Arlington from the air by Jason OX4 licensed under Creative Commons.

The Arlington County Board is trying to figure out how to add more affordable housing and manage growth from Amazon as another budget shortfall looms. The Board rang in the new year with its first meeting on January 2, where newly-elected Board Chair Christian Dorsey cautioned that the county could face a budget shortfall of $70 million.

“This year, the responsible course is fiscal austerity,” Dorsey said. “That austerity, however, must not translate to stagnation.” This was also the inaugural meeting for Matt de Ferranti, who was elected in November over board incumbent John Vihstadt.

How does financial austerity affect the county’s priorities?

Last year Arlington cut programs to save $14 million. Dorsey pointed out that cutting more programs in 2019 will help with the shortfall, but isn't a permanent solution. He says the county will need to focus on increasing the commercial building supply. Arlington must also guide Amazon’s growth so the company benefits the entire county and aligns with its plans for housing, and ensures that residents aren’t displaced by HQ2-related growth, Dorsey said.

Money and the county’s vacant commercial space were on Vice Chair Libby Garvey’s mind. She provided some context for the budget situation, pointing out that the era of austerity has been brewing for some time.

“The combined effects of sequestration, BRAC, the [2008] recession, and telecommuting all hit at the same time, and suddenly, office buildings were emptying out,” Garvey said. “Our vacancy rate soared to over 20%, which meant a lot of reduced revenue. This is the situation we continue to face today.”

Garvey urged residents to consider what change meant to them, and to see the bigger picture. For Arlington to be the kind of inclusive, affordable, and desirable place to live and work, she implied that residents need to strike a balance between change and the status quo.

“We see the conflicts when beautiful, large trees are cut down, and large new homes replace modest houses, or when people clamor for more land for parks, while at the same time others clamor for more land for schools,” Garvey said. “And almost everyone is worried about the soaring cost of housing and living here.”

Arlington's board members are concerned about housing

All of the board members were focused on housing as not only a critical need, but also a point of contention among residents, and a solution to address harsh financial times by helping the county become more affordable and spur growth.

Board member Katie Cristol said, “It’s time to revise our zoning ordinance to allow different, diverse and more affordable home types throughout the county. In 2017 and 2018, we made some progress on allowing the forms of housing currently missing in Arlington County (interior accessory dwellings and two-family dwellings), but not nearly enough. Amazon’s arrival has focused our community energy on protecting our middle class from being priced out permanently; we can’t squander the opportunity to tackle this hard and important zoning reform work in the year ahead.”

Board member Erik Gutshall outlined his vision for a Missing Middle Directive, which would “develop the zoning and financing tools needed to deliver 2,700 ownership units affordable to households between 80% and 120% of Area Median Income (roughly $500,000 price range) by 2040.”

De Ferranti added in his remarks, “I will be open to ideas to help get closer to our goal of 600 affordable units per year from our average of 280 since 2015. I am open to adjustments to our zoning code and look forward to working with you, Mr. Chair, to reach solutions that will be workable for Arlington and address the need for increased supply.”

The board also focused on issues of equity, voicing their concerns over the rising cost of living and how it could displace Arlington residents. Dorsey remarked that the county’s efforts to address discrimination and segregation in public spaces exemplifies the kind of leadership necessary to make government services more equitable, and that these initiatives are being implemented without more spending.

Cristol spoke about the principle of “Making Room,” an exhibit that was at the National Building Museum over the summer.

“We also need to “make room” for new perspectives at our decision-making table and and a harder look at where inequality persists in our community,” Cristol said, adding that affordability and equity had to go hand in hand because “ending disparities is a hollow victory if achieved through the diminishment in the numbers of lower-income or demographically diverse Arlingtonians.”

What do you think?

What do you see as challenges in Arlington in 2019, and what are your ideas for solving them? You can talk to board members about what’s on your mind at its next “Open Door Monday” on January 28, or at the next board meeting on January 26.