Arlington’s Shrinking Middle Class

Arlington offers an enviable quality of life. But the county’s popularity is also pushing housing prices beyond the pocketbooks of many middle-class residents.

The Endo family at their home on November 8th, 2013 in Arlington Virginia. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley

 

Erik Endo still remembers the flier that arrived at his house in 1998, just three weeks after he and his wife bought his childhood home in Lyon Park for $248,000 from his parents. “A house in the neighborhood was listed for $325,000,” says Endo, shaking his head in disbelief. “We thought it was a typo.”

Of course, there was no typo. Housing prices in Arlington have been rising for years, thanks to decades-old planning decisions that encouraged development along the Orange and Blue Lines, creating walkable neighborhoods, convenient commutes for workers, a diversified tax base for the county’s highly rated public schools, and more recession-resistant real estate values, compared with D.C.’s outer suburbs.

The proximity of private and public sector jobs hasn’t hurt either. Thousands of Arlingtonians cross the Potomac each day to work for members of Congress, government agencies, trade associations and lobbying firms. Others hop the Blue Line to join 23,000 military and civilian workers at the Pentagon. And some opt for the reverse commute, heading west on I-66 and I-267 to the technology firms and defense contractors along the Dulles Corridor.

But Arlington’s urban planning success also has had an unsettling side for locals like Endo. A graduate of H-B Woodlawn, he and his wife are thoroughly committed to the community. He teaches English to low-income parents at the Even Start Family Literacy Program at Barcroft Elementary, coaches soccer and volunteers at his children’s schools; his wife, Jennifer, works as director of resident services at Arlington Housing Corp., which produces and preserves affordable rental housing in the county. They have only one car, preferring to walk or bike whenever possible, just as Arlington encourages.

The Endos are solidly middle class. And they are quite sure they would never be able to buy a home in Arlington today.

“If we’d waited a year, we wouldn’t have gotten in,” says Endo, 43, whose home is now worth nearly $770,000—an increase of 210 percent since 1997—according to Zillow. “We have friends who missed that time, and now they feel stuck. They can’t afford to buy a house in Arlington, so they’re either moving farther out or making do with their condo, townhouse or apartment.”

Such choices can be a tough pill to swallow. Given all the transience in Northern Virginia—with people moving in and out of the area for work, politics and overseas assignments—it can be easy to forget how many people consider Arlington their hometown. These natives grew up riding their bikes on neighborhood streets, going to Bob & Edith’s for breakfast and cheering at Friday night football games between Yorktown and Washington-Lee.

But now they’re seeing that lifestyle slipping beyond their grasp as the condo developers come to Columbia Pike, the upwardly mobile 20-somethings take over the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and builders tear down $700,000 ramblers to build $1.5 million custom homes.

This trend leaves residents like John Schwarz, 62, who has lived in his Clarendon apartment since 1992, with plenty of questions. “What about everyone in the middle?” the government worker asks. “Where are they supposed to live?”

Some have already made the decision to leave, for financial and philo-sophical reasons. “I don’t miss the traffic or the high property taxes, but I do miss things about Arlington—the diversity, the culture, the ethnic restaurants,” says Jay Lo Monaco, 34, a York-
town High grad who now commutes 60 miles from Berryville, leaving his wife and three kids at 4:30 a.m. daily to come to Falls Church, where he co-owns Paul’s Best Lawn Service with his brother, Tim. “I had to get real honest about what I made. It’s a very expensive area.”

He’s right, of course. According to RealEstate Business Intelligence (RBI), a subsidiary of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, Arlington ranked as the second-most costly place in the D.C. metro area to become a homeowner in 2013. The average home price? $530,000, second only to Falls Church City, where the average home price is $650,000.

“I think this is one of those things that cannot be sugarcoated,” says Walter Tejada, who chairs the Arlington County Board. “This is a very high-priced area, and over time, we have become the victims of our own success. Our schools are in the top 1 percent of the country. We have low crime.

We are right next to the nation’s capital, and we have a lot of amenities. It really has made the prices jump.”

While the rise in property values may be understandable, Arlington’s growing affluence leaves some wondering about the fate of those who are inevitably being left behind. That includes county government employees, only 26 percent of whom now live inside county lines.

“Arlington is becoming unaffordable unless you already own a home or are a professional with a high income,” says Christian Dorsey, 42, who lives in Columbia Forest with his wife and two kids. An Arlington resident since 1993, he has worked for several Arlington nonprofits (including The Reading Connection) and ran for the county board in 2002.

These days, Dorsey is the director of external and government relations for the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. It’s a job that gives him a national perspective on the economic issues affecting Americans with moderate and low incomes, and Dorsey has some concerns about what he sees happening here at home.

“Arlington envisions itself as a world-class community with a neighborhood feel, but that’s not sustainable when the cost of housing is rising far faster than the wages of middle-income families,” he says. “I completely get it. For those of us who are already homeowners, that’s a wonderful thing.

