David Gray understands the need for affordable housing in Northern Virginia: He’s one of the residents of Buchanan Gardens, an affordable housing property in Arlington that has 11 garden-style buildings that house a total of 111 units.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, he had family members who lived in public housing — but felt shame when doing so. Since he was a boy in the ’50s and ’60s, he’s seen the conversation and stigma surrounding affordable housing shift. Now, with the rising cost of living, affordable housing is seen as a necessity, no longer something people might look down upon.
“I live in a great little one-bedroom apartment, about 570 square feet. So it’s compact, but I love it here. And nobody loved living in a housing project in Pittsburgh — they just put up with it. The people here love it,” he says.
Though Gray has access to an affordable unit, that’s not the case for other Arlington residents.
Out of Virginia’s most populated regions, Northern Virginia has the most unmet need for affordable rental units — 60.5 thousand — according to an audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) which collected and analyzed housing data from multiple federal and state agencies, and interviewed experts on affordable housing.
The top 10 localities in the state with this unmet need account for more than 50 percent of Virginia’s need for affordable rental units. Four of these 10 localities are in Northern Virginia, and Arlington County has an unmet need of 9.8 thousand units. How many people this affects could be even greater than the number of units needed, as it’s not just single individuals looking for affordable units, but families, too. Those most affected by the unmet need of affordable units are typically renters, have low incomes, live in more heavily populated areas, and work in essential occupations.
But to actually be able to live in Arlington’s affordable units, people have to meet certain stipulations. To qualify to live in a committed affordable unit (CAF) at most of the county’s properties, a household has to earn 60 percent — at some properties, 80 percent — or less of the area median income (AMI). The AMI is issued annually by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Arlington Housing Director Anne Venezia.
In the county, a one-person household with 60 percent of the AMI earns about $59,820, and can expect to pay about $1,602 a month for a unit size of one. Currently, a one-bedroom at Buchanan Gardens, quoted for 60 percent AMI, is about $1,240 a month. Comparatively, the average asking rent for a market-rate one-bedroom unit in Arlington is $2,004 a month.
At the heart of Arlington’s plan to address unmet affordable housing needs: the Affordable Housing Master Plan. Created in 2015, Venezia says the plan affirmed that more affordable housing in Arlington County is needed. To keep up with the population, Arlington needs about 22,800 units affordable for those who earn up to 60 percent AMI by 2040 — right now there are about 14,000. The three overarching goals of the plan look to address this lack of committed affordable units, lack of community access to these units, and ensure these efforts provide for a better environmentally and financially sustainable community.
Unlike nearby jurisdictions, Arlington County does not own or operate any affordable housing of its own. Rather, developers are responsible for the affordable housing units while the county acts as a lender through the Affordable Housing Investment Fund.
“We provide gap financing to developers, affordable housing developers, to help make projects feasible, using our county loan funds,” Venezia says.
This gap financing is often fueled by for-profit developers.
“Arlington has their own unique [inclusionary zoning] program, but it allows developers to buy out if they don’t want to provide the units. Unfortunately, that happens most of the time,” says Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Housing Alliance. “The up-side is that all that money fuels the County’s Housing Trust Fund, providing gap financing for the nonprofit developers to do 100 percent affordable units.”
Krocker noted that the nonprofit affordable housing developers are specifically mission-driven in creating affordable housing, rather than a for-profit developer who might see a result of affordable housing units as part of their work product, but not have the same intention — though she notes for-profit affordable housing developers also do successful work in the community.
“So we do see that the developments by our nonprofit developers tend to serve people at lower income levels, and they tend to be almost — probably — 100 percent affordable. They take advantage of specific affordable housing tools that are available to them,” she says.
Cue the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), a nonprofit developer with multiple properties across Arlington County and the DMV — including Buchanan Gardens, where Gray resides. He thinks that developers, rather than government, being in control of affordable housing is what has helped shift public sentiment about living there.
APAH works to develop housing for those with 60 percent or less of the AMI, according to director Carmen Romero. At APAH’s properties, all of the units, which contain varying household and unit sizes, are CAFs.
Though the physical housing units are an important aspect of the discussion on affordable housing, at the heart of the affordable housing issue is the people in need. Nicole Harmon, Arlington’s Human Services’ Housing Bureau chief, says that resources, like rental assistance, go especially to the lowest income renters to address affordable housing needs.
“We know, with our low income families and residents, that they are also the most in need of additional supportive services,” she says. “We target a lot of our resources to those with disabilities, and then may have some other rent income challenges and burdens in terms of being able to access and lease up.”
These affordable housing practices and help are not always working as much as needed. Low income renters typically still struggle to find housing because it’s not available fast enough, as the anticipation is already clogging up the interest and waitlists of these places.
“We have waitlists at almost every property because it’s so hard to get an affordable apartment in Northern Virginia. We’re about to open up two properties — those fill up pretty fast,” Romero says. “When we open up a building, it is oftentimes very anticipated, and people sign up on the interest list months and months and months ahead of time hoping that they’ll get there in time to secure an apartment.”
