Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington makes a mission of being economically diverse. But market forces push in the opposite direction.

That clash as it impacts the exploding costs of housing was explored at a Dec. 10 Committee of 100 discussion. The upshot: hope for solutions built around a convergence of interests between aging baby boomers and their hip Millennial offspring.

In a preview of a coming three-year county study of the future of affordable housing, county senior planner Russell Danao-Schroeder reported a grim forecast for Arlington’s low-income population: “By 2020, there will likely be no affordable housing offered in the private market,” he said, affordable meaning households earning 60 percent or less of area median income.

That population–think $29,000-a-year restaurant, hotel and retail workers—are a sixth of Arlington’s 107,400 households, 57,086 of which are renters, he said. But since 2007, trends show a widening gap between rising rental prices and income gains, and the forecast for 2040 is 30,000 new households, only 6,300 of which are likely to be low-income renters.

Simultaneously, he said, expect a 75 percent increase in households of folks who are 65 and up.

Many retirement-age Arlingtonians “want to age in place but can’t afford to,” noted Mary Rouleau, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Housing Solutions. Similarly, “many young professionals, the Gen Y Millennials, come but find they can’t afford to live here.” In such “great spaces” as Clarendon, she added, Arlington is losing jobs to less-expensive regions.

A new policy might help those low- and mid-income (teachers, firefighters, police officers) residents who need “workforce housing.” But it probably wouldn’t halt the tear-downs in my neighborhood, where well-worn $400,000 bungalows are being replaced with $1 million-plus cathedrals.

Still, the effort for affordability proceeds. “It’s a question of values, diversity along with enlightened self-interest,” Rouleau said. “With creative design, we can have both.” The coming study—final version due in June—will supply information “to make hard choices” that could allow a convergence of interests for seniors and Millennial professionals.

Without government assistance—creation of pockets of affordable housing for the lowest-paid through partnerships with developers and nonprofits—“there’s no way to do it in the market,” Rouleau said.

But there might be ways to accommodate the Gen Y desired demographic by “rethinking residential neighborhoods,” to make “density less of a bad word,” Rouleau said. That might mean more of the (controversial) accessory dwelling units attached to detached homes as apartments for seniors, caregivers and 20-somethings.

Or duplexes rather than McMansions, structures that blend in with neighboring homes but actually hold several households, Danao-Schroeder said.

The skeptical angle was supplied by Andrew McIntyre, senior vice president for development and construction at Penzance. Though he admires the vision of a diverse community and “Arlington Way” planning discussions, “the practical realities are that land is too expensive to do multi-family density” in many neighborhoods. His company prefers negotiating project-specific proffers and contributing to affordable housing funds. “The offsite organizations can create affordable housing better than we can,” he said.

The issue is emotional. From the audience, former County Board member and veteran housing activist Joe Wholey asked whether, in today’s climate of cutting taxes and cutting spending, “we will still have the community we love.”

Rouleau’s view: “We can take this on if we have the political will and step up as a community.”

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Dueling panhandlers department: Glen, the daily spare-change seeker who has long staked out the median strip on Sycamore Street near the East Falls Church Metro, has competition. Recently, drivers passing through have encountered a woman bearing a sign reading “Single mother, evicted.”

Glen, whose usual signs are often comical, donned his own poster challenging the single mother’s claims. He said her boyfriend is waiting nearby in a car, her sister displays the same sign near Pentagon City, and that her children were taken away by a court due to her drug abuse.

I won’t attempt to adjudicate who’s being truthful. Glen told me he knows the score from his contacts in the 12-step community. Glad at least one of them is in treatment.