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Lawmakers to Withdraw Affordable Housing Bills

County to Drop Appeal, Pursue Other Options

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page VA03

Two Northern Virginia legislators have agreed to withdraw legislation that would have strictly limited Arlington and Alexandria's ability to ask for affordable housing contributions from developers.

The legislation -- two separate bills passed by the Senate and House of Delegates this month -- would have limited the jurisdictions' ability to ask developers to contribute to affordable housing funds unless those contributions were in exchange for increased density for their projects.

In exchange, Arlington County officials agreed to withdraw their appeal of a December court ruling by Circuit Court Judge Joanne F. Alper, who had deemed the county's new affordable housing guidelines illegal. Those guidelines had asked residential developers to voluntarily set aside 10 percent of floor space in their projects for affordable housing. The board had similarly asked developers of office buildings to volunteer to make substantial monetary contributions.

Alper ruled that the guidelines were essentially mandatory and that the county had exceeded its legal authority under state law.

The bills' sponsors, Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) and Del. Gary A. Reese (R-Fairfax), had worked with property owners to come up with the legislation. They had said they were concerned that Arlington's policy did not tie affordable housing contributions to the impact a potential project might have on a community. Other Virginia counties, for example, use a proffer system in which developers agree to pay for roads or school sites if their development will directly affect traffic or school enrollment.

"The 'Arlington Way,' in this instance, was illegal," Reese said. "We must find a better way of solving our region's housing problems than by holding up developers and property owners."

Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) praised this week's agreement, saying that the legislation would have severely hampered the board's efforts. He said the county would now examine whether it should change its zoning ordinances in a way that would allow it to run its affordable housing program within state law.

"All the parties involved have taken a step back from a place where it could have gotten out of control, severely limited our options and created an extended period of turmoil," Fisette said. "They've chosen to approach this in a collaborative manner. It's a positive sign."

The compromise comes as officials in both jurisdictions struggle to maintain affordable housing for municipal workers and low-income residents at a time when real estate values are skyrocketing -- and increasing numbers of affordable apartments are being torn down to make way for luxury townhouses and other development.

In Arlington alone, officials say the county lost 47 percent of its affordable rental units between 2000 and 2004.

The Alexandria City Council was set to debate its new affordable housing guidelines earlier this month, before the new agreement was reached. Its guidelines would have asked developers to contribute $1.50 per square foot for commercial property and $1.50 to $2 per square foot for residential property.

Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) sent a letter to Mims and Reese on Tuesday, saying that if the bills were withdrawn, the city would comply with state law and not require developers to made affordable housing contributions.

John G. "Chip" Dicks III, a lawyer for the developers in the Arlington case, said the development community was "pleased" with the agreement.

"We've agreed on a conciliatory process going forward," Dicks said.

Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman said that the county would also be dedicating more money to other affordable housing efforts in the coming months, including its housing investment fund.

"We've been putting more and more into this because of the nature of the problem. The problem is so big you've got to be using every possible tool you can find," Zimmerman said.

Staff writer Chris Jenkins contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company