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Affordable Housing Persists

Arlington has lost 52 percent of its affordable housing since 2000.

The note slipped under Priscilla Haskins' door seemed innocuous enough. Perhaps the elevators in her Rosslyn apartment were broken, or a child down the hall was having a bake sale.

Instead, it was letter announcing she had 120 days to leave her complex, which had been sold to a large developer who wanted to tear it down and build luxury condos.

A resident of Arlington for more than 40 years, she was afraid she could no longer afford an apartment in the county. Her only source of revenue was from a monthly government disability check, and there were times when she had to choose between buying medicine or paying her rent.

After months of searching, she found a small, inexpensive place in South Arlington, but many of her former neighbors were not so fortunate, and moved to Fairfax or Prince William counties.

"You can't survive here unless you make $50,000," said Haskins. Otherwise "it's impossible to find a decent enough place."

SPEAK TO ANY Arlington official about the gravest threat to the sustainability of the county, and the first words out of their mouths inevitably will be "affordable housing." Or lack there of.

"This is the most challenging subject facing our community," County Board member Walter Tejada told the Civic Federation earlier this year. "We continue to struggle as best as we can, but we need to come up with different options. We need to try new things."

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.

Between 2000 and 2005 the county lost 9,900 affordable housing units, or 52 percent of its total. Since November 2004, owners of more than 2,300 rental units have begun the process of converting them into condos, and another 500 units are scheduled to be demolished to make way for townhouses and other high-priced dwellings.

Home prices across the county have skyrocketed in recent years, with the average Arlington single-family dwelling having spiked from $224,000 in 2001 to currently $541,000.

And it is not just lower income families who are being priced out of the county. Middle class families are starting to feel the crunch of sky-rocketing rents.

Many hospital workers, police officers and fire fighters no longer earn enough to live in the community they serve.

"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.

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, the head of the Civic Federation's housing committee.

IN MANY WAYS the county is a victim of its own success. By fostering a highly desirable community that combines some of the best elements of suburban and urban living, Arlington officials have unwillingly priced out public servants.

"It’s a double-edged sword," said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), during a press conference this spring announcing a partnership between the county and Freddie Mac. "So many people want to live in Arlington that by the laws of supply and demand the price of housing has become unattainable" for teachers and public safety officers.

Arlington has had some success preserving affordable units and complexes, adding a total of 1,771 affordable units since 2000.

"That sounds great until you hear how many we lost on the market side," Zimmerman said. "We’re bailing out the water but it’s coming in even faster."

This year's budget includes $17.5 million for affordable housing programs, and provides nearly $6 million for an investment fund that helps nonprofits rent units at below-market rates.

The county has a goal this year of securing 400 new net affordable units, but officials admit that more preservation is needed to ensure low-income families can remain in Arlington.

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

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.

In 2004 the county board passed a measure 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.

After months of contentious negotiations, County Board members, developers and community activists forged a compromise plan last October requiring 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.

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 can provide units on-site, off-site units nearby, units elsewhere in the county or contribute to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund. The new measure creates incentives to encourage developers to supply inexpensive units in new projects.

TO COMBAT THE SHORTAGE of affordable housing, board members have said they are interested in creating more co-ops and produce more incentives for property owners to devote units to below market prices.

Zimmerman said he would like to help senior citizens on a fixed income remain in the county and possibly revise zoning ordinances to allow accessory dwellings, such as "granny flats" and English basements.

Last year the County Board approved the Homeowner's Grant Program to provide relief for low and moderate income residents. It offers a $500 grant to homeowners who earn below $75,000.

County officials' greatest fear is that in the coming years thousands of more Arlington residents, like Priscilla Haskins, will have eviction notes slipped under their doors.

As Zimmerman said in his New Year's address that kicked-off his year as county board chairman: "We cannot be diverse and inclusive if there are not places to live in our community for people of all backgrounds, all income levels, all ages."