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Votes

What Cost Houses?

County approves goals for low-income homes, but delays decision on measures to meet those goals.

Normally, Charles Rinker and David DeCamp find themselves on opposite sides of a negotiating table. But on Saturday, they found a topic on which they both agreed: delaying passage of county affordable housing rules.

At the Dec. 6 County Board meeting, Board members considered a trio of items geared toward maintaining apartments and houses affordable to low-wage workers in the county: targets to guide county negotiations with developers, guidelines that would put some teeth behind those targets, and an affordable home-ownership program.

Taken together, the three actions would let the county push for more apartments and houses affordable to low-income workers when considering future development. Affordable housing is defined as housing affordable to people of families making less than 60 percent of the median income. In the Washington region, the median income for a family of four is $91,500, so affordable housing must be manageable for families making $54,400 a year or less.

Both Rinker, an affordable housing advocate, and DeCamp, a developer of the Residence at Station Square, urged County Board members to put off updating the county’s affordable housing guidelines for site plan projects.

The problem, said developers and affordable housing advocates alike, was that the measure had come to the board too quickly, with too little input.

“I was shocked to hear that this item was going to be held without our participation,” said Steven McCleaf, another developer at Saturday’s meeting.

In the end, board members listened to the speakers, unanimously adopting the affordable housing targets while putting off consideration of the guidelines until Feb. 21. The board also voted to consider the affordable home-ownership program on Jan. 10.

<b>WITH THE HOUSING</b> targets, the Board followed through on a promise that was a long time coming, said many of the 26 speakers at the hearing.

The targets have been in the works for the last year and a half, and are based in part on recommendations by a three-year-old Housing Task Force. In that time, board members have acknowledged that affordable housing was one of the main priorities for county action

But Arlington housing that everyone can afford is not “a priority,” John Antonelli told the board — “It’s the priority.” Antonelli is a member of the county’s housing commission, and said that other board priorities, like preserving street trees or undergrounding utility lines, pale in comparison with affordable housing.

“No one’s going to live in a street tree, or in an underground cable,” he said.

That’s why he urged the board to adopt the targets, almost in spite of himself. “No one hated developing targets more than I,” said Antonelli, citing some of compromises implicit in the process. “But they focus staff and developers on affordable housing”

Targets for affordable housing will help the county keep good development, and keep out bad development, said Rinker, the president of the Arlington New Directions Coalition. “Good development enhances the quality of life of the county’s residents and workers,” he said. “Bad development widens the gap between the rich and the poor.”

<b>IN FACT, MANY</b> speakers urged the board to reach higher on the targets. Since they are intended to guide staff negotiations, housing advocates asked, why not get staff to push for more?

Board members took that question to heart, opting to reach farther in trying to add affordable housing in the county. That meant asking staff to push for 10 percent of apartments or houses in new developments to be priced as affordable, rather than the 3.9 percent units now dedicated as affordable in new developments.

In addition, the board asked staff to increase the number of households receiving county rental assistance from 3,146 last year to 4,000 by 2010, and to increase the number of family-size houses and apartments in the county to 61,000 by 2010, up from 54,676 in 2000.

<b>BUT IN PUSHING</b> for more and more affordable housing in the county, board member Barbara Favola asked, was the board actually cutting down on the effectiveness of the targets?

“These targets are becoming more of a political statement than a way to measure progress in something we think we need to be doing,” she said.

But simply passing the targets for staff was the real feat, said County Manager Ron Carlee. The targets gave county staff something to aim for.

“What is important is … how we improve, and how we show balance and guidance. If we don’t have a vision, we don’t know what we’re working toward,” he said. “We judge ourselves on our improvement, not against the ideal.”