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Affordable Housing on the Ropes.

Housing policies challenged

Residential developers put Arlington’s affordable housing policies on trial this month with a court case that claims the county doesn’t have the legal power under state law to put them into action.

The case is now being examined by Judge Joanne Alpers and her decision is expected sometime this month according to attorneys. But what the outcome, one way or another, will mean for affordable housing and development in Arlington remains to be seen.

The suit was brought in June by the Northern Virginia Apartment Association, the Apartment and Office Building Association — development groups highly active in Arlington — and Kansas-Lincoln L.C., a residential development company. The case challenges the affordable housing guidelines set forth by the county in April, policies that mandate any new development in Arlington must include either low-cost housing units or a contribution to the county’s affordable housing fund.

“If it’s a general ruling in favor of the developers, it’s pretty much back to the drawing board for the county,” said Douglas Peterson, spokesman for the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, a community group aimed at expanding affordable housing throughout the county. “If it comes down on the side of the county, they will still have to work with developers to find compromises that are economically viable.”

The guidelines being challenged require developers in Metro corridors to set aside roughly 10 percent of their new construction for affordable housing, housing with pre-determined rents set at rates that are supposed to be within the means of people making 60 percent of the region’s median income. According to U.S. Census data from 1999, Arlington’s median household income is roughly $63,000. But the number of low-cost housing units in the county has dropped significantly in the last decade.

In 1989, 21,961 Arlington housing units were available to residents at rates between $500 and $749 per month, according to county statistics based on the 1999 U.S. Census. That number, ten years later, stood at 10,690. Rents between $300 and $499 made up 5.3 percent of housing in the county with roughly 2,288 during 1989. By 1999, that number was reduced to 986.

The guidelines only apply to new developments or renovations on existing buildings. County officials, like Ken Aughenbaugh, a specialist in the Community Planning Department, insist that the guidelines are employed on a case by case basis. But in court two weeks ago, Gary Kirkbride, a development consultant with the Manassas-based firm Dewberry, said the county uses them like laws during zoning negotiations between developers and the county.

“There isn’t any voluntary choice on the part of the applicant,” Kirkbride testified in court.

Donations made to the affordable housing fund, Aughenbaugh said, are used by the county to fund its own housing programs, mostly carried out by non-profit groups. Kirkbride said county officials give developers the option to make a donation but at a rate that is determined by the county, typically about $4 per square foot, he said.

Developers have said the guidelines hinder their work in Arlington.

“They raise the cost of production in terms of building housing and that cost has to be absorbed, often by lowering land prices, or the values escalate and either way that goes into production costs,” said Stan Sloter, president of Paradigm Development. “The projects being worked on in Arlington now will be finished three or four years down the road, so it’s hard to say how this case will effect development in the future.”

But Sloter agreed that the county’s housing policies are more than just “guidelines”.

“They’d probably refer to the speed limit as a guideline,” he said.

Prior to the formation of the housing guidelines, the county operated an incentive program to encourage developers to build affordable housing units within their new buildings.

“In the old incentive program, the objective was for the cost of including affordable housing to be equal to that of the incentive,” he said. “It was neutral. This plan doesn’t pretend to be economically neutral.”

Yet advocates of affordable housing in Arlington say the guidelines are necessary because high-priced high-rises are pushing lower income Arlingtonians out of their neighborhoods and often out of the county. Building affordable housing units, according to Peterson, also adds to the value of a developer’s projects.

“It was the goal to make the policy economically neutral, but what no one factored into the equation is that the added units put additional value into the buildings,” he said.

Peterson added that as costly housing developments continue to spread deeper into the county, low-income residents will be forced to rely on non-profit groups to stay within the county limits. He pointed to the Views at Clarendon project, recently approved by the county board in November as an example. There have been others, but not enough to give a home to every family that needs one.

“All of them were unique, outside-the-box ideas,” he said. “But the cost of land is so high that non-profits will have a difficult time finding land to build affordable housing the future.

At the end of the day, Peterson said, it is Arlington’s success as a community that has ultimately caused its housing crisis.

“People know that Arlington is a safe, clean and friendly place to live,” he said. “The second thing is that there are tons of jobs in Arlington, lots of opportunity.”