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For Many, The Price Isn't Right

City and County Employees Are Struggling to Afford Housing Near Their Jobs

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page VA14

Rapidly rising home prices in Arlington and Alexandria have priced many municipal workers -- teachers, mid-level managers, police officers -- out of the local housing market, statistics show.

A recent analysis of more than 70,000 salary records from 14 jurisdictions by The Washington Post shows that the median income is $50,962 for Arlington County employees and $43,438 for employees of the city of Alexandria. Both are well below the median income for the Washington region and far less than the salary needed to buy and maintain the average condominium or single-family home in either jurisdiction. The median income in the Washington region is $91,500 for a family of four and $64,000 for a single-person household, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Michelle Thomas, with daughter Jaelin, works in Arlington as an aide for a county program but lives in Suitland. (Lauren Victoria Burke For The Washington Post)

In Alexandria, for example, housing division chief Shane Cochran estimates that a household would have to earn $91,416 yearly to be able to afford the average home or condominium in the city, currently assessed at $361,040. In Arlington, the 2004 average assessment for a single-family residence was $369,600.

In recent years, both jurisdictions have implemented live/work programs that help employees who want to live near their jobs, but most employees who earn mid-level salaries and below have continued to flee to cheaper digs in the outer suburbs of Prince William, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties, and even as far as West Virginia.

Only 15 percent of Alexandria's municipal employees and one-third of its schools staff live in the city; 27 percent of Arlington County employees live in Arlington. This compares with the roughly 62 percent of employees in both Fairfax and Montgomery counties who live in the counties where they work.

Officials from both jurisdictions say that their salaries are competitive -- Arlington's teachers, for example, are the highest paid in the region, with an average salary of $60,100 in 2004 -- but more can be done to encourage local employees to live near their jobs, they said.

"It's very much a concern," said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D). "We'd like to make it possible for more of them to do it. There's an advantage to us to have a certain number of people who work for the county to be residents, who can experience what it's like to be an Arlingtonian as a resident and in their job. And if there's an emergency, people are more readily available."

The highest-paid employees in Alexandria and Arlington include top-level managers, medical professionals, police and fire chiefs and the school superintendents in both jurisdictions, the salary analysis showed. Only 1.6 percent of employees in Alexandria and nearly 2 percent of employees in Arlington had a base salary of more than $100,000 a year, compared with nearly 3 percent in larger jurisdictions such as the District and Montgomery County.

School Superintendent Robert G. Smith is the highest-paid county employee in Arlington at $196,452 a year; County Manager Ron Carlee makes $178,019 a year, followed by the county's health director, Susan Allan, who is paid $166,930 annually.

In Alexandria, critics of Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry, who were still unhappy about her drunken driving arrest last spring, were irked when she was given a raise that put her annual salary well over that of the city manager -- $189,744 to Philip G. Sunderland's 2004 salary of $183,337. Sunderland announced his retirement in June, and his replacement, James K. Hartmann, will make $190,000 when he takes over Jan. 10.

In the last two years, both Arlington County and Alexandria have introduced incentive programs to encourage employees to buy homes near their places of employment, and to help them to apply for special federal and state programs that assist low- and moderate-income homebuyers.

Two years ago, Arlington County established a program called Live Where You Work, which provides loans of about $3,700 to employees purchasing homes in the county. If the employee stays in the home and with the county for three years, the loan is forgiven. More than 48 county employees have taken advantage of the program, according to Marcy Foster, director of human resources.

Doug Myrick, Arlington's homeownership program coordinator, said that the county hopes the program will help retain employees, which he argues will save money on training and recruitment.

"In the last four years in Arlington, housing prices have more than doubled," Myrick said. "Obviously, income has not. . . . Even if you make 100 or 120 percent of the area median income, it's challenging."

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