our budget with guidelines to remove from consideration any revenue based on the federal tax changes and to eliminate any spending based on that revenue,” said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-76th District), the head of the powerful House appropriations committee. “We are continuing our multi-year efforts to responsibly invest in a stronger economy, provide more funding and flexibility to local schools and make college more affordable.”

Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) was hoping for an even larger, $50 million influx into the fund on a one-time basis, yet that push is seemingly facing an uphill battle given the latest GOP budget proposal. He’d also proposed a bill to establish a permanent funding stream for the fund to avoid yearly appropriations battles, but that died on a party-line, 4-3 vote in a House subcommittee.

The budget is still a long way off from being finalized, however. The House and Senate still need to reconcile the differences between the two proposals and, ordinarily, Northam would have a chance to negotiate for his spending priorities with Republican leaders.

But with the governor still facing pressure to resign, and Virginia’s two other top elected officials now engulfed in scandal, there’s no telling just how the remainder of the General Assembly session will play out. It’s currently set to wrap up on Feb. 23.

File photo

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‘Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste’: Amazon Prompts Debate Over How to Make Arlington Homes Affordable

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.”

File photo

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Nonprofit Opens New ‘Columbia Hills’ Affordable Housing Complex

A new affordable housing complex off of Columbia Pike is now open to renters.

The Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing held a ribbon-cutting Wednesday (Jan. 30) for its Columbia Hills Apartments at 1010 S. Frederick Street. The new development includes two eight-story buildings with room for a total of 229 committed affordable homes.

The event marked the culmination of roughly two years of construction on the $91 million project, which was financed with a mix of federal tax credits and state and local loan funds. The 1.2 acres of land necessary for the development was donated by M&T Bank.

“I’ve spent a lot of cold winters living in my car,” new Columbia Hills resident Henry Ashby said at the event, per a press release. “I feel very blessed to be here today as a resident of Columbia Hills.”

All of the apartments in the buildings will affordable to people making up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income. In Arlington, that works out to about $49,260 per year for a one-person household, or $70,320 for a family of four.

Ten apartments will be set aside as “permanent supportive housing” for people who have previously experienced homelessness, while another 39 will be affordable to people making below 50 percent of the AMI. That’s applies to a one-person income of $41,050 annually, or $58,600 for a family of four.

“This is about providing homes to people who are earning an income that is not reflective of the contributions that they make to our community, but are just reflective of the way our market economy works,” County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said. “An increasing number of people who are burdened by the housing cost in our region absolutely deserve a place to live that is not only safe and decent but represents the highest standards that we can build in Arlington.”

The disappearance of affordable homes in the county has indeed been an emphasis for the Board in recent years. County officials have pledged to make the creation of similar guaranteed affordable homes a priority as part of its “Affordable Housing Master Plan,” particularly with Amazon on the way, but the county has struggled to meet its own goals as real estate prices continue to rise.

APAH, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is also hard at work on a variety of other affordable developments around the county, including ones in Virginia Square and Rosslyn.

Photo 1 via @libbygarvery, photo 3 via @apah_org

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Arlington Must Open Up Single-Family Neighborhoods to Different Housing Options, Advocates Argue

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

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Queens Court Affordable Housing Redevelopment Project Wins More County Funding to Move Forward

Arlington officials are sending another $8.8 million in loan funds to support the redevelopment of Queens Court in Rosslyn, supplying a nonprofit with the cash it needs to move ahead with construction of the new affordable housing complex.

The County Board unanimously approved the loan at its meeting Saturday (Jan. 26), committing a total of $16.7 million to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing’s effort construct two new buildings on the property at 1801 N. Quinn Street.

In all, the developer plans to build 249 apartments at the site which are guaranteed to remain affordable to renters, replacing 39 garden apartments built back in 1940. One new building will have room for 90 apartments, earning loan funds from the county last February, while the other will have 159. That second phase of the development prompted the loan approved this weekend, which is drawn from the county’s “Affordable Housing Investment Fund.”

Most of the apartments, dubbed “committed affordable” units due to the nonprofit’s guarantee to hold rent prices steady for the next 75 years, will serve people making 80 percent of the Arlington’s “Area Median Income.” The county currently pegs that amount at $49,260 annually, for a household of just one person.

