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Residents Demand Housing Authority

Use public forum to pressure officials to create centralized housing department

To address the shortage of affordable housing in Arlington, the county government should establish an official housing authority and help develop inexpensive units on land it owns, residents at a community forum said last weekend.

More than 50 people, including four of Arlington’s five county board members, attended the “Wake Up Arlington” meeting in Ballston last Saturday, to brainstorm fresh ideas on increasing the county’s stock of affordable apartments.

Participants urged Arlington officials to forge a compromise with developers on the number of affordable dwellings provided in new condominiums, and to create a centralized housing authority, which both Alexandria and Fairfax County possess.

“This is a great opportunity for the county government to show leadership and step up to solve this growing crisis,” said Gene Betit, social justice minister for Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in south Arlington. “There are no easy solutions but we have to do something we haven’t tried before.”

The county lost 47 percent of its total affordable housing units between 2000 and 2004, because of rapidly escalating rents, redevelopment and the conversion of apartments into luxury condos.

Half of Arlington workers making below $40,000 a year are forced to live outside the county because they can no longer pay the exorbitant rents, said Charles Rinker, director of the Arlington New Directions Coalition (ANDC), a nonprofit organization focusing on housing issues.

Priscilla Haskins provided a reminder to government officials of the daunting challenges facing Arlington’s low-income residents. Haskins, whose main source of income is from government disability checks, was forced to vacate her Rosslyn apartment complex earlier this year, when it was sold to a large developer who wanted to tear it down and build luxury condos.

“It’s David versus Goliath out there,” said Haskins, 55, who often had to choose between buying medicine or paying her rent. “We’re facing insurmountable odds. Things will only change if voters say enough already.”

UNDER VIRGINIA LAW a housing authority has the unique power to own and finance low-income housing and can issue tax-exempt bonds with which to purchase land or vacant buildings. Arlington government is forbidden to develop land under the pretense of the Dillon Rule, which stipulates that localities have no rights except what the state legislature explicitly grants them.

Forum participants said the creation of a housing authority would streamline the way the county government provides affordable units. Currently, several small nonprofit organizations operate low-income housing in Arlington, which is less efficient than if it was coordinated by a centralized government department, said Christian Darsey, an ANDC board member.

Alexandria’s housing authority owns 1,150 public housing units and Fairfax’s department provides inexpensive dwellings for county fire fighters and emergency response personnel.

County board member Walter Tejada said new approaches were necessary to combat the paucity of cheap units and that he was intrigued by the benefits a housing authority might provide.

“All options need to be on the table in order for us to improve this terrible crisis,” Tejada said. “It’s getting to the point where the county will have to compete with developers for the good of the people.”

In order to set up a housing authority, Arlington residents must approve the measure in a referendum. In 1982 the county voted by more than two-to-one against creating a housing authority.

State Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47) doubted the public would pass such a referendum because of perceptions that it would usher in public housing projects in Arlington.

“An authority is a powerful instrument and the problem we have is people look at it as public housing,” Eisenberg said. “My sense is the county is not ready for a housing authority.”

Many at the forum disagreed with Eisenberg’s assessment. Residents are likely to embrace such a plan if the county implements a public education campaign to help them overcome outdated stereotypes, Darsey said.

THE EXCESSIVE COST of land in Arlington is one of the greatest impediments to having more inexpensive housing. Government properties should be given to developers and nonprofit organizations to construct affordable units, those at Saturday’s meeting said. Arlington owns an abundance of office buildings and recreational facilities on which additional units could be built.

Excess land on public school grounds is another possibility for the location of cheap apartments and townhouses, especially for teachers. Sixty percent of Arlington educators reside outside the community and it is becoming more difficult to retain young teachers as the rents in the county skyrocket, said Kathryn Scruggs, a teacher at Campbell Elementary School.

“Teachers can’t afford to live in the community they serve,” Scruggs said. “We need to have an aggressive program to keep them here.”

Participants at the forum overestimated how much government-owned land could be devoted to construction projects, County Board Vice Chairman Chris Zimmerman said.

THE COUNTY IS INVOLVED in intense negotiations with a cadre of developers to formulate new guidelines for affordable dwelling contributions to new apartment complexes. The county board passed a measure last year requiring developers to devote 10 percent of total gross floor area to affordable units, or contribute to an Affordable Housing Investment Fund. A subsequent lawsuit nullified the requirement and Virginia’s General Assembly threatened to pass a bill that would prohibit any mandated housing obligations.

The housing Roundtable, composed of developers, housing advocates, lawyers and property owners, meets this week to negotiate a housing policy that will ensure a substantial number of affordable units.

“Unless we can find a clear and acceptable path to the development community we won’t have any success on affordable housing,” said Del. Eisenberg . “We’ve got to build bridges to these folks.”