Arlington’s Affordable Housing Crisis

The county's supply of affordable homes has plummeted by the thousands over the last decade. Now here comes Amazon.

 

County officials and housing advocates tend to look at the affordable housing challenge in layers. Each income layer has different problems and programs.

There are no public housing projects in Arlington, but the lowest-income residents can get access to reduced-rent units like Aiken’s, as well as federal and county housing vouchers to help pay the rent. Jonathan Kinney, a land-use attorney who has practiced locally for 46 years and lives in Virginia Square, says Arlington is lucky to have a strong community of nonprofit developers serving that group.

“Arlington is really the gold standard in terms of affordable housing in the region and even in the country,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we are doing enough. But we are doing more than neighboring jurisdictions.”

Nonprofit developers don’t target the next rung up the economic ladder—those earning between 60 and 80 percent of AMI. Instead, county officials use zoning and land-use perks to incentivize private developers to serve this population—for example, by granting greater building density in exchange for a certain number of units being earmarked as affordable. (Alternately, developers can meet the requirements of Arlington’s affordable housing ordinance by paying into an Affordable Housing Investment Fund, from which nonprofits and others obtain loans to build lower-rent units.)

One approach that is helping to address the shortfall is the repurposing of churches and other community buildings, like the American Legion Post 139 in Virginia Square. APAH and its partners are planning to redevelop the latter to include space for the veterans’ group along with 160 units of affordable housing.

APAH is similarly renovating the Arlington Presbyterian Church near the corner of South Glebe Road and Columbia Pike. Once completed, the project will have worship space on the ground floor with affordable housing above. It follows an example set by the former Clarendon First Baptist Church (now The Church at Clarendon), which was redeveloped in 2011, adding 116 affordable multifamily housing units and eight floors on top of the original church building.

Arlington Artspace, an initiative backed by Arlington Cultural Affairs that would create affordable live/work studios for working artists, is exploring alternate uses for buildings in Virginia Square and Crystal City, and along Columbia Pike and Four Mile Run.

Last year, Arlington’s stock of “committed affordable” housing grew by 515 units, says Winters at the Alliance for Housing Solutions. These units are privately owned, but the landlords have promised to cap the rents at affordable levels (usually for people earning 60 percent or less of AMI) in exchange for construction loans or exemptions from county rules on matters like density.

Countywide, Winters says, the number of committed affordable units inched up from 5,938 in 2010 to 7,729 units in 2018.

There are counterbalancing forces at play. As new affordable units are built, the county is seeing attrition in older committed units whose terms are expiring. Claridge House, a 300-unit senior living community in Pentagon City, not far from Amazon’s promised digs, is one such example. Its 1979 affordable housing commitment expires in 2019. Cristeal says he is working on a deal with federal officials and the landlord to keep the building’s affordable rents for the next 10 years.

County leaders have also found themselves swimming upstream to preserve privately owned rental units for earners in the “80 percent or less of AMI” category. When developers renovate these units, the county requires them to either pay into the Affordable Housing Investment Fund pool or create affordable units to replace what was lost.

 

Much of Arlington’s current affordable housing supply radiates from the Columbia Pike corridor. A county sector plan aims to preserve the 6,200 moderate rental units currently located there.

But local officials are also looking for solutions beyond the Pike. Last year, the county board put the brakes on efforts to bulldoze affordable housing to make way for new townhouses in a dozen other neighborhoods. These now-designated Housing Conservation Districts (HCDs) require property owners to get approval through a site plan process before they can redevelop.

Some landowners have complained that the new rules constitute an illegal government “taking” of their property, insofar as the value of a property drops when it becomes harder to develop. Winters says this pushback could lead to lawsuits.

Johnson, the apartment building owner quoted earlier in this story, says the HCDs have made it tougher for landlords like him to get loans to renovate their buildings. Banks worry it will be harder to sell the property if the owner defaults. Unlike homes with 30-year mortgages, he says, apartment owners need to refinance about every five years.

“The unintended consequence of the Housing Conservation Districts is they have hurt the people providing the low-income housing they want to preserve,” Johnson says. “Why should we be punished, for heaven’s sake? We’re doing a good job.”

Johnson and Winters are both part of a county Housing Conservation Group that is working on incentives for developers. The process has been frustratingly slow, Winters says, but should result in tax and other financial benefits and zoning advantages for landowners who keep units in HCDs affordable instead of converting them into pricier residences. For example, a developer might gain the right to add more units on top of a former parking lot in exchange for keeping a portion of the units on that property affordable.

“The incentive is going to have to be pretty big,” Winters says. “The incentive they have right now is to maximize their rent.”


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