But how long can that be the model for our growth? We need to have a plan B, where there is a diversity of housing options so we can increase the supply and reduce the price pressures.”

Arlington isn’t the only place where the middle class is losing financial ground; such erosion is happening all over the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income nationwide slipped to $51,017 in 2012, down from $56,080 in 1999. Many American families have less purchasing power today than they had a decade, or even two decades ago.

Meanwhile, the nation’s top earners—those with household incomes averaging $150,000 and up—continue to report bigger and bigger paychecks and portfolios. Since 1967, income for the wealthiest 5 percent of American households has grown 88 percent— more than four times the 20 percent income growth for middle-class households during the same time period, according to Census data.

For many in the D.C. area, such gains are good news. With a median household income of $100,474 in 2012, Arlington was the fifth-richest county in the nation, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

What pushes Arlington’s household income numbers so high? Education and dual-earner couples. With 70 percent of its residents holding bachelor’s degrees, and nearly 37 percent holding graduate or professional degrees, Arlington is the most highly educated county in the United States.

These degree-holders don’t stop working when they get married, either; 64 percent of married couples in Arlington are two-income households, compared with 53 percent for the rest of the country, according to Census figures.

Such numbers put Arlington undeniably into “SuperZIP” territory. The term, developed by American Enterprise Institute researcher Charles Murray, refers to those areas—as defined by their U.S. Postal Service ZIP code—where residents’ income and education dramatically outpace the rest of the country.

As William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer, said in a 2012 Washington Post article: “A big sliver of American society that generally does well tends to cluster in Washington. When people make the argument that $250,000 is middle income, that’s way higher than most of the country regards as middle income. But here in Washington, your next-door neighbor has that kind of income.”

It wasn’t always that way, at least not in Arlington. “Thirty years ago, Arlington was a very accessible community for both rental and homeownership,” says Nina Janopaul, president and CEO of the local nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which develops affordable apartment properties in the county. “We bought our house, which was near Clarendon, for $112,000 in 1982, and we were just two nonprofit employees with salaries that added up to $50,000 a year. And our neighbors were the same as us.”

Other residents tell similar stories, recalling how their parents moved to Arlington and bought homes, even on modest salaries.

“My dad drove a Metrobus, and my mom was a teacher,” says Tim Lo Monaco, 32, whose parents bought their Yorktown house in 1977 for $62,500, according to county records. “My dad started cutting grass on the side to make a little extra money.”

Cynthia Long, who lives in Hall’s Hill-Highview Park, also marvels at how things have changed. “My dad was a government worker, and he was able to afford this house on a single income,” says Long, 46, who bought her parents’ house in 2001 with her husband. “My dad told me that this would be our ‘starter house,’ ” she says, laughing at the memory. “I don’t think we could have been able to afford a single-family house with three bedrooms in North Arlington if we hadn’t bought it from my parents.”

It’s a familiar refrain. “I joke that I’m the president of the Ashton Heights Civic Association and I love this place, but I could never afford to move here now,” says Scott Sklar, 63, a clean- energy consultant and adjunct professor at George Washington University, who bought his 1922 Sears kit house in 1984 for $111,000. Today, that same house—which has been remodeled to include a second story and solar upgrades—is worth more than $980,000, according to Zillow. “I just lucked out,” he says. “I probably would have been priced out as well.”

Others aren’t so sanguine about the pressure Arlington’s high housing costs are placing on middle-class budgets. “I think if we were almost anywhere else in the United States, we would be middle class, but in Arlington, we are not,” says Lily Mancilla, 32, who works as a project manager at a nonprofit and owns a home in Columbia Heights West with her husband, an administrative assistant at a law firm.

“It is a constant struggle,” agrees homeowner Sandra Hernandez, a part-time Spanish language tutor who lives in South Arlington with her IT worker husband and two children. “We clip coupons; we try to save for college. But I feel like I am a disappearing breed.”

That feeling of no longer belonging was especially acute the night Hernandez ventured into Clarendon for a rare dinner out with her family at a casual restaurant after her kids’ sports practices. During their meal, a handful of 20-somethings at a nearby table snarkily mocked the 48-year-old mother’s hairstyle, clothing and general appearance. “I was so angry that I cried in the parking lot,” Hernandez says. “My husband and I are college-educated, hardworking people, and I was in tears.”

Suddenly, Hernandez says, she felt unwelcome in the same place she’s called home for more than a dozen years. “They’re here for the good time,” she says. “Meanwhile, you are here, committed to the community, and you know that if you had to do it all over again, you couldn’t afford it.”

County board chair Tejada, who has lived in Arlington for more than 20 years, is sympathetic. “Not that long ago, Arlington was a sleepy place, where not much was happening,” he observes. “A few visionaries started reinventing Arlington, with smart growth and transit-oriented development and mixed-use [along the Metro corridors]. But the one thing that they did not do was protect affordable housing.”

