Outside of GMU Metro Station in 2014 by Tony Webster licensed under Creative Commons.

This article is part of a limited series exploring the history, current policies, and initiatives to create and maintain equitable transit-oriented development in the region. The complete series is available here.

Arlington’s dreams of becoming a transit-oriented development (TOD) county begin as far back as the 1960s, with its plans for “concentrating high-density development” along the path of the forthcoming Metrorail system.

To preserve much of the existing single-family housing development, the county adopted the “Bulls Eye” concept, in which tall buildings within a quarter-mile of Metro stations taper off to smaller buildings and, further away, single-family housing — preserving much of the county’s suburban feel. The county’s version of equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD) surfaced about two decades later when officials anticipated increased housing values in dense developments near Metro stations and began plans to preserve affordable housing.

However, in the 21st century, housing prices have accelerated in the entire Washington region — and even more in Arlington. As such, county officials are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their affordable housing goals as many low- and middle-income workers are being forced to move further out, becoming innocent bystanders of the county’s — and the region’s — success.

“The gap is widening all the time but the county does take the problem seriously,” Alice Hogan, a housing policy consultant with the Alliance for Housing Solutions, assured me.

A stressed housing market

In recent years, low-income housing from the free market has all but disappeared. As Arlington’s 2015 Affordable Housing Master Plan (AHMP) explains, “From 2000 to 2013, Arlington County lost 13,500 affordable housing units, primarily to rent increases.” Meanwhile, “the median home sale price in Arlington increased by 140.3%, while the average rent increased by 90.9%.”

Not surprisingly, low-income renters are fleeing. From 2000 to 2012, “the number of households with incomes below $60,000 declined by 9.9%,” according to the report. Today, 93.5% of Arlington’s population is above the poverty level, with the average household income at $156,941 — meaning that the lowest income people simply cannot afford to live in Arlington.

The 2020 AHMP 5-Year Report explains that renter households under 60% of area median income (AMI) make up 17% of Arlington households, but only 9% of the housing stock is affordable to this group. The result has been a financial squeeze; according to the 2022 AHMP Implementation Framework, 38.6% of renters are burdened, paying “more than 30% of their monthly income on rent.”

Regionally, the situation can only be expected to get worse, as jobs pour into the region faster than housing can keep up. Overall, DC and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs are projected to add about 413,000 jobs between 2020 and 2030, “but only approximately 245,000 new housing units,” according to a 2019 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments report. During this 10-year period, the report recommends an additional 320,000 housing units of which 75% “should be affordable to low- and middle-income households.”

Arlington scrambles to provide housing

“Certainly economic growth and job growth” has made the area “more desirable” after several years of TOD development, said Robert Brosnan, retired Director of Arlington’s Community Planning, adding that growth has displaced affordable garden apartments. Still, from the beginning of its TOD expansion, Arlington has taken serious action to provide affordable housing. The heart of the program is Committed Affordable Units (CAFs), often renovated older units, meant to serve those at 60% of AMI or less.

As rising market prices have shrunk the amount of affordable housing, Arlington has scrambled to keep up. In 2015, there were 7000 CAF units; since then, the 2022 Implementation Framework explains, the county has added 3,626 units, “increasing our inventory by 49% in about 6 years.”

A graph showing Committed Affordable Housing Units from 2014 projected out to 2040. Image by David Ramos for Greater Greater Washington.

The key is a 2015 commitment to reach 17.7% of housing affordable to 60% or below AMI by 2040. To reach that number, “an additional 8,650 CAFs would be needed over the next nineteen years,” requiring an annual investment between $37.4 and $49.5 million, yet current funding is only $26.7 million. In other words, the gap is large and difficult to fill.

To make matters worse, construction costs are only rising, Hogan said, while the low-income housing target remains the same as 2015. “The population has grown, the needs have changed, and yet they chose not to” reset the goals, she explained.

The lack of affordability also means less racial diversity. Over the previous 12 years, Arlington “became somewhat less racially and ethnically diverse,” according to the 2015 AHMP, with the white population growing at a 22.5% rate versus 16.7% for the overall population. Also in 2015, about half of African American and Hispanic households were cost-burdened by housing prices. More recently, though, the number of Hispanic residents has increased, according to the 2022 AHMP Implementation Framework.

