The Arlington County Board, bolstered by the overwhelming support of the Westover community, yesterday unanimously approved a plan to keep the 152-unit Westover Apartments a rental complex through the use of federal subsidies.
The board's vote, which came after almost five hours of emotional testimony, appeared to end one of the most controversial issues in the county in recent years, one that divided the community with charges of racism and deception.
After months of public debate, the board approved the private, nonprofit Arlington Housing Corp.'s $7.5 million plan to buy and renovate the 46-year-old complex, located off of Washington Boulevard, in order to stave off other developers' plans to convert the complex to condominiums and in order to keep the rents affordable for most of its current tenants.
"I am convinced that Arlington Housing's plan offers the best alternative for preserving the apartments as rental housing and for minimizing displacement of the current residents . . . ," said board chairman John G. Milliken, a Democrat, who made the motion to approve the plan.
Had the corporation's plan been rejected, "It would have involved throwing people out of their homes, and I can't support that," added Michael E. Brunner, the board's only Republican and a Westover Civic Association member, who seconded the motion.
The Arlington Housing plan entails borrowing up to $6.5 million from the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which would provide the funds through the sale of tax-exempt bonds in the private market. The remaining funds are to come from Arlington Housing, private investors and community development money.
Although the rents will remain lower than they would be if conventional loans were used, Arlington Housing officials said, federal Section 8 rent subsidies, which run for 15 years, still will be needed to enable the complex's low-income tenants to remain there. A state law caps low-income households eligible for the subsidies at 25 percent but exempts current tenants from being counted in that ceiling.
In Westover's case, that means that all eligible low-income tenants, some of whom already receive the subsidies, will be able to remain there, county housing officials Edward Brandt and Melodee Bawden said.
But the planned use of the subsidies and the loan from the Alexandria agency created a firestorm in the neighborhood, much of which, Westover residents said yesterday, was based on misinformation about both programs.
Opponents of the plan claimed the subsidies would introduce "a dangerous element" into the community that would increase crime and lower property values. They called the use of the Alexandria agency an attempt to introduce "public housing" into the county.
Praising Arlington's ethnic diversity, Deborah Churchman, a Westover resident, told the board the community should "fight the efforts to turn Westover into a mini-Yuppieville. With a condo conversion . . . Volvos will be lined up in front of the Westover Market, which will probably have to change its name to 'Food and Things' . . . ," she said.
Douglas Gray, a former Westover area resident who urged approval of the plan, said he was forced to move out by escalating rents. Westover, he said, "is one of Arlington's most endangered species -- a neighborhood . . . . There were homes, schools, churches and, most of all, people. Don't listen to the fears of a vocal few."
Board members Mary Margaret Whipple and Ellen M. Bozman said that the county's agreement with the Alexandria agency is merely a financing tool private developers can use to preserve the scarce supply of low- and moderate-cost housing in Arlington. The pact, they noted, precludes public housing and won the support of county officials and groups that opposed an Arlington authority.
"This is not going to lead to a cluster of low-income people [in Westover]," said board member Albert C. Eisenberg, addressing the subsidy issue. "No ghettos are created."