But some other homes will be set aside for people at 50 percent and 40 percent of the AMI, tabbed at $41,050 and $32,840 annually for one-person households, respectively.

“It’s a substantial project, with a lot of units,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “But, within those units, we’re providing some affordability that we don’t normally get.”

Dorsey also hailed the project as one that will “accomplish a lot of our objectives of our master plan” governing the county’s affordable housing goals, which stipulates that officials work to generate 585 new affordable homes each year. However, the county has consistently fallen short of meeting that goal since signing off on the plan four years ago.

The Queens Court project also includes a 9,000-square-foot public park and playground, which the Board also approved Saturday, designed as a northern extension of the new Rosslyn Highlands park. A developer building a new mixed-use complex around the corner, at 1555 Wilson Blvd, will add new green space to the area as it builds atop the existing park.

The county will shell out just under $1.5 million for the section of the park attached to Queens Court, while APAH will spend another $125,000 on the effort.

The nonprofit is hoping to have all its construction contracts for the Queens Court project drawn up by this spring, and hopes to wrap up work on the redevelopment sometime in 2021.

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Morning Notes

A Wall that Divided Arlington Still Stands — “The wall was erected in a section of Arlington County in the 1930s to separate black residents from white residents. And for decades, it did just that. It kept segregation intact by creating a physical barrier between an ‘us’ and a ‘them.'” [Washington Post]

Coming Soon: Happy Hour Advertising? — “A lawsuit filed against the state by a Northern Virginia restaurateur could be the motivation the General Assembly needs to change laws that restrict happy hour advertising.” [Virginia Mercury]

Demand for Free Pet Food Rises — The Animal Welfare League of Arlington says it has seen an increase in demand for its free pet food pantry during the government shutdown. [Twitter]

Resources for Furloughed Feds — Congressman Don Beyer’s (D-Va.) office has compiled a list of resources for those affected by the federal government shutdown. [Rep. Don Beyer]

Anti-NIMBY Legislation Proposed in Va. — “[Del. Jeff] Bourne and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, are pursuing legislation in the General Assembly this year that would explicitly prohibit local governments from denying permits for housing developments because of the expected race or income levels of the residents.” [Virginia Mercury]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Amazon Shouldn’t Spell ‘Doom’ for Most Local Renters, But Observers Still Fear Its South Arlington Impacts

For people fearful about how Amazon will impact Arlington, a single question tends to rise above all others — will the company’s arrival price me out of my home?

There are certainly plenty of other concerns surrounding the company, and the 25,000 jobs it has promised to bring to its new home in Pentagon City and Crystal City, stemming from its highly criticized business practices to its potential impact on roads and transit in the region.

But concerns about housing affordability have most consistently come to the fore since Amazon’s announcement that it would be setting up shop in Arlington, as renters worry that the company’s army of well-paid workers will set off an explosion in home prices and push them deeper into Northern Virginia’s suburbs.

In selling the proposed deal to bring the Amazon headquarters to the county, officials have argued that these fears are largely overblown. Over the last few months, all manner of local leaders have claimed that the company will arrive slowly enough for Arlington to absorb the new residents, and that the county won’t be forced to house every single one of the workers who will spend their days in the new office space.

And, in general, academics, advocates and real estate watchers around the area agree with that line of thinking. For the most part, the experts surveyed by ARLnow on the issue don’t believe that Amazon will have the sort of apocalyptic impact on housing and gentrification that some skeptics fear.

Yet they also caution that the company will almost certainly still push many people out of the county, particularly those of more modest means living in South Arlington neighborhoods. While the county may not face the same massive disruptive impacts as Seattle, which is still struggling to integrate one of the world’s largest companies into its metro area, observers warn that it would foolish to minimize the size of the challenge Arlington is facing.

“I don’t agree with the view of impending doom that Arlington will become San Francisco due to housing problems, but there are real concerns here to address,” said Eric Brescia, a Fannie Mae economist and a member of Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing.

The case against Amazon panic

Fundamentally, the argument minimizing Amazon’s impacts on the housing market includes the same key points.

