Public Housing Authority Proposed for Arlington

Public Housing Authority Proposed for Arlington
Green Party Seeks County Referendum

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Green Party is pushing for the creation of a public housing authority in Arlington, saying that the agency could help create more affordable housing in the county.

A housing authority would allow the county to own and operate affordable dwellings, proponents said. Currently, lower-cost housing is created mostly through county grants to nonprofit organizations or through negotiations with developers, using various incentives to persuade them to set aside part of their market-rate housing projects.

The proposal would have to be approved by county voters.

“We’re starting to organize in earnest around this issue now,” said Green Party member Joshua F. Ruebner, who ran for a seat on the Arlington County Board in Tuesday’s election. “We have a year to organize support for it. It’s our next big fight.”

Ruebner concedes that it won’t be an easy battle. Several nonprofit organizations working for more affordable housing in the county say privately that the present system works. They say they are concerned that a housing authority, such as those in Fairfax County and Alexandria, would only add bureaucracy without benefits.

But Ruebner said the party is committed to the cause because Arlington desperately needs “additional public policy tools . . . to create more affordable housing.”

“We need governments to get involved to produce projects on a large enough scale to make a significant impact,” he said.

Ruebner said Arlington has lost more than half of its affordable housing since 2000, so “clearly the efforts made haven’t met the enormity of the crisis.”

The Green Party has collected enough signatures for a countywide referendum next November asking voters: Should Arlington activate a public housing and redevelopment authority? If voters approve the measure, the County Board will be required to implement it.

It’s a controversial proposal, one that even housing advocates have trouble supporting.

“Our position is, it’s unnecessary,” said Nina Janopaul, executive director of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, a nonprofit housing provider that works exclusively in Arlington. “A housing authority will only add bureaucracy and can add unnecessary costs. It’ll be another layer.”

Janopaul said she has worked in communities with public housing authorities. “Almost anything a housing authority can do can be done with the nonprofit sector and working with the tools Arlington County already has in its tool kit.”

However, Janopaul said that if the referendum generates more public support for affordable housing, her group would view that as a positive.

Jack Cornman, president of the Arlington-based nonprofit group Alliance for Housing Solutions, said that his board plans to study the proposal but that in general, housing authorities are “mixed bags.”

“I don’t know of any that have gotten started in the past five or six years,” Cornman said.

“It only works if there’s access to new money,” he said. “If there’s not a new source of money to get it started, then it won’t work any better than what you have now.”

Cornman said his group recently sponsored a panel discussion at George Mason University’s Arlington campus on affordable housing. Cornman and Ruebner said the reaction to establishing a housing authority was mostly negative, with panelists saying it wouldn’t bring any more money to the effort and would create more bureaucracy.

Ruebner, who attended the discussion, insists that creating more affordable housing is crucial to maintaining the county’s identity and that such a goal would benefit every Arlingtonian.

“What everyone in Arlington should be aware of is that when we don’t have enough affordable housing to maintain our socioeconomic diversity, it creates problems for everybody,” Ruebner said.

“When people have to commute in from long distances to their jobs in Arlington because they can’t afford to live here, that creates all kinds of overburdening on our transportation infrastructure and reinforces the increasing output of CO2emissions that harm our environment.”

Ruebner said that earlier ballot proposals for the idea, in 1958 and 1972, were defeated.

Arlington County officials are adopting a wait-and-see approach. County Board members have not taken public stands on the issue.

“This is at the very earliest stages,” said Diana Sun, a spokeswoman for the county. She said Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee has asked county staff members to gather information on the idea.

“We’re looking into what other cities and jurisdictions have done and trying to learn what the best practices are out there,” Sun said. County officials are reluctant to talk about the pros and cons of a housing authority until an exhaustive study has been conducted, she said.

She did say, however, that there is a feeling among officials that the county has been able to create affordable housing without resorting to a housing authority, which can be a big bureaucratic undertaking.

“We’ve created quite a bit of affordable housing in the current method,” she said.

Janopaul of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which is building a 15-story high-rise of affordable units on a hill overlooking Rosslyn, agreed that the current system has worked in many instances.

“I expect this will be pretty well debated and get a full public airing in the Arlington Way over the next year,” housing advocate Cornman said. “And the people will vote after it gets amply discussed.”

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