Board Approves Plan to Increase Low-Cost Housing

Board Approves Plan to Increase Low-Cost Housing

Housing plan could increase low-cost apartments, but developers say increased costs could drive away projects.

Over the last 20 years, home prices and apartment rents have risen drastically in Arlington — so much so, Susannah Pinckney said, that the county is losing long-time residents.

“I work for a non-profit that does outreach to the Latino community. Today, we were approached by … an international agency that wanted to talk about setting up offices to reach out to the Salvadoran community in the DC area,” Pinckney said at a County Board meeting last Tuesday. The agency had three sites in mind, she said: Columbia Road in the District, Langley in Maryland and a site in Virginia.

“Well, we were thinking about putting one of these offices in Arlington.” Pinckney said she was told. “But we’re going to be thinking about putting something out in Woodbridge, because Arlington’s gentrifying at such a rate.”

County Board members tried to stem that change at their April 27 meeting, unanimously approving new affordable housing guidelines intended to increase the stock of low-cost apartments and homes in the county. In some scenarios, the guidelines could mean that 10 percent of apartments in buildings near Metro stations, or funnel money from commercial developments into county housing funds.

<b>UNDER VIRGINIA LAW,</b> developers and landowners can develop any property with a building permit, as long as the planned project does not exceed zoning codes for the property, which cap the size and type of buildings which can be built.

If developers want to build larger projects than zoning allows, or want to add a larger sign or extra parking spaces, they must seek an exception, a rezoning or a special permit from the County Board. It is during that process that county staff and Board members may ask developers to contribute money to county funds, or affordable housing units — at which point the new guidelines will come into play.

Affordable housing advocates and civic association presidents came largely to support the guidelines, but developers and their attorneys protested that the rules were unfair and possibly a violation of Virginia law.

“The impact will be to reduce the number of [affordable] units produced,” said Andrew Viola, vice president of Bush Construction. County plans encourage developers to put high-rise, high-density apartment buildings near Metro stations, where the guidelines impose new restrictions on those plans, he said. “It’s only a matter of time before this is challenged in court.”

<b>GUIDELINES ADOPTED</b> by the board are intended to add affordable units to the county, but they will not replace those already lost to development, said Jack Foreman, a member of the Alliance for Housing Solutions and an affordable housing advocate. “No matter how effective these guidelines turn out to be, they will not produce the number of affordable housing units Arlington needs to meet the … crisis.”

The guidelines approved by the Board would allocate 10 percent of the gross floor area in residential projects within a five-block radius of Metro stations as affordable housing. In addition, commercial buildings — office buildings and stores — and residential developments outside those Metro areas would bring in $4 per square foot to the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund.

Those guidelines put development in jeopardy, said Scott Tate, a former member of the county planning commission. “Any additional and costly requirements upon developers put in jeopardy the number of projects that will be developed” with county review. Instead, he said, developers and landowners will just build the biggest building they can build under existing regulations, and any opportunity for the board to negotiate for affordable housing units for the county will be lost.

But board members hailed the guidelines as a better solution, one that will provide predictability for developers looking for Board approval. Rather than facing requests for new plans when they come to board meetings, Board Chair Barbara Favola said, developers will know what the county expects in new buildings.

At the same time, not including enough affordable units doesn’t automatically mean that the Board will vote no, and members may also give developers extra space in return for affordable housing space and money. “What we’re talking about here sets out a set of expectations,” said Favola.

<b>OVERALL, THE NEW</b> guidelines are a “really significant step,” said Board member Chris Zimmerman. But they are not the last step. “We need a lot of tools, and that’s one of them.”

That’s true for developers as well, said David DeCamp. “It’s an ongoing process. There are a lot of us in the development community who believe we do have a housing problem, and we need to be involved in crafting a solution. So by necessity, there’s a lot more process to go through.”

Developers did get a chance to speak up about the housing guidelines before last week’s vote: the proposal came before the Board in December and February, delayed both times in order to get more input from developers and housing advocates before board approval.

That feedback didn’t always make its way into the guidelines, said DeCamp, a member of the “Round Table” group of developers, housing activists and staff who reviewed the guidelines.

<b>BUT THE ROUND TABLE</b> was never going to bring about consensus, said Charles Rinker, a housing activist and another Round Table member. “Every developer had a different point of view, just like all affordable housing advocates had a little different point of view,” he said. “You never get 100 percent of what you would like to see.”

Rather, DeCamp said, the two-month review process led to better relationships between developers and housing activists who are sometimes natural enemies in this process. “I felt as a developer, I got to know a lot of people in the affordable housing community that I didn’t know before,” he said.

That will let them take the next step in addressing the loss of affordable housing in Arlington, said Zimmerman: looking at housing for teachers, police, firefighters and the middle class. Affordable housing in the current guidelines is defined as homes affordable for families making 60 percent or less of the area median income.

In Arlington, that means a family of four with an annual income of $55,500, and paying 30 percent of that towards housing, $16,500 annually, or $1,387 a month.

Those numbers don’t address the truly poor, said Zimmerman. “We’re facing real needs for people with 40 percent [of the median income] — those are families who are on free or reduced lunch, and that’s a big chunk of our school system.”

They also ignore the middle class of growing working families, he said. Those are the people left out of the new affordable housing guidelines, and that is who the county must address next, Zimmerman said. “Everything isn’t oriented to a young professional with no kids and a high income.”

<ro>Guidelines Applied to Past Projects

<bt>Projects approved by the County Board in the past would have donated more money, and affordable housing units, under the new guidelines adopted by the Board on April 27 seeking $4 per square foot of gross floor area (GFA)

<table border=1 cellpadding=2 cellspacing=0><tr><td<<b>Project</b></td><td><b>Total GFA</b></td><td><b>Contribution Under New Guidelines</b></td><td><b># Units at Average Value*</b></td><td><b>Actual Contribution</b></td><td><b># Units at Average Value*</b></td></tr><tr><td><b>1800 Wilson Boulevard</b></td><td>177,375</td><td>$709,500</td><td>7.9</td><td>$275,000</td><td>3.1</td></tr><tr><td><b>Quincy Plaza</b></td><td>418,526</td><td>$1,674,104</td><td>18.6</td><td>$320,000</td><td>3.6</td></tr><tr><td><b>2900 Clarendon Boulevard</b></td><td>433,243</td><td>$1,732,972</td><td>19.3</td><td>$375,000</td><td>4.2</td></tr><tr><td><b>The Odyssey</b></td><td>256,823</td><td>$1,027,292</td><td>11.4</td><td>$192,617</td><td>2.1</td></tr><tr><td><b>Navy League</b></td><td>219,947</td><td>$851,788</td><td>9.5</td><td>$300,000</td><td>3.3</td></tr><tr><td><b>GMU Expansion</b></td><td>208,773</td><td>$835,092</td><td>9.3</td><td>$288,012</td><td>3.2</td></tr><tr><td><b>Total</b></td><td>1,714,687</td><td>$6,830,748</td><td>76</td><td>$1,750,629</td><td>19.5</td></tr></table>

<i>*Average value of building affordable housing unit is estimated at $90,000.</i>