Data from Open Street Map and 2016–2020 American Community Survey 5-year
estimates
(variables S1701_C02_001E, S1701_C01_001E, DP05_0070E,
DP05_0071E, DP05_0033E, DP05_0044E, and DP05_0038E). Image by David Ramos for Greater Greater Washington.

Nevertheless, the number of African American and Hispanic residents in Arlington remains low. The Black population has suffered a long-term decline, from 38% in the early 1900s according to Hogan, with 64% home ownership in 1920—with much of the 20th Century decline due to zoning laws. Currently, African Americans comprise 9.2% of Arlington households, with a median household income of $62,000, according to Arlington’s Racial Dashboard. Hispanic residents represent 11.8% of county households, with a median income of $80,000. White households dominate at nearly 75% of the total with a whopping median household income of $132,000.

Data from Open Street Map and 2015–2020 American Community Survey 5-year
estimates
(variables S1701_C02_001E, S1701_C01_001E, DP05_0070E,
DP05_0071E, DP05_0033E, DP05_0044E, and DP05_0038E). Image by David Ramos for Greater Greater Washington.

“We are losing whatever diversity we have had very, very rapidly,” said Hogan. Despite its efforts, Arlington still displays how racial and economic inequalities in the U.S. squeeze out certain groups.

One area where Arlington has excelled is in keeping housing within TOD zones. Every CAF unit added from 2015 to 2020 was “within 1/2 mile of Premium and Primary Transit Networks,” according to the 2020 AMPH. Furthermore, every community has some transit connection; because “we are so transit-rich here … no residential dwelling in Arlington is further than a half a mile,” and most are with a quarter of a mile, of transit, said Hogan.

Solutions and wildcards

The main funding source for CAFs is Arlington’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF), which uses local taxpayer dollars, along with money from developers and a few other sources, to leverage nonprofit development. Bonus density money for affordable housing also comes from developers who want to build beyond the permitted height.

More recently, Arlington’s ongoing housing efforts have been augmented by an umbrella program launched in 2019 called Housing Arlington. “The goal of the initiative is to find new creative zoning and land use tools, new financial resources, partnerships and ideas to increase the supply of and preserve affordable housing, while also strengthening the existing housing stock,” said Richard Tucker, housing Arlington coordinator.

For those who are so low-income that they cannot afford a CAF (generally, 30 or 40% of AMI), a housing grant program fills in the gap in rent. This is directed at “elderly people, people with disabilities, and working families with young children,” said Hogan. Unfortunately, “a lot of people don’t qualify for a housing grant, and they’re very, very vulnerable, and at risk of eviction.”

If the gap in affordable housing continues to grow, a simultaneous gap in middle-income housing threatens to also make Arlington unattainable for people such as firefighters and teachers. “People who keep your community going live 30, 40 minutes, an hour and a half away,” said Hogan.

One solution is missing-middle housing, which means changing zoning in single-family neighborhoods to allow duplexes, triplexes, and other structures up to garden apartments. Currently, zoning — not just in Arlington but in much of the region — encourages affluent families to buy small properties and redevelop them as much larger single-family houses—say from 1,500 to 6,000 square feet, Hogan explained. So a piece of property that could provide homes for three middle-income families instead goes to a single wealthy family, decreasing economic and social diversity. Realizing the need for change, Arlington is currently undertaking a Missing Middle Housing Study.

The wildcard might be the appearance of Amazon’s national headquarters in Crystal City. This will almost certainly increase housing prices on the open market. To offset this, Amazon is working to increase the CAF program by supporting the development of 1,200 affordable homes close to the new headquarters, as well as supplying $160 million to maintain existing affordable housing, according to the 2022 Implementation Framework.

National inflation of housing prices, DC regional growth, the local success of TOD, and the appearance of Amazon’s headquarters all threaten to make low- and middle-income people victims of Arlington’s success. As we move toward the mid-21st Century, the county will be a test case for ways to provide innovative, sustainable, equitable growth.

This article is part of a limited series exploring equitable transit-oriented development, made possible with a grant from Amazon. Greater Greater Washington’s editorial department maintains editorial control and independence in accordance with our editorial policy. Our journalists follow the ethics guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Ethan Goffman is an environmental and transit writer. A part-time teacher at Montgomery College, Ethan lives in Rockville, Maryland. He is the author of "Dreamscapes" (UnCollected Press), a collection of flash fiction, and two volumes of poetry, "I Garden Weeds" (Cyberwit) and "Words for Things Left Unsaid" (Kelsay Books).