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Northern Virginia's growing crisis in affordable housing

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Karen DeVito remembers the joy on the little girl’s face as she ran around her new house. As DeVito and the girl’s father talked, she was bouncing throughout the small home, which her family was able to live in through the assistance of CFH, formerly known as Catholics for Housing.

When the little girl returned, she had already picked out her bedroom. “She's got the biggest smile on her face,” said DeVito, executive director of CFH. “It happens over and over — we put people into housing and they get to change their lives.”

But for every individual and family CFH and other affordable housing organizations assist, there are many more left unaided. Localities in Northern Virginia are scrambling to provide more affordable housing as the market trends toward pricier rentals and costlier homes. Many believe the arrival of the 25,000 high-paying employees Amazon plans to hire in its new Crystal City office will worsen the crisis. 

A dwindling supply

The numbers prove what people living in Northern Virginia have felt for years: it’s getting more expensive to live here. From 2000 to 2018, the area median income increased 42 percent while the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the City of Alexandria, for example, increased 102 percent. 

The City of Alexandria estimates a renter needs to make $68,320 a year to rent a one-bedroom apartment there, which is more than the average salary of Alexandria teachers, firefighters and librarians.  

Years ago, people with low incomes could easily find a market-rate affordable apartment, that is, a dwelling place in a privately owned complex that had relatively low monthly rent because of the age of the building, lack of amenities or a less desirable location. An apartment is considered affordable if people making 60 percent of the area median income spend 30 percent or less of their income on rent.

Now, those market-rate affordable apartments, also known as MARKs, are nearly gone. Officials in Arlington and Alexandria say they have lost approximately 29,000 MARKs in the past 19 years mostly due to rent increases. Alexandria estimates that only 8 percent of its rental housing is affordable. Localities and charities have tried to compensate for the loss of MARKs with more committed affordable units, also known as CAFs. But it’s an uphill battle. 

“The number of units we've been able to buy and renovate or build new have not nearly been able to replace the loss,” said John Welsh of AHC, a local affordable housing developer formerly known as Arlington Housing Corporation. “If AHC or any of the affordable developers open a new building and say we've got 100 new apartments for rent, you get 2,000 names on the list of people who are interested. The demand is huge.” 

If more housing units aren’t built, janitors, cooks, construction worker, waiters, hairdressers and other low-income workers will be forced to move away and commute long distances to their jobs, further taxing roads. “You've either got to build the units that are affordable, or you’ve got to understand that the traffic is going to be there,” said DeVito.

rent hikes

 

Information from Alexandria demonstrates the difficulties renters have finding affordable housing in Northern Virginia. 

Amazon’s effect on the problem has yet to be seen. “I think it is safe to say that the influx of new residents with Amazon plus the existing affordable housing shortage does not equal an improvement to the existing homelessness in this part of our diocese,” said Veronica Roth, program director of the diocesan Catholic Charities St. Margaret of Cortona Transitional Housing, a 12-unit apartment complex in Woodbridge for families facing homelessness. 

“I know we live in a capitalist society, you can rent for as much as you can get, I understand that,” said DeVito. “But at the same time, I also know housing is a very basic need.”

Finding solutions

A stone’s throw from the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington is the Gates of Ballston, a mixed-income apartment complex owned by AHC. For many years, an absentee landlord neglected upkeep of the buildings. “They just let the property go,” said Welsh. “It was so awful before.”

After AHC bought the property, they had meetings with the residents to understand their needs. One problem was serious overcrowding, as the complex only had one- and two-bedroom apartments. During the extensive renovations, AHC added three-bedroom apartments to the mix. 

“I can think of a number of families who were so enthusiastic about the renovation plans,” said Welsh. “(They were) finally able to have a home where they really felt proud to raise their kids.” 

Related story:Millennial Catholics discuss housing, parenting and faith

Local jurisdictions often partner with non-profits to make CAFs such as those in the Gates of Ballston possible. One way is through financing. “An affordable housing developer, typically (is) combining (funds) with other financing (such as) the federal low-income housing tax credit,” said Russell Danao-Schroeder, senior housing planner for Arlington County. “But there’s always a gap in what it costs to build that project and what they can get in loans from private banks, or in equity from the tax credits. The difference in that gap is bridged by the county loan funds, which are on more favorable terms than what a private bank would offer.”

The affordable housing ordinance lets developers add more units than zoning would normally allow, as long as they include some affordable units. For example, where Bergmann’s dry cleaner once stood on Lee Highway in Arlington now is a 202-unit apartment complex with 11 CAFs within it. “As a condition of that approval, they committed to providing 11 units at an affordable rate. They were not an affordable housing developer, but they were interested in getting additional density,” said Danao-Schroeder. 

Even with government assistance, affordable housing developers still have to find places to build. “You've got all sorts of very high-end luxury apartment developers also out there wanting to be in the best location. The only way to address the demand is to invest more resources to be able to buy properties to compete with the market,” said Welsh.

Recently, some affordable housing developers have partnered with churches and fraternal organizations to get the land they so desperately need. “On Columbia Pike, the Arlington Presbyterian Church partnered with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to redevelop affordable housing (on their property),” said Danao-Schroeder. “At the Metro stop in Clarendon, there’s a Baptist church where (some) affordable housing was built on top of the church.”

rental housing

 Information from Arlington County demonstrates the difficulties renters have in finding affordable housing in Northern Virginia. 

Once they have the location, affordable housing developers have another hurdle to overcome. “Construction costs are going up and they’re going up exceedingly fast,” said Welsh. “We’re competing for labor and materials to building the new building with those same luxury developers.”

Needing all hands on deck

Many affordable housing advocates believe that unless affordable housing is prioritized, the crisis will continue. “I would encourage people to speak up, to write to their representatives,” said Welsh. “When we have a socially, racially diverse community, we're all the stronger.” 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes that, “The Church has traditionally viewed housing, not as a commodity, but as a basic human right. As the Vatican document on housing reminds us — ‘This situation is not simply a fact to which those with responsibility in the field and indeed all people are called to react. Rather, from an ethical point of view, it is a scandal.’ ”

Not only is having enough affordable housing compassionate, it’s practical. “In any community, for the economy to function well, being able to house households of the full spectrum of incomes is important,” said Danao-Schroeder. “We all depend on services that are provided by folks working in construction, restaurants, hotels — these are people needed to make things function.”

DeVito hopes people educate themselves about the issues and help when they can. “A lot of people and nonprofits work very hard trying to provide housing,” she said. “We can do what we can do, but it’s not solving the issue — just putting Band-Aids on it here and there.”

 

 

 

What are local governments doing to help?

Arlington County’s 2020 budget added $1,521,872 in new affordable housing funding. The budget now includes $16 million for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund and $9.3 million for housing grants. They additionally created a new position of housing coordinator to expedite affordable housing development proposals through the approval process. 

The City of Alexandria’s 2020 budget added $1 million in new funding. Its budget now includes $8 million for the Housing Trust Fund.

Information provided by the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

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