Ruebner Fights for Affordable Housing
Green Party Candidate decries overdevelopment and the loss of economic and cultural diversity.
October 17, 2006
Over the course of the spring and summer, Josh Ruebner attended a host of meetings with other civic activists to pressure the County Board to designate hundreds of Buckingham Village apartments as historic, thus saving them from demolition.
A local developer had announced plans to knock down three aging buildings and replace them with luxury townhouses and apartments. Though some of the apartments would be set aside at affordable rates, many families, mostly poor and Hispanic, had already begun to vacate their units.
By declaring the apartments historic, the County Board could save the Buckingham community, Ruebner said, and reverse what he saw as the board’s “deliberate gentrification policy.”
Instead, the five board members and developer forged a compromise enabling many residents to stay in the neighborhood, but ultimately resulting in the loss of 150 affordable units.
Ruebner was so dismayed by the board’s action that he made an unlikely decision: he would run for County Board this November as the Green Party candidate, in hopes of ensuring there would be no repeat of the Buckingham “debacle.”
“For me, Buckingham was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as the issue of affordable housing in Arlington,” said Ruebner, 31, a grassroots coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
During the past half-decade Ruebner said he has become disheartened by the proliferation of development throughout south Arlington, leading to the exodus of many low-income families from his own eastern Columbia Pike neighborhood.
The rapid loss of affordable housing in Arlington is robbing the county of its cherished economic and cultural diversity, Ruebner said. Between 2000 and 2005, Arlington lost 52 percent of its affordable housing stock — more than 9,900 units.
The way the County Board handled the Buckingham redevelopment plan convinced Ruebner that board members were not fully committed to finding new solutions to the affordable housing crisis.
“Buckingham was a clear signal of what kind of people the County Board wants — those with a lot of wealth who can expand the tax base,” Ruebner said, sitting in the kitchen of his townhouse near the intersection of Columbia Pike and Washington Boulevard. “There’s no place left in the county for people who don’t fit that criteria.”
THOUGH RUEBNER — the first Green Party candidate for Arlington County Board — knew it would be a daunting task to unseat three-term incumbent Chris Zimmerman, he believes his focus on the county’s loss of affordable housing is resonating with voters on the campaign trail.
“People are fed up with the over-development in Arlington and are ready to see a change,” he said.
Ruebner is a political novice, whose leadership roles in the county do not extend much beyond his duties as the secretary of his homeowner’s association. But his work organizing 200 groups dedicated to changing U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, plus a prior job as an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, have given him an understanding of how to craft policy and formulate budgets, he said.
While some may have been eager to write off the campaign neophyte due to his lack of name recognition, his articulate manner and call for a new direction in county policy is forcing many residents to give Ruebner a second look, said Kirit Mookerjee, Ruebner’s campaign manager.
“He brings an energy to the debates and a fresh perspective to the campaign,” Mookerjee said. Democratic leaders “are concerned about Josh’s criticism [of Zimmerman] on progressive issues like affordable housing.”
Ruebner contends that the current County Board, chaired this year by Zimmerman, has become too cozy with local developers.
He decries the October 2005 compromise the board fashioned with developers, requiring them to provide affordable units, or contribute money to a housing fund, whenever the board grants projects additional density beyond what is permitted by existing zoning rules.
The agreement will not yield a sufficient number of new affordable units, which is what the county desperately needs, Ruebner said. The County Board had originally instituted stricter housing guidelines on developers but lost a subsequent lawsuit, nullifying the requirements.
If elected, Ruebner will work toward imposing a “moratorium on the destruction of affordable housing.” He wants to entice developers to create more affordable units on their own, and suggests offering them a tax break in return.
Yet some believe Ruebner does not understand the complexities of Virginia law and the constraints placed on board members. Peter Rousselot, chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, said that while Ruebner’s campaign promises might sound appealing, many of them would not withstand a legal challenge.
“He hasn’t really demonstrated that he understands the legal limitations that the state of Virginia imposes,” Rousselot added. “He can’t just bemoan the fact we are losing affordable housing. He has to come forward with suggestions that are legally permissible.”
THE COUNTY BOARD’S vision to remake the Columbia Pike corridor has also drawn Ruebner’s ire. He derides the proposed $120 million streetcar system that would run from Skyline in Fairfax County to Pentagon City as a “boondogle.”
There is nothing wrong with adding a bus rapid transit system, which would be considerably cheaper, he argued. “The only reason for [a streetcar] is to make Columbia Pike more appealing to developers” to build luxury condos along the street, Ruebner added.
In recent debates Ruebner and Republican opponent Mike McMenamin have ganged up on Zimmerman for his support of an athletic and aquatic facility that is expected to cost in excess of $135 million. The project ran into trouble last month when a developer terminated a preliminary land swap deal on the proposed site of the facility.
Ruebner insists it would be “crazy” for the board to move ahead with such an expensive “yuppie project,” when it could be investing that money into turning apartment buildings into affordable co-ops.
In the realm of transportation, Ruebner’s positions echo those of Zimmerman. He is fervently opposed to widening I-66 and is in favor of increasing car pooling and mass transit options regionwide.
“You can put as many lanes as you want [on I-66], but that doesn’t solve the problem.”
Additionally, Ruebner would like to expand the number of Metro cars on the Orange line to alleviate congestion during rush hour.
Besides their united opposition to the North Tract project, Ruebner has found common ground with his Republican opponent on the need for lower real estate taxes.
Even with the homeowner grant rebate, Ruebner said he struggled to pay his tax bill this year. If elected he would strive to lower the tax burden on all homeowners, while implementing more targeted relief for low-income families.
As the first Green Party candidate for County Board, Ruebner said the entire process has been a learning experience. He recognizes that he possesses neither the financial nor personnel resources that are at the disposal of his two opponents.
Ruebner admits that he announced his candidacy in order to raise issues such as affordable housing that might not otherwise be addressed, and to provide a challenge from the left to Zimmerman, who has been on the board for a decade.
Now that he is knocking on doors and holding his own in debates, he has broadened his expectations.
Will it be enough to push him to a most unlikely of upsets?
“Anything is possible,” he said. “I’m growing more confident as a candidate and there’s a lot more support than we originally [anticipated].”