The Draft Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Plan is open for comments until April 25th. Originally, this post was going to focus on the plan’s affordable housing component. But after the Board Meeting Saturday (April 21), the speeches by the Board Members made it clear that the flaws in the Draft Plan are repeated in the thinking of most of the Board Members when it comes to preserving affordable housing in Arlington. So the post covers more generally the County’s approach to affordable housing.
Governments struggle to find effective tools to create and preserve affordable housing. In many ways, a lack of affordable housing is a result of having a community where, because many people want to live there, landowners can charge higher prices: it’s more or less a problem of increased demand and static supply.
On this point, the Draft Plan states this problem fairly well as it applies to the Columbia Pike corridor:
Demand for housing on Columbia Pike will continue to increase with regional job growth and growing interest in close-in locations that provide good quality of life, easy transit access and shorter commuting times, allowing higher and higher rents.
The Draft Neighborhoods Plan outlines a series of steps to both preserve existing affordable housing and to include affordable housing in new developments. For existing housing, the Draft Plan is, more or less, subsidies. These subsidies come in the form of tax subsidies, direct subsidies to landlords or tenants in below market rentals, in-kind assistance to condominium associations, and non-County funded subsidies. For new development, the Draft Plan consists primarily of mandates (or nudges) to developers to create units that are deemed affordable as some part of their new construction of multiple unit buildings (in some instances, the Draft Plan would exchange higher density for affordable units). Similarly, Mr. Zimmerman advocated Saturday morning for the County to escalate its funding by millions of dollars for similar affordable housing initiatives in the coming years.
Writer and pundit Matthew Yglesias argues persuasively in his recently published e-book, The Rent is Too Damned High, as well as his column at Slate, that affordable housing advocates like Mr. Zimmerman and the Staff who prepared the Draft Plan are missing the point when it comes to addressing affordable housing. (His column on development along the Orange Line is a good starting point if you do not intend to read his book.) Mr. Yglesias offers a simple, yet difficult to implement, solution to the problem of affordable housing in high-demand communities like Arlington:
Cheaper housing…is best achieved by relaxing anti-density restrictions.
Despite the recognition in the Draft Plan that the affordable housing problem is primarily a problem of static supply and surging demand, the programs for promoting and preserving affordable housing in the Draft Plan focus on subsidies and token units in new developments. These efforts are almost sure to do no more than create a handful of affordable housing “winners,” while most of the people currently in market-based affordable units along the Pike will be displaced by the redevelopment of the Columbia Pike corridor.
Again, Mr. Yglesias from his Rent e-book:
Requiring that some portion of new housing in a given area meets some standard of affordability can help, but doesn’t solve the core issue. If a given neighborhood becomes a better place to live, more people will want to live there.
There is no doubt that the Staff and citizens who worked to create the Draft Plan care about affordable housing. And there is no doubt that Arlington has people and organizations that are committed to this worthy goal. This post should not be construed as disparaging their efforts or good intentions. But even the Board Members agree that the battle to maintain market-based affordable housing units in Arlington is being badly lost as a result of the increased demand for housing in Arlington.
The Pike’s appeal to potential residents, is on the rise. Mr. Tejada speaks of these mysterious people who want to come to live on Columbia Pike as “Market Forces,” like it’s a villain in a fantasy novel. The Draft Report uses a similar mysterious term to describe the people who will soon want to move to a Pike community:
Market pressures are likely to continue to increase market rents along Columbia Pike, inexorably reducing the County’s inventory of market affordable units.
Regardless of the nomenclature, the report has it right on the problem: a nearly certain increase in demand for Pike housing. But their conclusion does not necessarily follow:
Converting those existing units to committed affordable units is the approach most likely to result in long-term affordability.
In fairness, the Draft Report does discuss zoning as a factor that affects housing prices. (“Ultimately, the number of new units constructed will depend on the decisions of individual owners as to the timing and design of their properties’ renovation or redevelopment and the possible development options provided under this Plan and corresponding zoning.”) But the Draft Plan nevertheless spends most of its affordable housing section discussing subsidies and developer inducements, several of which are not even in the control of the County government.
Further along in the Draft Plan, the proposed density rules are outlined. But the relationship between density and affordability remain largely separated, both physically within the document, and (apparently) mentally by its drafters.
It is true that the Draft Plan (and the Form Based Code) permit higher density than is currently allowed. What is not clear, however, is whether this new density will have an appreciable effect on maintaining market-based affordable housing along the corridor. This is the sort of information that a study about affordable housing could address, despite Mr. Zimmerman’s claim that the Board does not need any more information on the issue.
The Draft Plan reflects (but fails to fully acknowledge) the tension between restricting density and maintaining affordable housing. Until density is fully considered as a tool to address affordable housing, the anti-development crowd wins, and the taxpayers lose with well-intentioned but mostly ineffectual expenditures like subsidies, or time-consuming “exchanges” of affordable housing units for much needed density. While the Draft Plan’s efforts may help a bit, they seem destined to be insufficient to the task.
The County government (Staff and Board Members alike) must face up to the reality that density and affordable housing are directly and inextricably related. They can start their education by reading The Rent is Too Damned High*. The next step is showing real leadership on the issue by recognizing that a few angry, vocal NIMBYists is a better price to pay than a County budget cannibalized by well-intentioned but ineffective housing subsidies.
*The book contains a lot more interesting points than highlighted for purposes of this post. At $3.99 from either bn.com and amazon.com, it’s a must read for anyone interested in urbanism, affordable housing, or transit. Pikespotter has no relationship to Mr. Yglesias.