Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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In modern-day Clarendon, they thank the lord for the nighttime—nightly. But those scads of young partiers who keep the expanding bars hopping (lord knows how they cover the tab) are also Arlington’s future.

County economic planners have their eye on them.

This March, Arlington offered its first “Housing4Hipsters” event. About 175 card-carrying yuppies showed up at the Arlington Rooftop Bar and Grill on Wilson Blvd. to mingle with mortgage officers and boosters of homeownership. They were lured by free refreshments and a raffle giveaway of donated gym memberships and Nats tix as well as the “provocative title,” says Doug Myrick, coordinator of Arlington’s homeownership program.

Most of these under-35 folks “don’t classify themselves as poor, and many assume our programs are only for the very low-income,” Myrick told me, “so they wouldn’t come to a regional or local housing event because they think they don’t deserve help.”

Though Arlington has done a good job planning around Metro and attracting a veritable army of young professionals, he says, it remains the most expensive jurisdiction in the state. Hence its low rate of homeownership.

That worries employers and leaders seeking committed residents to assure a stable long-term tax base. “We want people to make roots here, and research shows people who live closer to their job are happier and will vote with their feet,” Myrick says.

The county has arrangements with developers to earmark 6,500 apartment units for those with income less than $140,000 so that renting and owning a three-person unit would set them back the same amount they’d pay in rent per month. And they’re eligible for special low-interest mortgages, down payment and closing costs. “We want to make sure everyone knows about it because the state, federal and county governments put lots of money in these programs,” Myrick adds.

One advantage Arlington offers over neighboring localities is that it does not require that you already live in the county to apply for housing benefits.

Housing4Hipsters attracted employers and people with incomes from $30,000 to $130,000. But the rollout comes at a time when many are feeling burned by the popped mortgage bubble, which makes renting seem hipper. (And that’s setting aside those recent grads living in their parents’ basements.)

Lydia DePillis, a sassy writer for the Washington City Paper, betrayed some regional rivalry when she waxed about Arlington’s exploitation of “the cool factor.” In a piece subtitled, “Arlington tries to lure young professionals across the Potomac,” she lamented that D.C. lacks an outreach on par with Housing4Hipsters. But she mocked Arlington’s “gimmick, “clunky lingo” and use of Jimi Hendrix on the event poster. (Is Hendrix still hip?)

Myrick says the publicity was an experiment in use of social media. Housing4Hipsters was pushed out via Twitter, Facebook and blogs, with fewer than 50 print fliers. The county created a club-like poster for “a sense of young fun, a happy hour, a buzzy event to grab attention,” he says.

The county plans others. Myrick has been talking to counterparts in other jurisdictions, including Falls Church.

Once the streetcar project gets underway on Columbia Pike, Myrick says, and property values go up, his agency’s services will become even more attractive.

If you’re one of those Clarendon bar-hoppers—or if, like me, you’re just a passerby they jostle—think of the crowd as another of Arlington’s investments.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]