Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Homeowners who reach a certain age begin contemplating whether to sell their property (many to today’s tear-down artists) and cash in for a stable retirement. Many relocate to warm climes of Florida or Arizona.

But others with deep roots in Arlington wish to stay put. Their numbers are only about to rise with the baby boomers (count me in) entering their golden years –Arlington will gain 9,200 seniors by 2040, according to the county’s Affordable Housing Master Plan.

You could see the impact with the formation two years ago of the Arlington Neighborhood Villages program, in which volunteers help their elderly, fee-paying neighbors with chores so the seniors can age in place. Health permitting, sixty-and seventy-somethings treasure their continued independence.

One way Arlington seeks to help them is a program taking advantage of the state’s Real Estate Tax Relief Program. It allows homeowners with annual income below $99,472 and non-home assets below $340,000 an exemption or deferral of property tax. Fully 929 Arlingtonians took advantage of the program last year, at a cost to the treasury of $4.1 million.

The pros and cons as well as ways to better promote the tax break were examined at a crowded Arlington Committee of 100 dinner on March 8. Results of a working group’s report were presented by Paul Holland, vice chair of the fiscal affairs advisory commission, aided in analyzing this complex policy by Caitlin Hutchison of the Human Services Department and Kim Rucker of the Treasurer’s office.

The tax relief is a godsend to modern seniors who’re living longer and for people with disabilities and rising age-related medical expenses.  It gives out only a small percentage of Arlington’s $1.4 billion budget.

Not many objections are heard from those millennials and Gen Xers struggling for housing, the speakers reported. The only beefs come from mortgage bankers, who view some of the deferrals as a threat to their lien rights on a mortgaged property. The working group’s recommendations for adjusting some of the numbers must be considered in the context of capping the benefit to target it at deserving seniors.

“We can’t keep giving these real estate tax exemptions to folks who own homes assessed at over the county median value [just] so they can leave it to their kids,” I was told by Kathryn Scruggs, a retired teacher-turned-housing-activist.

Though individual seniors differ by lifestyle and income, I personally am a fan of retirement communities. Through my own experience helping with arrangements for my mother and my aunt—along with visits and reporting assignments, I have spent time in nearly all of Arlington’s: The Jefferson, Culpepper Garden, the Sunrise chain, Goodwin House (just outside the county line at Bailey’s Crossroads) and Vinson Hall in McLean.

Though many seniors resist them at first (fear of being ghettoized), and the demanding financial requirements can be tricky (the communities vary as to whether residents own or rent their units, which makes a difference to their heirs).

But both my relatives warmed to them. New friends, less solitude, and the convenience of meal service, security monitoring and transportation help. Plus a slew of on-site social and intellectual activities ranging from stretch classes to concerts to guest speakers. With all the anticipated future needs, such as assisted living, skilled nursing, and end-of-life protocols, all under one roof.

Arlington offers many choices–just ask around.

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I just took a fascinating tour of the 1892-vintage Crossman farm house on North Underwood Street.

My friends Buzz McLain and Leslie Aun bought it and three years ago did a historically respectful renovation (one highlight: a photo of a plow working what today is O’Connell High School).

Their predecessors were equally history-minded. Fun fact: Irma Grey, who lived in the house for decades with husband Stephen, was secretary to Sen. John Warner. Neighbors recall visits from Warner’s wife in the 1970s, an international film star named Liz Taylor.