The old Red Cross site. Image made with Google Maps.

Today if you drive through Arlington on Route 50, you’ll pass a vacant building that once hosted the local Red Cross headquarters. In a few years, it will become a new multi-income development that will house more than a hundred residents in a transit-rich area of the county.

On April 21, the Arlington County Board (ACB) approved a plan from nonprofit developer Wesley Affordable Housing Corporation to bring 116 new units to Arlington. The plan garnered fierce opposition, which is not uncommon for most development projects and is practically a feature of projects that include committed affordable housing.

This time the disagreement was settled in favor of the project, but the larger questions of neighborhood character, affordable housing, and how to best allocate county resources remain.

Here’s what’s planned for the old Red Cross site

The Red Cross site plan combines a modest-sized apartment building with market-rate townhomes. This mix of housing is common across Arlington, including in the surrounding neighborhood Buckingham. Wesley originally proposed a 115-unit multifamily building that would be 100% affordable for people making 60% Area Median Income (AMI).

Wesley also plans to preserve and update the 63-unit Whitefield Commons property, a garden-style complex that was built in the 1940s. The plan included 19 market-rate townhomes to help fund the affordable housing and bring greater income diversity to the area.

Rendering of the townhomes planned for the old Red Cross HQ site. Image used with permission.

Benefits to the neighborhood include an updated public playground, an improved streetscape, better pedestrian access to a tunnel under the highway, and improvements to the storm sewer system. Although some mature trees would be removed during construction, a greater portion of new ones will be planted on the site.

In light of Wesley’s strong proposal, a range of affordable housing advocates attended the Board meeting to give testimony in support of the project. I attended to deliver Greater Greater Washington’s petition signed by 97 Arlingtonians.

Affordable housing is an asset, not a burden

Some residents argued because the Buckingham neighborhood is already home to a large number of affordable housing properties, it's inappropriate to add more affordable housing. Michelle Winters, executive director of Alliance for Housing Solution, pushed back against this attitude at the meeting.

Winters pressed neighbors and citizens across Arlington to see affordable housing as an asset, rather than a burden. She showed that a school bus driver, a police records assistant, or an emergency communications technician could all find a home in the new committed affordable building, citing salaries for county jobs and income limits on the units.

“These are exactly the kinds of residents that the Buckingham community should be proud to welcome,” Winters said.

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), a religiously-inspired social justice advocacy group that campaigns for affordable housing, also spoke in favor at the meeting. VOICE representative Marc De Francis pointed out that the County’s own analysis shows a loss of 300 affordable units every year, while Arlington’s Affordable Housing Master Plan, passed unanimously in 2015, sets a goal of 600 new units to be added annually.

“So far that goal has not been met,” De Francis said, also praising the work of nonprofit affordable housing developers like Wesley.

Should Arlington prioritize geographic distribution or number of homes?

Much of the discussion focused on concerns about the geographic distribution of affordable housing and last-minute changes to Wesley’s multifamily building.

The day before the board meeting, Wesley amended the site plan to lower the apartment building from five floors to four floors in hopes of having a better chance at getting funding from Arlington’s cash-strapped Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF). Opponents tried to use this eleventh-hour change to encourage the board to delay the vote, without success.

Wesley presented analysis based on a new rule from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that would allow for greater income diversity in the committed affordable building. New rules passed in conjunction with the omnibus spending bill in March will allow recipients of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits to include a range of income levels, as long as the building as a whole averages 60% AMI.

The weightiest deliberations were about this project’s place within Arlington’s larger ecosystem of affordable housing, both market-rate and subsidized. Discussions often get caught up in the minutiae of a particular site, but Board Chair Katie Cristol reminded residents that each proposal is shaped by decisions “upstream,” including Wesley’s decision to reduce its plans.

There is less money in the AHIF fund because Arlington spent a great deal building affordable homes in expensive areas. Arlington has prioritized distributing affordable housing throughout the county, including building two projects in northern Arlington where property values are high. Some wondered if the County was prioritizing the geographic distribution of affordable homes at the expense of building a greater number of them.

Throughout the recently-completed budget process, members of the County Board warned constituents that hard choices were coming. Arlington’s ability to fund committed affordable projects, especially as it tries to distribute them across the county, is limited by a declining commercial tax base and the high cost of overcoming neighborhood opposition.

Affordable housing for all income levels remains the most pressing challenge that the County faces. For Fiscal Year 2019, Arlington has committed to spending $14.3 million on the Affordable Housing Investment Fund. However, sustainable sources of affordable housing must come through market forces.

Unfortunately, a vocal minority of citizens who oppose density often become obstacles to more housing of any type. The more we let these neighbors prevent increased density, the more taxpayer money the County will need to spend to achieve its affordable housing goals.

The County Board made the right call on this project. Take a moment to send them a quick thank you note, and that we look forward to more of such decisions in the future!

Click to thank county officials!