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Board Looks at Loosening Housing Market

With housing goals, County Board considers how to keep Arlington diverse, affordable.

July 17, 2002 -Tedros Gebretacios loves his apartment.

Gebretacios, 35, a cabdriver for Arlington Yellow Cab, has lived happily in his studio off Columbia Pike for nearly seven years, paying $656 a month. In that time, he’s come to love living in Arlington. But now he has to consider moving out.

He went back to Eritrea last September to get married, and his wife waits there still. She’s working her way through the visa process, he said, and hopes to join him here in five or six months. When that happens, he wants their home to have more than one room.

But it’s hard to find housing he can afford. Gebretacios knew that it can cost to stay in Arlington, but he didn’t realize how much. "I can afford up to $700, $800," he said. "But most in the area I live in are very high cost."

Still, Gebretacios keeps looking, ranging as far afield as Shirlington and Fairlington, filling out applications and waiting for interviews, and hoping. "You get used to living in Arlington," he said. "I don’t want to go far away, to leave it."

<b>LAST TUESDAY,</b> County officials discussed ways to help Arlingtonians like Gebretacios. County Board members met with members of the county’s Housing Commission to talk about ways to spur development of affordable housing in Arlington, and goals for affordable housing in general.

The County Board is set to pass targets for affordable housing goals in November of this year, targets that could affect how the county government approaches affordable housing in coming years.

The discussion draws on the findings of the county’s Affordable Housing Task Force, which presented its findings to the county last year, calling for action on affordable housing on several fronts.

Some of the goals met with universal agreement: increase safety inspections of apartment houses, prevent a loss of affordable homes, eliminate housing discrimination. But other goals continue to provoke disagreement, between County Board members and between county activists.

Most fundamentally, county staff and Housing Commission members disagree on what kinds of affordable housing should be provided. The county has adopted a goal of reducing the number of households in serious housing need, by increasing the supply of affordable housing available to low-income families.

That means families making $36,600 a year or less (40 percent or less of $91,500, the median family income for the Washington area), paying $1,200 or more in rent each month (which would account for $14,640 a year, 40 percent or more of their annual income).

The county would set stepped goals, the number of homes it wants, for various income levels, starting at $36,600 a year. Commission members want to see more housing for families living making between $38,000 and $46,000 a year, a goal that staff said would cost the county more in capital and rental assistance.

<b>STILL, MOST</b> of the proposed moves to help the county’s affordable housing market met with agreement among county staff, board members, and the members of the housing commission.

One of the most important, they said, was the possibility of putting in place initiatives that would increase the amount of affordable homes available to elderly or disabled Arlingtonians, or families with children.

Those are the people who have the most trouble finding housing, Chris Zimmerman, County Board chair, said before last week’s session. "There are greater needs for families with children, for people with disabilities," he said, " and for housing with access to transit."

Families living in the county’s affordable apartments often most need to use Metro, he said, to get back and forth to jobs that will keep them in their apartments. But the homes closest to Metro are often among the most expensive in the county.

Solving those sorts of problems may require new approaches, Zimmerman said. It may mean the county will have to ask for more affordable units in new apartment buildings. It may also tie in to looking at light-rail or bus transit lines in south Arlington – initiatives already under consideration for Columbia Pike and Crystal City.

"We have to look for new tools, new ways to approach this," Zimmerman said.

<b>THAT SPIRIT</b> has to motivate the affordable housing discussion, said Charles Rinker. Rinker serves on the Housing Commission, and also heads the affordable housing advocacy group Buyers’ and Renters’ Arlington Voice.

After years of ignoring the need for affordable housing in the county, he said, county staff, the county manager and the County Board have discovered the crisis facing renters in low-cost apartments in the county.

"Obviously everything would be good if we did it five years ago," he said. " A crisis has a way of welling up, some see it earlier, some see it later."

Now that County Board members are paying attention to the housing crisis, Rinker said, they need to look for realistic ways to make it better. One possible solution is to tie affordable housing to zoning and more units in new apartment buildings, he said, or to consider rental assistance for some county residents.

But they also need to look at how to increase tenant ownership of the county’s existing affordable housing. "I think they need to say they want more multi-family ownership," he said, "more tenants owning, and more condos. I think landlords would be willing to work toward that."

<b>THAT’S THE WRONG</b> way to go, Wayne Kubicki said. Kubicki served on the Affordable Housing Task Force, and consistently appears before the County Board to urge more fiscally conservative policies. "I think condo and co-op conversion is the wrong way to go," he said.

In fact, he said, many of the housing commission’s recommendations need to be reconsidered, he said. They urge the construction of some 400 new affordable homes a year, at a cost to the county of nearly $11 million per year.

In a decade, Kubicki said, that would mean subsidized housing would make up almost 20 percent of the county’s apartments and condos. The question of whether to spend money on such ends often gets framed as whether to keep the county diverse, he said. The real question should be how much should taxpayers pay for it.

Or even if there’s a housing crisis. According to numbers from the housing commission, the county’s rental market, tight for the last three years, is begin to ease. Vacancies are up, and rents are increasing less sharply.

That may mean the local housing crisis is on its way to an end on its own, Kubicki said. "The market has a way of correcting itself