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Buckingham To Stay Affordable

The county approves a plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to maintain a historic apartment complex.

It’s not uncommon for Judith Sanchez to go days on end without seeing the sun. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to go to work and doesn’t get home until well after dark.

And while this is difficult, it could be even worse if she were forced to move out of her Buckingham Village apartment when the historic housing complex is redeveloped.

However, Sanchez may not have to do this because of a plan approved by the Arlington County Board last week to keep affordable housing at Buckingham, one of the last havens in Arlington for immigrants and blue-collar workers.

The plan called for 300 apartments at the new Buckingham Village to stay at below-market rates through a commitment of county funds. It also opened up the possibility of building some town houses at Buckingham that would be available for ownership at affordable rates.

Many Buckingham residents attended the meeting in which the plan was approved and praised the county’s efforts to allow them to remain in their homes.

"I am very impressed with this plan," Jose Meride said with the help of a translator.

"We are ready for homeownership at Buckingham Village," Anthony Mann said.

"For many of us, it was the first place we arrived," Alex Vicente said, also with the help of a translator. "[Buckingham Village] is like a dream for us."

CONSTRUCTION BEGAN ON BUCKINGHAM VILLAGE, located in between Arlington and Wilson Boulevards and west of George Mason Drive, in 1939. The apartments were split up into three separate complexes known as Village 1, Village 2 and Village 3.

Buckingham has long been home to many blue-collar workers and low-income families because of its affordable rents in a county where housing costs have skyrocketed.

In the early 1990s, Buckingham was purchased by a partnership led by Paradigm Companies. Early last year, Paradigm decided against renovation and planned to redevelop the 456-unit apartment complex.

Its initial plans were to keep only 150 apartments at below-market rates and have the rest be market-rate apartments and townhouses.

While the redevelopment was within Paradigm’s legal rights as owners of the property, the plans prompted a public outcry from those who didn’t want to see yet another affordable housing option in Arlington destroyed.

In the summer of 2006, the county was able to negotiate a deal with Paradigm to maintain 300 affordable units at Buckingham in exchange for loans from the county.

"The last time [the Board] heard this… it was a by-right development of an extremely valuable property in Arlington that would have eliminated the community," said County Manager Ron Carlee. "The owner of the property could have proceeded but they worked together with the county to find alternatives."

The county-approved plan calls for the 300 affordable apartments to be spread out over Village 1 and Village 3 with the possibility of some being built elsewhere in the Buckingham neighborhood. Village 2 was razed by Paradigm late last year and will be replaced with 69 market-rate town houses.

Village 1 will contain 100 affordable apartments reserved for those earning less than 60 percent of the county’s median income, which is $55,000 a year for a family of four or $38,000 a year for an individual. Paradigm will receive tax credits from the state for building these apartments.

Village 1 will also contain 60 apartments that will be made available for those earning between 60 percent and 80 percent of the county’s median income. Paradigm will not receive tax credits for these apartments but the county felt it was necessary for these to be included because many current Buckingham residents fall into this category.

"We are trying to help people who are struggling but working," Board Member Barbara Favola (D) said.

The most radical aspect of the county’s plan is its proposed purchase of Village 3 from Paradigm for $32 million. The county will lease the apartment complex to a developer who will maintain affordable rates for 140 apartments and possibly some town homes that would be available for ownership.

The details for this aspect of the plan are not totally ironed out yet, so the County Board will bring the issue up again at its April meeting.

"If you were buying a house, would you buy it without a survey?" Ken Aughenbaugh, the Housing Director for Arlington County, said.

He also said that a local government purchasing property for affordable housing is a relatively new idea and that "It’s a model that’s really just in its formative stages nationwide."

But Aughenbaugh added that the county is proceeding with the plan despite the uncertainties because "[This is] a significant opportunity for a moderate income family to remain in the community."

AT THE MEETING LAST WEEK, County officials were effusive in their praise for Paradigm, the residents of Buckingham Village and themselves for all working together to come to an agreement.

"What a long, strange trip it’s been," said Board Vice-Chairman Walter Tejada (D), quoting an earlier speaker’s remarks about the protracted, years-long negotiating process that involved an seemingly endless amount of community meetings. "If we have the willingness to work together, it can be done."

"I don’t think I’ve ever felt more pride in the community than I did in listening to the comments [tonight]," Board Member Chris Zimmerman (D) said.

"If this had been another property owner it wouldn’t have worked out, but you were ready to come to the table." Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D) said to the Paradigm representatives at the meeting.

Jon Kinney, a lawyer with Paradigm, said, "The effort put into this is nothing short of heroic. A good-faith effort was made on everyone’s part."

Activist June O’Connell said that, by investing money in the Buckingham project to allow its residents to stay there, the county was "putting its money where our values are."

Ferguson agreed but responded that, "In this case, living by our values is very expensive. This whole project could cost $60 million or more [for the county]."