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Residents Demand Affordable Housing

County Board members say there is little they can do besides compromise with developers

Arlington residents inundated the county board last weekend with demands that it take action to alleviate the affordable housing shortage, as board members protested they were constrained by state laws and court rulings.

A dozen representatives of Buyers and Renters Arlington Voice Organization held up signs reading, “We want housing, not luxury” and “What are you prepared to do,” and members of two other organizations chastised the board for not taking concrete steps to counter the growing crisis.

Between 2000 and 2004 the county lost 9,300 affordable housing units, or 47 percent of its total. Affordable housing is defined as 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 of four and $42,800 for a family of two.

“Our idea is to put the issue in front of the board and the county as a whole and make sure it is a priority,” said Farah Fosse, spokeswoman for Buyers and Renters Arlington Voice Organization (BRAVO). “There’s been a lot of talk about it but we need concrete solutions.

In 2004 there were only 330 low-priced units available to those who earned 40 percent of the region’s average median income, said County Board Vice Chairman Chris Zimmerman. The lack of cheap housing options is due to a combination of rapidly escalating rents, redevelopment and the demolition and conversion of apartment buildings into luxury condos.

Many activists say teachers, hospital workers, police officers and fire fighters no longer earn enough to live in the communities they serve. And it is not just lower income families who are being prices out of the county. Middle class families are starting to feel the crunch of sky-rocketing rents.

“People who are necessary to run county life can’t afford to live here anymore,” said Andi Cullins, a director of Arlington New Directions Coalition (ANDC), a non-profit organization focusing on housing issues. “To live in Arlington you now must be rich. Our community is no longer sustainable.”

John Redder, a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in south Arlington, spoke in front of the board to announce a public forum, organized by his church, ANDC and BRAVO, to address the housing crisis. The purpose of the meeting is to engage the wider community in searching for new solutions to the conundrum.

“Something radical has to be tried,” said Redder, who advocates a short-term housing moratorium or the use of vacant public land to build inexpensive housing. “The magnitude of the loss of units is so large.”

MEMBERS OF THE county board said they were aware of the tremendous displacement of low-income families and would do everything within their power to redress the situation.

“We can not lose sight of the fact that we are losing our diversity,” said board member Walter Tejada. “People are asking, ‘do we really need another luxury condo?’”

For fiscal year 2006 the county government has appropriated $4 million in housing grants for those in need of financial assistance. According to a February 2005 county board resolution document, Arlington allocated $8.4 million during the 2005 fiscal year for a range of affordable housing programs, including a rental assistance initiative and a live-where-you-work program for county and school employees.

“The county has worked pretty hard at this and we’ve committed over 5,000 affordable units,” Zimmerman said. “That sounds great until you hear how many we lost on the market side. We’re bailing out the water but it’s coming in even faster,”

Without the explicit approval of Virginia’s General Assembly, there is a limit on what measures the local government can undertake to mitigate the shortage. By law Arlington can’t implement rent-control requirements or mandate that a set number of inexpensive units be put aside in every new apartment complex.

The county instituted new guidelines for development in 2004, obliging new construction projects to devote 10 percent of total gross floor area to affordable units, or contribute to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund. Developers won a lawsuit against the county the same year, nullifying the new requirements.

The county formed an Affordable Housing Roundtable in May 2005 to forge a compromise between the government, developers and community activists.

“We have to sit and achieve the best deal we can within our limited constraints,” county board member Barbara Favola said.

Currently the sides are far from reaching a settlement and the roundtable meeting scheduled for the first week of September was postponed.

“Hopefully we can come up with something fair to the community but it will be a struggle,” said Charlie Rinker, who represents ANDC on the roundtable. “My feeling is that the developers have to step it up.”

Public speakers at the county board meeting expressed concern that the government was giving away too much ground without receiving fair compensation for assets belonging to the community.

Residents vehemently criticized the make-up of the roundtable, saying that too many developers were represented and not enough Arlington residents. Most conceded it was late in the process to expect a change in membership.

“While we lose thousand of affordable units per year, Arlington County and the developers make millions,” Patty Johnson told the board. “For every hundred units of luxury housing they build, we are just lucky to get two in the community benefit package.”

IN OTHER BUSINESS, a proposal for a new condo and retail complex near the Courthouse Metro was rejected by the Arlington County Board on Saturday, sighting an egregious breach of land use plans and a lack of significant community benefits.

The building would have included 165 apartments and more than 32,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space at 2000 Wilson Boulevard. The site is located on the south side of Wilson Boulevard and west of Troy Street, and is currently the home of Taco Bell, Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse and a car repair shop. The building would have been eight stories high and tapered to five.

The board voted 3-2 to deny the project. Council Chairman Jay Fisette and member Barbara Favola preferred to defer the proposal to give the developer more time to address the board’s concerns.

Elm Street Development was requesting a special exemption to the zoning requirement and a change to the land use plan. The plan should only be amended for a compelling reason that benefits the community, Zimmerman said. He cited the example of the First Baptist Church of Clarendon, which was allowed to add a 10-story housing complex because it devoted more than half of the available space to affordable units.

The developers had proposed including four affordable one-bedroom apartments and a single two-bedroom apartment, plus an additional apartment at market-rate.

“This is a building that did not fit the land use plan and that gave reason enough not to accept it,” Zimmerman said. “If it had extraordinary housing benefit then maybe we could have ignored the plan. Affordable housing is our number one issue.”

If the board had allowed the proposal to go through, then it would have had less basis to turn down similar projects, which also lacked substantive community benefits, in the future, boar members said.

Several residents and community associations spoke out against another large, luxury apartment complex that would do little to ameliorate the ongoing housing crisis.

“We have 3,700 luxury condos between Ballston and Rosslyn,” said June O’Connell at the meeting. “Maybe this is something that sells but it is not something the county needs.”

The plan had won the plaudits of the board of directors of neighboring Colonial Villages because it would have added 335 total parking spaces to the area, which is renown for a dearth of available late-night parking.

The county’s Transportation Commission recommended a denial because of continuity issues with Troy Street.

James L. Perry, Vice President of Elm Street Development, said he had no comment after the board’s decision. The company can resubmit its proposal in one year’s time.

“We thought we would have the opportunity to modify the plan,” said Nan Terpak, a attorney representing Elm Street Development. “Starting over isn’t good for anyone and we didn’t hear the community asking for that.”