Many Arlingtonians worry that as the county grows wealthier, that prosperity could translate into a community that is not only less diverse, but also less welcoming of today’s immigrants—particularly those who arrive in the United States with nothing.

“You could always tell where the political problems in the world were, because those were the people in our classes,” says Molly Kirby, 71, a Fairlington resident who began teaching English to non-native speakers in Arlington during the Vietnam War. “They came from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. We had Afghans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Somalians. Then they came from Bolivia, Guatemala and El Salvador. Whatever country you read about on the front page of The Washington Post, their people were here. It was both fascinating and sad to be learning so much about these places.”

As they settled, many of these newcomers left their marks—both permanent and temporary—on Arlington. Before Clarendon became a playground for hipsters, it was a center of Vietnamese-American community life, with grocery stores, restaurants and retailers, earning it the nickname “Little Saigon.” Some of these Vietnamese proprietors have since shifted west, reorienting themselves to the expanded Eden Center in Seven Corners. Others simply went out of business.

But not all areas have changed as Clarendon has. Diversity is still omnipresent in many neighborhoods, particularly those south of Route 50. “Look at 22204,” says Tejada, referring to the areas surrounding Columbia Pike. “You have a world in a ZIP code. There are 108 languages spoken there.”

In Barcroft, Our Savior Lutheran has welcomed Eritreans since the late 1990s, offering a weekly Sunday worship service in their native language of Tigrinya. Spanish-speaking and English-speaking parents alike apply for the county’s two popular, public dual-language Spanish immersion elementary schools, Claremont and Key. And along Columbia Pike, Thai restaurants, Ethiopian shops and Latin American bakeries currently coexist with the Hair Cuttery, McDonald’s and the county’s infamous $1 million Super Stop.

“In Arlington, we’ve got the whole world here, and by and large, we get along. It’s a model of human behavior,” says Lloyd Wolf, 61, a photographer who has lived in Arlington since 1976. “We have done something right here, and we are enriched by it.”

Others, however, see the multicultural fabric beginning to fray. Amy Domingues, a professional cellist who rents a small cottage in Lyon Park, has observed how the composition of her neighborhood changes during the day. “I work from home, so I see the construction and the renovation guys, the nannies, the dog walkers and the lawn care workers,” she says. “Then, boom, it’s 5 o’clock, and you see the real owners out walking their dog, or the moms and dads with their kids.”

For Domingues, a Springfield native who moved to the county in 1995, the gentrification of Arlington has been unsettling. “Arlington was a place that was really exciting for indie music in the early- and mid-1990s,” she recalls. “There were so many more creative professionals here—visual artists, musicians. There were group houses, so you could start your own band in your basement or you could have an art studio. There was room for you to do your creative work.”

As real estate prices climbed, though, such places became much harder to find. Domingues, now 40, lived in just such a group house in Ashton Heights, until it was sold to a developer who tore it down and built two $1.5 million homes on the land.

“I’m just sad that the financial situation is such that you can make more money by tearing down a home and building a new one,” she says, “because the people who can afford to pay for these houses can also change the type of community in which you live.”

She’s not the only long-time resident who is wary of Arlington’s transformation.

“We joke that a lot of our friends are people who bought before 2000, because it seems many of the people who bought after us have a different financial situation,” says Endo, who was a stay-at-home dad for the family’s three sons before going back to work part-time as a teacher. “It doesn’t mean we don’t share the same values or that we can’t be friends. But I do wonder how the rising costs in the area will affect the value system of Arlington overall.”

He’s seen this play out in many ways, large and small, on the same streets where he’s lived since 1975. “Look at curb appeal. When I was a kid, no one had manicured lawns. Our yard was a jungle, and that was the norm,” he recalls. “The lawn care business was my brother. Now you have lawn service company trucks.”

And as the Lo Monaco brothers’ experience shows, not even the owners of those lawn care companies—let alone their workers—can afford Arlington’s home prices these days.

“If it wasn’t for my parents, I don’t know what we’d do,” says Tim, who lives in Arlington Forest, on the south side of Route 50, with his wife, their young daughter and another occupant—a renter. “I’m one of the few of my friends who have a house,” he says, “and it’s because my parents helped out.”

Will the quirky, global, friendly and relatively affordable Arlington of the past survive or, ironically, become an unintended victim of the county’s success? A growing number of longtime residents aren’t so sure.

“I think it’s cool that Arlington was a little bit on the funky side. Now we have the big-box stores, and everyone looks the same. To me, that’s not progress,” says Hernandez. “Hanging out together, going to different places of worship together, going to the Ethiopian restaurant where all the cabbies go and having them treat you like family—that is community, and it is disappearing.”

Alison Rice, who has lived in the Ballston, Shirlington and Rock Spring neighborhoods, remembers eating under the twinkling white lights at Little Viet Garden.

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