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Adoption of the Affordable Housing Master Plan

Statement of Jay Fisette
September 19, 2015

This is a good day, culminating three years of research and active community engagement led by Reverend Leonard Hamlin and his citizen task force and supported by capable professional staff. The Affordable Housing Master Plan (the “Plan”) is supported by every advisory commission that heard it, the Chamber of Commerce and other members of the business community, and many community organizations.

As the Housing Commission said well, the Plan is “vital to the social and economic sustainability of our community.” We benefit from creating a complete community with the workforce needed to support it. We have an economic and moral imperative to support this plan.

The Plan epitomizes the values central to our County vision – diversity, inclusivity, sustainability and fiscal responsibility. Shelter is one of the most basic of human needs, and the Plan addresses the housing needs of young families, as well as retirees looking to age in place or stay somewhere in Arlington.

So, why are we here?... Because we are victims of our own success.  Far more people want to live in our community than we have housing units to support. As a result, housing costs have risen and the amount of housing affordable to folks of low and moderate income has been dramatically reduced.

In 13 short years, 13,500 units of affordable housing were lost to families of four making about $65,000 a year.

Thank goodness for Al Eisenberg, Ellen Bozman, Mary Margaret Whipple, Jim Hunter, Bill Newman and others who recognized the need to act to preserve and create affordable housing.  Thank goodness they created today’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund – a revolving loan fund – that has been so effective in leveraging outside funds.  Thank goodness our non-profits began to purchase properties early – while they were more affordable.

While we have developed many tools to preserve and create affordable housing, the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) is the workhorse tool. These development projects are hard, complicated and effective, and they create many units in perpetuity through our non-profit housing partners.

As an appointee to the Virginia Housing Development Authority by Governors Warner and Kaine, I know that Arlington’s sustained efforts dwarf those of other Virginia localities.

After three years of community engagement in updating our strategic plan for Housing, there is enormous consensus on nearly all elements of the Plan.

The only significant question that continues to get attention regards geographic distribution of our low and moderate income people – and what the impacts are.

Let me be clear, my ideal scenario would be that 17% of each building, block, neighborhood and quadrant of Arlington be equally diverse.  This is arguably “perfect distribution.”

This imaginary ideal, however, is impractical because of existing zoning and land values. Most of Arlington is zoned for single-family homes. Our greatest source of units available for our low and moderate income families is our aging stock of lovely garden apartments. We need to target them…to preserve a healthy portion of them…as this plan does.

The greatest opportunity for new affordable units lies along our transit corridors – particularly along Lee Highway. This plan affirms that opportunity and direction.  On this, there is unanimity.

The data provided by the school system affirms that all children are getting an outstanding education. 98.7% graduate. Arlington Public Schools deserve enormous applause for taking the substantial funds that they receive and effectively distributing those dollars in a way that has closed the achievement gap by giving schools with more disadvantaged kids more money per student.

Arlington is not typical. Existing policies and resources ensure an outstanding education in all Arlington schools. Our school system has the highest cost per pupil in the region, and the funds are effectively distributed within the county to ensure greater resources are available where they are most needed.

I have been very uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric about “concentrations of poverty” (poor people) in Arlington. Remember, Arlington does not have public housing. This government does not own housing. In my youth, I remember pictures of tenements in Chicago. That situation does not exist in Arlington.

To clarify, here is a comparison of the Federal Government’s 2015 poverty income levels compared to the incomes of the neighbors that we are talking about:

Family of 1 - $11,770  vs. $45,180 (60% of AMI, Average Median Income, in Arlington)
Family of 2 - $15,930  vs. $51,600 (60% of AMI in Arlington)
Family of 3 - $20,090  vs. $58,080 (60% of AMI in Arlington)
Family of 4 - $24,250  vs. $64,500 (60% of AMI in Arlington)

There is nothing wrong with working families who make $30K, $40K, $50 and $60K a year. Just the opposite, they are wonderful people and neighbors.  We heard some amazing testimony from some of the residents who live in Arlington’s affordable housing today. One woman stated it well, “We are just like you; we just make less money.” Mi Voz Cuenta deserves a special thanks for putting a human face and experience on the words in front of us.

Arlington’s committed affordable housing helps to stabilize families and adds to the richness of our community. I have no doubt that the classrooms without this economic diversity are missing out. In addition, seniors on a fixed income need to feel secure in their ability to stay in Arlington. Again, we benefit as a community, and the Plan addresses this.

There are many laudable goals in this plan. Geographic distribution of affordability is and should be a goal, and it has been a goal for many years. In fact, the roughly 7000 committed affordable units are currently distributed throughout Arlington – almost equally split north-south – with a slight edge to the north. Yet I, for one, cannot allow the distribution goal to regularly override other goals, such as the need to maximize the number of affordable homes/units or our need to effectively leverage Arlington taxpayers’ funds.

This plan is aspirational. It is based on values and data and created with enormous community input - that is its beauty and the strength of this County.  We must continue to be creative and bold in our plans and actions.

I am thrilled to support this Affordable Housing Master Plan and to enshrine it within our County’s Comprehensive Plan. This is exactly the kind of strategic plan that reflects our progressive values and makes Arlington Arlington.

Fisette for Arlington
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