Housing Referendum Showdown Looms

Arlington Sun Gazette
Housing Referendum Showdown Looms
by SCOTT McCAFFREY, Staff Writer
(Created: Tuesday, August 21, 2007 6:00 AM EDT)

Proponents of the creation of a quasi-independent county housing and redevelopment authority appear to have garnered enough support to send the matter to a countywide referendum, but may have missed their chance – just barely – of getting the measure on the November ballot.

Supporters of the idea have assembled the required 100 petition signatures that the Code of Virginia requires to bring the matter to referendum. But in order to get the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot, the County Board has to order it placed on the ballot no later than Sept. 7.

The problem? The County Board is not scheduled to hold its next regular meeting until Sept. 8, too late for a referendum to make it on the ballot.

County Board members could hold a special meeting to place the item on the ballot, but it appears they are not legally obligated to do so and may be unwilling to do so.

“If it is determined that the petitions are in order and meet the legal requirements, [the County Board] is compelled to call for a special election,” General Registrar Linda Lindberg told the Sun Gazette.

“Although they could certainly do so, there does not seem to be any specific requirement to call for a special election at a date other than a scheduled general election,” Lindberg said.

Asked if there had been discussion of holding a special meeting for such a purpose, County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson on Aug. 16 replied, “none at all.”

[Update: County Board members are now expected to meet to discuss the matter during an Aug. 21 meeting.]

Ferguson said that “personally, I’m always open to any ideas,” but suggested there should be a community dialogue on the need for a housing authority before such a vote took place.

The County Board cannot prevent a referendum from making it on the ballot, as long as the petition is deemed legally valid, but if board members do not act before the Sept. 8 meeting, the referendum likely would not head to voters until sometime next year.

Supporters of the housing authority proposal say the time to act is now.

“The demolition and destruction of affordable rental housing is at a crisis level,” said John Reeder, who helped spearhead the petition drive. Reeder said that the county government’s approach to housing issues currently is “wasteful and ineffective.”

“We are not in favor of creating a new bureaucracy – rather, bringing together the disparate parts of county government, county staff and appointed citizen commissions to reform a totally inadequate response to the demise of reasonably priced rental housing in the county,” he said.

Both Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria have housing and redevelopment authorities. Arlington voters in 1982 soundly rejected a proposal to create one, and the issue has not surfaced since.

Under state law, housing authorities can issue tax-exempt bonds to finance housing projects themselves, which would mark a fundamental shift in Arlington’s policies.

Rather than having a public-housing authority, the Arlington County government has long worked with non-profit partners and developers to address housing issues.

Judy Yoder, director of operations at the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), said the ramifications of a housing authority had not yet been fully fleshed out.

“We just don’t know yet – we’ve just begun to look at it,” Yoder said on Aug. 17.

APAH is one of the non-profit organizations that is a housing partner with the county government.

The push for a referendum appears to be the work of ArlingtonGreens, of which Reeder is a member. Josh Ruebner, the party’s candidate for County Board, has endorsed the idea for a referendum.

But the referendum’s chance for success likely would depend not on the Greens, who have a small presence in Arlington, but on the position taken by the Arlington County Democratic Committee. The Democrats’ all-important sample ballot could cause thousands of otherwise disinterested voters to support, or oppose, such a referendum.

Were the Democrats to oppose the referendum, their best shot to decisively defeat it would come in November 2008, when a huge turnout is expected and when a vast majority of county voters are likely to support positions on the sample ballot.

The best timing for supporters of a housing authority could occur if the referendum was a one-item special election sometime next spring, when voter turnout would be low and when supporters of the idea would be more likely to muster backers to the polls.

Reeder, however, said his goal is to have the matter before voters this November, and said the County Board should not stand in the way.

“The County Board has nearly a month to make a decision . . . to order the referendum on the November ballot,” he said on Aug. 17. “They should do this at a business meeting of the board or, if needed, hold a special meeting.”

And what if they don’t?

“We have not thought about our next steps if the County Board refuses to order an election for this November,” Reeder said.

Also at issue may be whether the petitions submitted for verification by county election officials meet state standards. The petition was not filed on the standard State Board of Elections petition form.

Barring a court suit, County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac will have the final say on whether the petition is valid.

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