After months of contentious negotiations, county government officials, developers and community activists forged a compromise last week ensuring that a fixed number of affordable housing units will be generated and preserved in the county.
The 23 members of the Affordable Housing Roundtable voted unanimously to accept a plan that requires developers to provide affordable units, or otherwise contribute money to a housing fund, whenever the county board grants projects additional density beyond what is permitted by existing zoning rules. At its December meeting the board will hold public hearings and vote on the proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance.
“It’s a good deal for the community and it assures us that developers will contribute to affordable housing in Arlington,” said County Board Vice-Chairman Chris Zimmerman. “It does not completely satisfy everyone, but it is a deal everyone can live with.”
Under the compromise, smaller projects with density below a county-established threshold will be exempt from providing affordable units. Developers of projects above the threshold will have four options to create or preserve inexpensive dwellings.
First, developers can choose to reserve 5 percent of the increased gross floor area for on-site affordable units. Second, they can provide a greater number of units at another site, within half a mile of the project or half a mile from a Metro stop if the new development is within the Metro corridor. The third option is replacing the units elsewhere in the county, at a cost of 10 percent of increased gross floor area.
The final option is for developers to make a cash contribution to the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, on a sliding scale based on the size of the project. All affordable units will be offered for a 30-year term and the fund contributions will be affixed to the Consumer Price Index for Housing in the Washington-Baltimore region.
If a developer requests a change in the county’s General Land Use Plan, the board may require an additional contribution of affordable units as part of the new agreement. In addition, Arlington’s Housing Commission will create a task force to address any site-plans that would eliminate existing affordable housing.
“We streamlined the process so there are no negotiations,” said County Manager Ron Carlee. “Once a site-plan is approved there is a pre-defined set of options and developers can choose what works best for them.
BETWEEN 2000 AND 2004 the county lost 9,300 affordable units, or 47 percent of the total number, because of a confluence of rapidly escalating rents, redevelopment and the conversion of apartments into luxury condos.
Affordable housing is defined as being those apartments a family with 60 percent of the area’s average median income can pay for. In Arlington that is almost $53,600 for a family or four and $42, 800 for a family of two, according to Zimmerman. Many activists say teachers, hospital workers, police officers and fire fighters no longer earn enough to live in the communities they serve.
The county instituted new guidelines in April 2004 obliging developers to devote 10 percent of total gross floor area in new construction projects to affordable housing units, or contribute to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund. The fund provides money mostly to nonprofit developers to build low-cost housing.
Developers won a subsequent lawsuit against the county in December 2004, nullifying the new requirements. The judge in the case ruled the guidelines were “illegal as they are beyond the scope of the county’s lawful authority.”
The county formed the Roundtable in May 2005 as a last ditch effort to fashion a compromise between the government, developers and housing activists. In early October the negotiations were deadlocked and a seven-member task force was appointed from the Roundtable group to hammer out a deal.
“I was hopeful from the beginning but I did not have certainty,” that the various sides would agree on a plan, said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette. “People came together and swallowed hard to get the compromise done.”
If a deal was not worked out during last week’s meeting, the result would have been a damaging “downward spiral” and a loss of trust on both sides, Fisette added.
Developers should be commended for making sacrifices and for continuing to work with the county and activists even when the prospects of an agreement were bleak, said Doug Peterson, executive director of Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, a nonprofit developer.
“I’m ecstatic,” he added. “If we voted at the last meeting I think three or four people would have agreed to what was on the table.”
Developers said that though they did not get every incentive they were seeking, the plan struck a balance between competing interests and will provide for a more efficient site approval process.
“Nobody can say they fully accept every point but in the spirit of getting something done we are moving forward and doing what is practical,” said Bob Bushkoff, property manager for the Dittmar Company.
COUNTY BOARD MEMBERS and community activists expressed concern that most developers will contribute money to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund rather than build on-site or off-site units, which the community needs.
“My biggest disappointment is the cash contribution looks like the most attractive choice for developers.” said Charley Rinker, director of the Arlington New Directions Coalition, a housing advocacy group. “I don’t think we will get many affordable units built in the Metro corridor.”
Developers interviewed agreed they were more likely to give money to the fund than lower the rent on a set number of apartments.
“Four years ago we might have provided units,” said Stan Sloter, president of Paradigm Companies. “With the way the market is today, and considering the price of land, the cash contribution is very attractive.”
The county strongly prefers receiving affordable units in return for greater density, but “even if we just get cash we are doing much better than we were before,” Zimmerman said.