Housing to take center stage in Arlington


J. Walter Tejada (D), the new chairman of the Arlington County Board, made it clear that increasing the supply of affordable housing in the face of booming development and rising real estate prices would top his list of priorities. (Seth Perlman/AP)

In his inaugural address Tuesday, the new chairman of the Arlington County Board made it clear that increasing the supply of affordable housing in the face of booming development and rising real estate prices would top his list of priorities.

“No community in this region has invested more or worked harder to preserve affordable housing than Arlington,” J. Walter Tejada (D) said during the board’s annual organizational meeting, citing the preservation of low or medium rents on 6,585 units in the past 15 years. “And yet we must do more.”

The county has set aside $8 million a year to help residents afford homes, but the fund is proving inadequate. Tejada told the county manager to explore using tax strategies to finance more affordable housing along Columbia Pike, where development has been pushing up prices and threatening to reduce one of the county’s largest supplies of low- and moderate-income housing.

Plenty of condominium and rental units are becoming available for the single, upper-middle-income workers who have flocked to Arlington’s transit-friendly, densely developed “urban villages,” with their upscale restaurants, shops and nightclubs.

But for families of modest means, Arlington’s $1,768 average monthly rent is daunting, and so are sales prices. According to a report from the county’s housing office, sale prices averaged about $372,000 for condominium units in 2011 and $695,000 for single-family homes.

Development is flourishing in Arlington, with nine major retail and housing projects approved in 2012 and more coming. Tens of thousands of new jobs are expected to arrive in the next few years. But those jobs are primarily in the service sector, analysts say, and those service workers are unlikely to be able to afford housing in the county.

A longtime community activist who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador, Tejada is impatient with last year’s County Board decision to launch an affordable-housing study that is projected to take three years.

“I don’t believe it will take three years to confirm what we already know,” he said in an earlier interview. He and board member Chris Zimmerman pushed for faster action, advocacy that caused rare tension on the all-Democratic board.

Tejada will have to negotiate those differences at a time when the budget is getting tighter. Those differences grew wider in the latter half of 2012, most noticeably when a new board member, Libby Garvey, raised questions about Zimmerman’s contract with a firm that is doing work for the county on a streetcar system. Zimmerman said his contract with AECOM is for work in Canada and has nothing to do with Arlington. The county attorney has said there is not a conflict of interest.

At Tuesday’s meeting, a time usually devoted to laying out priorities and the feel-good exchange of New Year’s wishes, Garvey urged the board to reevaluate its support for building a streetcar line down Columbia Pike.

“We need to have the conversation about the streetcar ‘at the right time,’ which is now, this year,” she said, calling for a cost-benefit analysis of the $250 million streetcar system as compared with a significantly cheaper bus rapid transit system.

Mary H. Hynes, a former chairman, said Tuesday that the board should not “revisit issues that have been well vetted and incorporated into the county’s long-range plans.”

Although Tejada also plans to promote fitness, urban agriculture, and pedestrian and bicycle safety and Vice Chairman Jay Fisette vowed to go on “a crusade” against bottled water, housing was clearly the issue of the day.

Tejada said the county should consider “tax-increment financing” as a way to finance more affordable housing. That approach makes use of increased tax revenue attributable to development that causes property values to rise. The money can be funneled into housing, infrastructure improvements or other community-oriented projects.

Until now, the county has not used tax policies to finance affordable housing, relying instead on other sources of federal, state and local money, including developer fees. Tejada gave the county manager six months to analyze taxing options.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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