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County Hopes to Cut Down Housing ‘Crisis’

Board discusses new measures, while residents of Wakefield Towers mourn loss of home.

July 10, 2002 - Robert McWilliams has had his share of complaints about the building where he lives.

McWilliams, a security guard at Pentagon City Mall, has rented an efficiency apartment in the Wakefield Towers, 4301 Columbia Pike, for the last seven years. Tenants are a diverse mix, he said, but there are many minorities, and many seniors, depending on keeping their rent-controlled apartments

There have always been security problems in the buildings, he said, and a sometimes lackadaisical attitude towards maintenance. Still, McWilliams said, the rent was right, and things got done eventually.

But when new owners came in, rents went up, with almost no payoffs. "I paid $635 a month, and they wanted to increase that to $840," McWilliams said. Other Wakefield Towers residents tell a similar tale, starting with the April purchase of the apartment complex by United Dominion Realty Trust, a Colorado-based real estate company.

"I want to move, but I can’t go anywhere right now. This is close to work for me," McWilliams said. "But that’s going to change."

<b>TENANTS OF THE TOWERS</b> now find themselves in the predicament of many residents of affordable housing in Arlington – the choice between paying more to stay in long-time homes, or looking for new, low-cost homes in a tight real estate market.

The amount of affordable housing in Arlington has shrunk in recent years, as real estate prices in the county shot up and rents increased around the Washington region. According to data collected by the county, Arlington lost more than 4,000 affordable homes – houses, apartments, townhouses – between 2000 and 2001.

In a work session Tuesday, County Board members discussed new guidelines for determining what constitutes affordable housing in Arlington – that is, what kind of rents put apartments or homes in Arlington within the range of the tenants who need them.

Currently, affordable housing means units that eat up 30 percent or less of the annual income of families making $55,000 a year or less – that is, 60 percent or less of the area’s average family income of $91,500 a year. If passed, the guidelines could increase the average annual income, a move that would deem more of Arlington’s apartments and homes "affordable."

The guidelines would not make any changes in the county’s affordable housing crisis. Instead, Board Chair Chris Zimmerman said, they would let the Board members know what needs to be done, and what they’ve done right.

"We’ve been working on what measures there ought to be," Zimmerman said. "How to figure out if we’re working towards our goals."

While the new guidelines may increase the number of homes in Arlington considered "affordable," Zimmerman said that they will still be describing many of the same places. "They tend to be older apartments, maybe garden apartments, where it’s advantageous for somebody to raze it, or reinvest in it and raise the rents," he said.

<b>RENTS HAVE JUMPED</b> at Wakefield Towers – McWilliams was looking at a 30-percent increase in his rent, while rent on some one-bedroom apartments would have gone up 55 percent, from $755 to $1,162 for some residents.

Increases aren’t so bad, McWilliams said. "But the things they’re doing are cosmetic."

The changes, he suspects, are part of a plan to increase the profitability of the apartment building, to "attract the Washington upwardly mobile" with a new fitness center, a renovated swimming pool and new rugs.

Kevin McCabe, UDRT’s senior vice president of operations in Denver, said the company is not trying to lure a particular demographic to Taylor Place. But he acknowledged that, with renovations, some of the residents of the Towers would be priced out of their homes.

"We’ve made offers to residents that may feel they can’t pay, to look at other properties we own where rents may not be as high," McCabe said. UDRT also owns six other apartment buildings in the Washington area, in Alexandria, Woodbridge and Centreville, and Columbia buildings. The company also offered to waive moving and application fees for Towers residents.

With two-month deadlines looming over their heads, many residents have decided to leave the Towers. "People are moving in the middle of the night," another resident said. "There’s so much furniture out front, you could furnish a house. I know there are about 30 vacancies, and they’re not rerenting them."

That fits a pattern for developers, Charles Rinker said. Rinker, a longtime advocate for affordable housing in Arlington, is working with residents of the Towers, and other apartment buildings, as president of Buyers’ and Renters’ Arlington Voice, or BRAVO.

Developers have regularly come into communities, Rinker said, buying up older apartment buildings for relatively small amounts, then raising rents to what the market can support. It turns a quick profit, but can have devastating consequences for long-time residents of the buildings.

"Developers come in, and they’re interested in the bottom line, in making money," Rinker said. "They don’t give much thought or credence to what the community wants or needs."

<b>IN THAT CLIMATE,</b> successes are to be savored, he said, and to be learned from. That’s why the county’s recent deal to save the Gates of Arlington was so important.

"One of the things we did at the Gates is say, OK, it’s in such a good location and it’s such a good resource, we’ve got to make an offer, to see if it can be preserved," Rinker said.

The county did just that, providing support to a $35 million offer from non-profit AHC Inc. on the 465-unit Gates apartment complex. County Board members in May committed to the use of $500,000 in county money to purchase the apartment building, and last month approved a $17 million loan to AHC towards the $35 million purchase price of the building.

Critics of the deal questioned possible threats of eminent domain by the county, and pointed to the fact that the deal with AHC, unusual for an affordable housing purchase, precluded refinancing the property for three years.

Both Zimmerman and Rinker agreed that the Gates deal was unusual. But unusual approaches may be necessary, they said. "Gates is a little different" than other deals, Zimmerman said. "We got in early. We have to do a better job anticipating the housing situation."

<b>THE SOLUTION</b> to that may lie in consolidation. Currently, staffers dealing with housing in Arlington are scattered throughout various county agencies. If they were collected in one department, Zimmerman said, the county could do a better job analyzing the need for housing in the county, and anticipating sales.

"I, along with [Board member] Charles Monroe, pushed earlier this year to create a housing department," he said. "At our last work session, the county manager announced that he would be doing something like that, putting them all under one roof."

But the solution to the county’s affordable housing crisis will also require some new approaches to the problem, Zimmerman said. Rinker had some suggestions. One solution, he said, is to strengthen zoning laws. "Some of the affordable dwelling ordinances Fairfax has used can be used in Arlington," he said. "It needs to be tweaked for high rises."

He has hopes of seeing those solutions from the current County Board, a change from the past, Rinker said. "I think this county manager and County Board are much more sensitive," he said.

Christian Dorsey shares Rinker’s high hopes. Dorsey, an Arlington resident and community activist, challenged Zimmerman in this year’s Democratic primary, basing much of his campaign on the affordable housing crisis.

"I find it encouraging that the board has finally taken some evolved action" by helping purchase the Gates, he said. "But we have to keep watching, to make sure it’s followed by a concerted plan."

Rinker also hoped to see more action from the County, "more proactivity, so we’re not always playing catch-up."

Zimmerman said that change was coming, and that he and other Board members hoped to set some new goals for the county, and see how they were doing at keeping the most urgently needed affordable housing.

But it won’t happen all at once. "This is not something that happens in one instance," Zimmerman cautioned. "There has been a change in orientation, subtle perhaps but more significant as time goes on. But it will result in new tools and approaches on a continual basis."