The Arlington Committee for Affordable Housing, an ad hoc citizens group concerned with the county's housing crisis, has urged the County Board to call a referendum that would allow voters to decide whether to establish a local housing authority in the county.

The committee is expected to submit a petition at the County Board's Aug. 7 meeting requesting that the issue be placed on the November ballot. The group originally had submitted the petition at a board meeting this earlier this month, but later decided to delay its request.

"We decided it would be best to have more time to educate people as to the excellent possibilities of helping (to solve) the housing crisis through the activation of a Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and to assure the widest possible participation of the voters," said Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington), who spearheaded the petition drive with lawyer Dennis M. Hottell.

The committee already has gathered 120 signatures, 20 more than needed to force a vote on the issue, according to Almand.

If the referendum is approved, the county would be required to set up a Redevelopment and Housing Authority. State law provides that such an agency could sell tax-exempt bonds to finance housing construction and rehabilitation for low- and moderate-income housing projects.

The county already has the private, nonprofit Arlington Housing Corp., which helps preserve affordable housing through a variety of federal programs and grants. But its director, Lou Ann Frederick, noted that the corporation is not empowered to sell bonds.

Almand said the current drive for a housing authority is an attempt to take advantage of a two-year, experimental "loan to lenders" program that the General Assembly authorized to begin July 1.

Under the program, redevelopment and housing authorities in the 28 Virginia jurisdictions that have them, including Alexandria and Fairfax County, can issue tax-exempt bonds for construction and rehabilitation of multifamily rental dwellings.

The program permits the work to be done in rental complexes that have both low- and moderate-income residents, instead of restricting the funds, as currently done, to dwellings with only low-income inhabitants. The authority would have flexibility to establish income limits for eligibility.

"Nowadays when you talk about moderate-income people in Arlington, you're talking about policemen, teachers and county employes," Almand noted. "I think this will be a great help to that segment of the community. This would maintain housing for people who are Arlingtonians now."

The authority would be able lend money from the bond sales to financial institutions that would, in turn, offer low-interest loans to individuals and developers. The loans would be secured by the projects rather than by county taxpayers, Almand said.

While the program allows such funds to be used for construction, Almand said he expects that in already heavily developed Arlington, most of the money would go for rehabilitation projects.

The County Board would appoint authority commissioners. The authority would be independent of the county government, although the County Board would have to approve any housing authority projects.

The authority would continue to exist at the end of the two-year program, but would be restricted to financing low-income housing unless the program were extended.

Arlington voters turned down a Redevelopment and Housing Authority in a referendum in the late 1950s, but Almand expects the proposal to fare better this year. "Things have changed radically since the '50s, and now we have something in the state statutes in this time of critical need," he said. "The real benefit of this program will be in the rehabilitation of existing garden apartments, which serve the low- and moderate-income, and will be a means for owners to rehabilitate their buildings and keep them as rental properties.

"Many owners want to keep their properties rental, but because of the economics of rehabilitation loans and other factors, they've had to sell to condominium converters."

In its petition to the County Board, the ad hoc committee noted that since 1970, almost 10,000 rental dwellings in the county have been lost to condominium or cooperative conversions. This represented 25 percent of the county's multifamily rental housing stock as it existed then, and 30 percent of its moderately priced garden apartments.