First of all, the company plans to bring its 25,000 workers to the new headquarters over the next decade or so, not all at once. And, even then, not all of them are likely to live in Arlington, the thinking goes — many could choose to move to other Northern Virginia suburbs, or even to Maryland and D.C., to take advantage of Arlington’s connection to public transit networks.

Many other employees set to work at the headquarters probably already live in Arlington, considering that Amazon says it chose the D.C. region due to its bevy of “tech talent” already in the area.

That means that county leaders are planning on seeing closer to 15 to 20 percent of Amazon’s workers relocate to Arlington specifically, an influx of (at most) 5,000 people. In fact, a report prepared by George Mason University’s Stephen S. Fuller Institute as part of the state’s courtship of Amazon estimates that more than twice as many of the company’s workers will move to Fairfax instead of Arlington.

“This isn’t based on a wish, but based on our prior experience with other large employers,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “Can we guarantee it? Of course not… but this is the best we can do in projecting how this investment does and does not look like other investments that we’ve had.”

County Board member Erik Gutshall also points out that the D.C. region as a whole has been in the midst of a massive explosion in growth in recent years, and Amazon could merely feel like a drop in the bucket. Based on regional projections, Gutshall says the company’s is “expected to account for about 5 percent of regional job growth over the next 12 years.”

“That, to me, says this alone is not going to be a major driver of housing affordability problems,” Gutshall said.

Regional observers believe that the broad strokes of that argument are accurate.

Brad Dillman, the chief economist for national real estate developer Cortland, points out that Crystal City and Pentagon City both have slightly higher residential vacancy rates than the D.C. metro area as a whole, leaving some room for Amazon employees moving in.

And Christopher Ptomey, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, notes that it’s hardly uncommon to see large government agencies (or other big companies) move into communities around the Northern Virginia area. Based on Arlington’s own past experiences with such changes, he sees no reason Amazon employees would behave any differently.

“Some people come here and decide Arlington has great schools and is convenient, so they’re willing to pay a little bit more to stay here,” Ptomey said. “Others prefer a bigger house and a wider lot and lighter traffic. I don’t think Amazon employees going to be particularly unique in that way.”

Uncertainties abound

Yet, with so many unknowns about the company’s plans still remaining, experts caution that it’s hard to make too many definitive declarations about the make-up of the company’s workforce just yet. That complicates efforts to make predictions about how they might behave when they arrive.

“We need to know: what’s the age range and family type of these workers?” said Jenny Schuetz, who studies housing policy as part of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “A bunch of 25-year-olds will want to live nearby, but they pay a lot more in taxes than they consume in services. More older families will require more space in high-performing schools, but some will want to live farther out.”

Indeed, Schuetz and other analysts warn that the county shouldn’t offer too much certainty about Amazon’s precise impacts until officials start to see how the company’s arrival changes the region.

Arlington officials have simultaneously downplayed the number of people arriving along with Amazon, while also trumpeting how other high-priced tech companies will likely flock to the area to do business with Jeff Bezos’ firm. Until Arlington can evaluate just how real that downstream impact is, experts say it might be useless to simply study just Amazon’s workforce.

“Will just Amazon come here or is this the beginning of D.C. becoming a major tech hub?” Brescia said. “That’s really unknown.”

But Schuetz notes that research shows, in general, “each new tech job spins off roughly five additional jobs.” That might be good news for the county’s economy, but it also complicates the math of predicting how many people will flow into Arlington.

“We know that big headquarters like this have a multiplier effect,” Schuetz said. “They will need supportive services and restaurants to serve the campus directly.”

However many people associated with the company ultimately arrive in Arlington, analysts point out that they are likely to be quite wealthy. The terms of the state’s proposed deal with Amazon require an average annual salary of $150,000 for the company’s employees, and other tech workers bound for Arlington are likely to pull in similar sums.

Even still, Dorsey believes those salaries “are not out of scale with typical earnings in the area,” minimizing the impact they’ll have on the county’s home prices.

A ‘housing crisis’ for low-income renters?

