Facing west across Arlington by Josh licensed under Creative Commons.

Arlington County has a shortage of homes, and with Amazon moving in, that pressure is only increasing. Now the county is asking residents about their housing needs and their ideas to address the crunch as part of its Housing Arlington initiative announced earlier this year.

Housing Arlington was billed as a comprehensive community engagement program to identify tools that the county can employ to increase the supply of affordable housing, both income-restricted Affordable Housing and lower-cost market-rate options for renters and homeowners. On May 29, the public had its first opportunity to engage with county staff about the scope and depth of the program. Arlington prides itself in running extensive community engagement programs, a feedback-focused approach known as “the Arlington Way.”

After spending nearly two hours talking to county staff and placing my colored dots on different boards, I feel cautiously optimistic that Arlington County is ready to take bold steps to increase housing supply. But the question remains as to whether an emerging pro-housing coalition can overcome the entrenched power of affluent homeowners.

Tackling housing affordability in six (not so easy) steps

Housing Arlington includes six initiatives that address specific aspects of the problem. These individual initiatives tackle the problem of unaffordable housing from different angles and with different tools.

1. Land use tools: I am the most excited about this initiative, which could potentially bring significant changes to Arlington’s single-family-detached zoning dominance. The county is planning a “Missing Middle Study” that “is intended to result in identification of policy options and potential implementation tools” to increase the stock of housing for middle-class residents.

This initiative also includes the implementation of Housing Conservation Districts, which aim to preserve existing affordable housing in aging buildings, planned along the Lee Highway Corridor, to transform a suburban highway to a “walkable, urban main street,” and the reevaluation of bonus density provisions for on-site committed affordable housing in new developments.

2. Financial tools: For the truly wonky, this initiative will evaluate the funding sources that the county provides to support low-income housing and lower-income renters and homeowners. The initiative will ideally identify new loan strategies and other financial tools to create and preserve committed affordable housing units.

3. Institutional partnerships: This initiative will explore ways for the county to partner with institutional landowners (such as churches, universities, and community-serving nonprofits) with unused or underused acres to potentially add housing. Arlington has already partnered with churches and the American Legion to co-locate affordable housing.

4. County employee housing: The spectre of the teacher, police officer, and firefighter who are forced to commute an hour from the suburbs to their jobs in Arlington is frequently used to put a positive face on missing middle housing and the larger goals of housing affordability. This initiative will investigate the tools that Arlington could use to assist public employees.

5. Condominium initiative: Many of Arlington’s last remaining affordable ownership options are in aging condo buildings. But a significant repair bill could result in skyrocketing HOA fees for already strapped condo owners. The Condominium Initiative will examine “strategies that help ensure the preservation of existing moderately priced condominiums” by supporting condo associations, giving access to feasible capital improvements, and providing support to financially vulnerable buildings.

6. Affordable housing master plan update: Alongside all of these initiatives, Arlington will also update its plan to address the supply, access, and sustainability of committed affordable housing and market rate affordable housing.

Bring on the colored dots

On Wednesday, May 29, the county hosted the Housing Arlington Community Kick-Off, giving residents an opportunity to learn more about the program and give their initial response to a range of questions. The venue selection—Wakefield High School—was telling. It is located in southern Arlington, which has lower home prices, more apartment buildings, and most of the county’s committed affordable housing. It also is not served by any Metro station, and bus service is limited.

County Manager Mark Schwartz encouraged attendees to bring their “crazy and weird” ideas, and said the county is “ready for you to challenge us as we have not been challenged before” to tackle the problem of affordable housing.

A video introduction from County Board Chair Christian Dorsey framed Housing Arlington as an issue of equity. He acknowledged that Arlington has been “less successful at absorbing growth,” which has led to the displacement of lower-income residents. He hopes that this program will help make Arlington’s economic growth more inclusive and allow families to “reap the benefits of housing security.”

Kate Reynolds of the Urban Institute put the issue of housing affordability in context. Since 2010, the growth of housing units in the region has not kept pace with the population growth. In greater Washington, 48% of renters are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent.

The overarching question of Housing Arlington is: How can we ensure living in Arlington remains synonymous with an equitable, stable, adaptive community? To truly contend with this question, Arlington will have to confront the affluence and privilege hoarding that also defines our community.

After these presentations, the approximately 100 participants moved to the cafeteria to weigh in at seven stations throughout the room (one for each initiative plus one for open-ended feedback). Some initiatives are focused on preserving the existing stock of affordable housing, such as aging condo buildings, while others were focused on strategies to increase the supply of housing at lower price-points, i.e. the infamous “missing middle.”

A quick glance at the dots on different boards showed clear and nearly unanimous support for pro-housing policies. There was no divide between what renters (green dots) and homeowners (blue dots) reported. This event seemed to draw from a nascent pro-housing coalition of low-income renters, middle-income aspiring homeowners, and home-owning senior citizens.

Themes from the feedback written on post-it notes and pasted on different boards throughout the room included the challenges of aging in place, the lack of ownership opportunities for middle-class families, and the need for tenant protections. It remains to be seen whether Housing Arlington can deliver something for everyone.

Takeaways: We need parking reform and buy-in from other groups

I left the meeting energized about the possibility of transformative change to Arlington zoning and housing policies. But before this vision becomes a reality, Arlington will need to confront some significant divisions within the population related to development and growth. One is the continued preference of ownership over renting. Arlington implicity frames the housing market as a hierarchy in which owning is superior to renting. The US tax code is a large factor in this preference, but in a dense place like Arlington, we should interrogate this bias.

Parking lot by Arlington County.

A noticeable omission from the six initiatives was an explicit focus on parking requirements. Opposition to new housing developments often centers on concerns about parking and traffic. But we cannot make room for more people when we force people to make room for parked cars. As long as Arlington builds for car-based transportation, we won’t be a walkable, urban community.

Housing Arlington will also need to confront the limits of subsidies, and who should get financial support for housing within limited funds. DC is facing this dilemma now, after Mayor Muriel Bowser received pushback for a “workforce housing” component of her budget proposal to provide subsidies to build housing for middle-income residents. The high cost of housing puts everyone on a tight budget, but we should separate housing wants from true housing need when we consider where to invest public funds.

While this first meeting had diverse participants in terms of age, ethnicity, and income-level, it was filled with people who have strong support for increasing the housing supply. How will this coalition respond when the defenders of detached, single-family housing get involved? Another group to watch is the Arlington Tree Action Network, advocates for Arlington’s tree canopy who have been opponents of increased development. Getting buy-in from these constituencies will be essential.

Housing Arlington will be built by us

This kick-off was the first step in a long road on this Housing Arlington journey. I hope everyone will make time to get involved, both in person and online, as the initiatives unfold over the coming years.

The first step is to read through the Housing Arlington materials, which gives more details about each of the six initiatives. You can give feedback online before June 28. The online feedback mirrors the questions asked at the engagement session on May 29. While you won’t get to use colored dots, you can still share your opinion. The county will need to see strong support for pro-housing policies for this program to be ultimately successful in addressing housing affordability.

The public engagement will return this fall with more community meetings. GGWash is launching a Facebook group for urbanist-minded Arlingtonians to connect and make plans for participating in a positive manner. We also encourage anyone who is interested to write articles that we can publish to share more perspectives on this initiative.

Jane Fiegen Green is the Development Director at Greater Greater Washington. With a PhD in history and a background in association management for a scholarly society of historians, she works to bring sustainable revenue streams to support GGWash’s news and advocacy. She lives in the Pentagon City neighborhood of Arlington with her husband and son.