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Board Looks to Increase Affordable Housing Stock

County will use funds from selling condos to help public employees and Buckingham Village residents buy affordable units.

The County Board has announced plans to purchase affordable units in luxury buildings in the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor and then re-sell them at market rates, using the proceeds to help residents acquire condos elsewhere in the county.

Though the details of the housing buy-back program still have to be finalized, county officials expect to sell 30 condos and earmark those funds to help at least 90 Arlington families or individuals become first-time homeowners.

The county predicts the condo sales will net more than $7 million. The first million will be allocated for a loan program to help up to 30 county and school employees buy units in or near the Metro corridor.

The remaining $6 million will be set aside to enable residents of Buckingham Village, which is being redeveloped, to purchase in their neighborhood.

The proposal is an innovative way to increase the county’s affordable housing stock while retaining units in the Metro corridor, County Board Vice Chair Paul Ferguson said during the board’s Oct. 24 meeting.

“We have such a problem with affordable housing in the county, why not get the best bang for our buck,” Ferguson said. “If you have a ship with lots of leaks in it, why not plug the most holes possible.”

THE UNITS TO be sold are located in three high-rises along Wilson Boulevard and a building at the corner of North 10th and Monroe streets. The developers of these sites have already agreed to buy back the units, which were originally reserved for families who make less than 60 percent of area median income — roughly $59,000 for a family of four.

In the three to four years since all of these projects were approved, the cost to the county to keep the 30 units at affordable rates has skyrocketed. County officials expect to net an average of $250,000 per condo sold, and believe they can parlay each one into between two and four new affordable units.

Paying high monthly condo fees on the units in the luxury buildings was also draining county coffers, officials said.

With this program “we can still achieve affordable home ownership in the corridor, but do so at substantially lower subsidy rate per household,” County Manager Ron Carlee said.

Most of the proceeds will go toward providing affordable units in the Buckingham Village apartment buildings, potentially keeping hundreds of residents in the ethnically diverse neighborhood in central Arlington.

Under a deal forged with Paradigm Development Co., the county must contribute between $16 and $20 million to retain nearly 300 units in the complex affordable.

“This is going to be an expensive project and we need to begin marshaling the resources necessary to implement it,” Carlee said.

The other beneficiaries of the deal will be county and school employees. The county plans to use $1 million to bolster a loan program for first time homeowners.

“We really want our employees to live here in the county,” Ferguson said. “Now some who wouldn’t be able to afford so will be able to.”

THE DECISION WAS not without controversy; for a County Board that tends to vote unanimously on affordable housing issues, it splintered three to two on whether to support the proposal.

County Board member Jay Fisette voted against the measure because he preferred school and county employees be allowed to purchase anywhere in the county, rather than be restricted to the more expensive Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

“When push comes to shove, I would prioritize getting more units rather than fewer units in targeted locations,” Fisette said.

According to county documents, there are only five affordable one-bedroom and five two-bedroom units available for sale in the entire Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

The dearth of units near Metro stations means the county may not be able to accommodate as many employees as officials intend. For this reason, Fisette said it makes little sense to limit where the loans can be used.

“If a county employee finds a unit in Shirlington or Lee Highway, we should be able to support that,” he said.

Meanwhile, County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman also cast his vote against the proposal, but for the opposite reason.

The language of the initiative states that affordable units can be bought by employees “adjacent” to the Metro corridor in the surrounding neighborhoods. Zimmerman feared that the only places available would be located far from Metro stations, working against the county’s goal of having a mix of housing varieties next to transit stops.

“This is a dangerous, slippery slope,” Zimmerman said.

“If this had brought something outside of these buildings but still nearby, I would have felt differently,” he added.

Several community activists spoke out against the proposal during the County Board meeting.

Stan Karson, head of the Radnor/Ft. Myers Heights Civic Association, where one of the four luxury high-rises is situated, said his neighborhood had fought hard to get the developers to include affordable units in the building. Having low-income families living in the neighborhood was vital to its health, he added.

“We have a vested interest in maintaining affordable housing and diversity in our area,” Karson said.

Zimmerman echoed Karson’s sentiments, arguing that the proposal set a bad precedent by reneging on a finished site plan.

“It’s dangerous to go back and pull apart benefits from a site plan that we approved, and reallocate them,” he said.