But critics of the county’s pursuit of Amazon believe that sort of mindset ignores the current conditions in Arlington, which already pose problems for renters. Tim Dempsey, a member of the steering committee for the progressive group Our Revolution Arlington, points out that many Board members (including Dorsey himself) won office based on pledges to combat the county’s pre-Amazon “housing crisis” for low-income people and the middle class alike.

“We already don’t have housing for middle-income earners, whether that’s school teachers, firefighters or policemen,” Dempsey said. “The county never asked the community if it was a good idea to bid for this, and when we raised these issues, we were told it was premature to even talk about this.”

Ideally, Schuetz says that Amazon’s workers and their peers won’t be competing for the same types of housing as the people Dempsey is worried about. In all likelihood, “if they’re displacing people, they’ll be displacing other high-income households” by moving into Arlington’s high-rent Metro corridors.

Dillman also foresees developers adding plenty of new housing around the new headquarters, noting that the pace of development has been especially slow in Crystal City as the area’s office vacancy rate has skyrocketed. That should, in theory, provide plenty of new, high-end homes for Amazon arrivals.

The “danger point” that Schuetz fears is what becomes of the “low-cost, older housing” in neighborhoods elsewhere in South Arlington, particularly along Columbia Pike, or in North Alexandria.

“Those could be the targets for redevelopment, where you could potentially charge higher rents,” Schuetz said. “And that’s the area where we’d see displacement.”

Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, agrees that the fate of apartments running from the Pike to Bailey’s Crossroads and even Seven Corners is one of her prime concerns. But her research also suggests that observers “shouldn’t assume everyone will jump on the bandwagon and sell.”

“Many of these buildings have been in the same family for generations, going back to 1950s, 1960s,” Krocker said. “That means there can be tax consequences and liabilities if they entertain selling. And, for many, the buildings are cash cows.”

Of course, the county could take additional steps to preserve those sorts of buildings to address the issue. And officials say they’re already mulling all manner of strategies to combat housing affordability challenges.

To Brescia, how the county follows through with those plans could provide the clearest answer for anyone searching for the exact extent of Amazon’s impacts.

“It will all really depend on the policy response to this, across the region,” Brescia said.

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Plans for New Apartments Along Washington Blvd in Virginia Square Take Shape

Plans to redevelop several small businesses in Virginia Square into a new apartment complex are coming into focus, in a section of the neighborhood long targeted by the county for a bit of revitalization.

A developer is firming up plans to build a seven-story apartment building on a 1.7-acre property at 1122 N. Kirkwood Road, near the road’s intersection with Washington Blvd. Documents submitted to county planners late last month show that Eleventh Street Development is angling to add 255 one- and two-bedroom apartments to the site, complete with two floors of underground parking totaling 190 spaces in all.

The entire area is line for some big changes in the coming year — the American Legion post nearby is set to become a new affordable housing development, while the YMCA is set for big upgrades as well — and Arlington officials have spent months now sketching out new planning documents to guide the area’s evolution.

Eleventh Street Development has long contemplated adding apartments to the site, which will displace three businesses on the property: Zolly Foreign Car Specialists, a State Farm insurance office and Slye Digital Media Systems. But the developer has, at last, kicked off the “site plan” process with the county, in order to secure the necessary permissions to get construction moving.

Notably, Eleventh Street seems to have abandoned plans to include any space for retail on the ground floor of the site, according to the plans. However, county officials “would like to continue the discussion” about that change, they wrote in a memo to the developer last January.

In general, the county signaled in the planning documents that it’s broadly satisfied with the initial plans. One of the few concerns officials expressed, however, is that the redevelopment might not meet some of the road re-design standards laid out in the long-range vision for the area approved in 2017, known as the “General Land Use Plan Study and Concept Plan.”

Specifically, the county wants to see a new “east-west connection” through the property, connecting 12th Road N. to N. Kirkwood Road.

Officials urge the company to consider “how the subject site would be designed or modified to facilitate circulation as envisioned,” and the developer acknowledged that request. However, the company does plan to add some streetscape improvements along both Washington Blvd and Kirkwood Road.

The project is now set to head to the county’s Site Plan Review Committee, though the group has yet to put the development on its agenda just yet.

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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.”

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