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County Looks to Expand Stock of Affordable Housing

Board Members outline new initiatives during Civic Federation meeting

To combat the shortage of affordable housing in Arlington, County Board members last week proposed an ambitious set of new measures they will explore in the coming months, including promoting co-ops, legalizing accessory dwellings and expanding grants for public employees.

During a meeting with the Arlington County Civic Federation last week, board members said it was time for the county to take bold action to help ensure that low-income families can continue to live in Arlington.

“This is the most challenging subject facing our community,” said County Board member Walter Tejada. “We continue to struggles as best as we can, but we need to come up with different options. We need to try new things.”

County Board members also expressed interest in a recent Civic Federation resolution calling on the county to create a housing coalition for public servants. The new program would work to find affordable units for teachers, fire fighters, police officers and other county employees.

“This is certainly something I’m willing to take a look at, along with any other innovative approach,” County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said.

For years Arlington officials have struggled to generate new ways to increase the county’s stock of inexpensive housing. Arlington lost 47 percent of its total affordable units between 2000 and 2004, thanks to rapidly escalating rents, redevelopment and the conversion of apartments into luxury condos.

In October, government officials, developers and housing activists crafted a compromise 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.

Though county officials are elated that the arduous negotiations were successful, they said that new methods to secure affordable units must be put forward in the coming months in order to mitigate the housing crunch.

“We’re never going to reach our goals just by adding new units,” County Board member Jay Fisette said.

TEJADA IS PUSHING for the county to look into creating more cooperatives in Arlington, noting the success of the Riverside project in Rosslyn. He is planning on holding a forum by late spring, to solicit ideas from the public and see if more cooperatives are a viable option for Arlington. In a co-operative, a multi-family property is held by a trust or corporation that is owned by and operated for the benefit of persons living within the building. Those living in the building are the owners of the trust or shareholders in the corporation.

“It’s important that we open ourselves to what co-ops can bring to our county,” Tejada said.

During the Civic Federation meeting, the other County Board members each presented their new plans on affordable housing. The county should reassess its taxation policy and produce more incentives for property owners to devote units to below market prices, Zimmerman said. He is also looking to enact new policies to help senior citizens on a fixed income remain in the county.

Barbara Favola, reiterating a major theme of her New Year’s address, stated that the county needed to do a better job in making owners aware of the grants, loans and tax credits available to assist them in renovating units that could be designated as affordable. Paul Ferguson proposed the county come up with more ways to induce property owners to transfer their development rights to housing nonprofits.

Though current zoning ordinances bar the use of accessory dwellings, such as “granny flats” and English basements, both Zimmerman and Fisette said they were interested in revising these laws to help increase the stock of inexpensive units.

“There is enough interest right now, and the problem is acute enough, that we would be able to find ways” to work with the community to craft new ordinances that would legalize accessory dwellings, Fisette said.

The concept still needs “a lot more research” before any ordinances are changed, Zimmerman said.

One of Fisette’s top priorities is expanding the Live Near Your Work program, which provides forgivable loans of $4,500 to help county and school employees purchase homes in Arlington. If the individuals stay in their jobs for three years the loan is written off.

The program was begun in 2001 and this year 22 school employees and 17 county employees are enrolled.

“We need additional funds,” Fisette said. “This is making a difference. It’s an incentive when we are competing against others for the best and the brightest.”

HOUSING ACTIVISTS say much more needs to be done if the county wants to retain its most capable teachers, police officers and fire fighters, many of whom do not earn enough to buy houses in Arlington.

“Without the full spectrum of income levels this is not a healthy community,” said Kathryn Scruggs, chair of the Civic Federation’s Housing Committee and an Arlington school teacher. “We have to recognize that we are losing the middle class in Arlington.”

Scruggs is one of the authors of the Civic Federation’s housing resolution, which aims to find new ways to secure below-market housing for county and school employees.

Recently, more than 20 county employees acquired inexpensive units in the Dominion Terrace apartment complex in north Arlington.

But Scruggs is concerned that Arlington may soon lose many of its teachers to surrounding localities. Since teaching salaries in Loudoun County are now commensurate with those in Arlington, and the cost of living is one-third less, Arlington teachers have less incentive to continue working in the county, she said.

Excess land on school grounds and county-owned sites are prime locations for cheap apartments and townhouses for teachers and county employees, Scruggs said.

Though Zimmerman said he was “interested in pursuing any possible alternative,” he added that many residents over-estimate how much government-owned land could be devoted to construction projects.

Arlington Public Schools has yet to look into using its land for housing purposes, but Superintendent Robert Smith said he is “willing to look at the possibilities.”