Aside from waitlists at properties in the works, Romero noted that it’s difficult to develop to begin with.
“It’s really frustrating and hard. And that’s part of the problem of why we don’t have more affordable housing is that it just takes us so long to get the money together to do it — because a lot of the money that we use in affordable housing you have to compete for,” she says of statewide funds for developers. Romero noted that developers also have to compete for the gap financing provided on the local level. Once the money is there, the projects themselves can take upwards of 10 years.
It’s also clear that Arlington isn’t the only municipality struggling in the region with a lack of both affordable and regular housing options — and certainly not the worst. Fairfax County, for example, has the most unmet need of affordable units of all localities in the Commonwealth, with 26.3 thousand units, according to the JLARC.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), a regional organization of DC-area local governments, highlighted the underproduction of housing across the whole DMV in a 2019 report. The report stated that 320,000 housing units should be added by 2030, and that 75 percent of these units should be both near high-capacity transit and affordable to low- and middle-income households.
APAH, to address the unmet needs in other municipalities like Fairfax, is expanding its development work across Northern Virginia, according to Romero.
“It’s fair to say that APAH has largely, not entirely, but largely, exhausted opportunities here in Arlington proper. That’s not to say that nothing will ever happen anymore, but the pace of growth for APAH will slow in Arlington, and now is beginning to pick up in the broader Northern Virginia area,” Gray says.
PROGRESS AND THE FUTURE
With Amazon’s HQ2 and other corporations like Boeing and Nestle set to transform Arlington and Northern Virginia, there are drawbacks — like available, affordable housing options for the people who will work at or near these major companies. Something experts across the region can all agree on: the unmet need of affordable rental units is partly a supply issue.
“In some ways, people say, we’re victims of our own success. So that means people are coming, and we need to keep up and produce more because affordable housing is ultimately, in some ways, a massive supply and demand problem,” Romero says.
A lack of diverse housing options means that Arlington won’t be able to support a variety of workers, including those in the services industries like food and retail, healthcare, education, and more.
“Rising housing cost has contributed to a loss of income diversity,” Venezia says of Arlington’s situation. “So that is potentially going to start impacting our ability to to support diverse jobs and incomes for the local economy. It really could start having a larger ripple effect if we don’t basically get ahead of the trend and start providing more housing to a larger range of incomes.”
Krocker notes that people not being able to afford to live where they work doesn’t just impact the workforce itself, but the community at large.
“We really have a severe supply crunch, and we are losing affordable housing at an alarming rate. That’s causing real problems for people who we need to live in our community to power our local workforce. So that’s really why this is an important issue, not only for the individual, but there’s a community benefit to having affordable choices,” she says. With people potentially commuting to Arlington from other areas, a strain on transportation can also be expected.
The problems might feel too large to conquer, but strides are being made.
In 2021, Arlington released its annual report detailing how it is implementing its Master Plan goals. The County Board approved four site plan projects, which will add 51 affordable units to the housing stock , and APAH, Washington Housing Conservancy, and for-profit developer Merion will add between 1,105-1,136 CAFs. The county also increased its focus on aging affordable properties.
“[On] June 30 of last year, at that point in time, we had almost 9,500 committed affordable units as a result of this loan [from the affordable housing investment fund] and other programs that we do on the rental side. Because of some efforts this year and a large acquisition that we had at the end of 2021, we think the number at the end of this fiscal year is going to be closer to 11,300,” Venezia says of what developers have accomplished within the county. “It’s gone up quite a bit over this last year. We don’t typically have annual increases that high, we usually average about 250 new units annually.”
On the Human Services side, the county distributed $6 million in eviction prevention funds and 36 emergency housing vouchers in 2021, along with help for the homeless population. Both Venezia and Harmon noted that there’s even more work being done to address affordable housing needs outside of their respective work.
Aside from current growth, there are solutions in practice in other municipalities that could help streamline the affordable housing development process in Northern Virginia down the line. Romero points in particular to a real estate tax abatement, which would allow nonprofits to not have to pay real estate taxes on affordable properties — making the development process itself easier.
Romero notes that for all the areas in the DMV working on addressing affordable housing, Arlington, along with DC, is making the best progress.
For Romero, the conversation around affordable housing isn’t just about housing. Access to healthcare, learning loss exacerbated by COVID, and the racial inequity in housing systems are all issues which go hand in hand with one another — and need to be addressed.
“I think from a societal perspective, we can be a catalyst for more than just being the roof on your head,” she says.
For Gray, shelter is a human right, and he’s looking forward to being part of this catalyst for residents of affordable housing. APAH’s newly developed Resident Council, of which Gray is a part, is how he plans to make a difference.
Throughout the years, Gray says that APAH has provided healthcare fairs to residents of its properties, where multiple healthcare providers will gather on a single property for one day to help address residential needs. Gray hopes to emulate these clinics, but specifically focused on vision care.
“That’s the kind of thing I think we should be about. We all agree that what we are trying to do is bring added value to people’s lives in APAH — which has been done by the staff up to this point, no question, but we as the resident council can be focused on that,” Gray says.
For more stories like this, subscribe to our News newsletter.