Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The messiness of democracy—that worst form of government except all others—was on display June 2 at Arlington County Civic Federation meeting.

Yet the process delivered impressive results for the cause of affordable housing, an issue that divides Arlingtonians geographically, ideologically, tactically.

The state of play: The State of Virginia requires that Arlington’s master plan include a housing component. The county’s influx of wealthier homebuyers and ambitious developer projects has shrunk the supply of housing attainable to low-income residents from 26 percent of stock in 2000 to 9 percent in 2013.

The century-old federation gathered at the Virginia Hospital Center auditorium to debate its housing committee’s resolution that had been 30 months in the making. It was drafted by a task force of county staff and specialists attending 40 meetings, including five public forums. The evening would mark the skilled body’s last chance, a delegate noted, to weigh in before the County Board prepares for a July vote.

Occasionally harsh words were exchanged about costs, impact on county services, the possible threat to parks, and which speaker’s day job better qualifies him to steer the debate.

The federation’s earnest president Mike McMenamin admitted he was relying on the honor system to verify that all who raised their hands to vote were authentic delegates. As the evening wore on, he had to cut off some microphone hogs.

Pressing for approval of a resolution to reflect Arlington’s “values of diversity, inclusivity, and sustainability” was retired teacher Kathryn Scruggs. The root of the problem, she told me, is that too much of the market-rate low-income housing or negotiated “committed affordable units” are concentrated in south Arlington. Past housing plans, she said, contained “no tools or strategies” to create better racial, ethnic and geographic distribution of affordable units so scarce north of Route 50.

The resolution sets a goal of 17.7 percent affordable housing by 2040, or 15,800 new units done with loans through public-private partnerships. Backer Mary Rouleau, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Housing Solutions, stressed that the resolution “is a policy document, not a budget or zoning document.” It authorizes no projects without future reviews.

Opponents worried the ambitious plan would raise taxes, increase density in single-family neighborhoods, impose changes in land use and shorten public debate. “It overpromises,” said Suzanne Sundburg of the revenues and expenditures committee, calling for impact statements on the environment, the budget and county services. The 17.7 percent target “is very big,” said one delegate. “We’d have to give up services.”

Others decried the lack of cost estimates and the resolution’s “meaningless protection for parks.” Green space enthusiasts objected to language promising to protect parks by disfavoring “stand-alone” housing projects, calling it a loophole. Some charged the plan would attract an influx of needy residents.

Anticipating resistance, supporters met two days earlier with federation leaders and gave some ground. They added language citing a need for more information on impact on nearby schools, along with a strategy for achieving wider geographic distribution. The new conditions make it clear that the county should delay implementation to allow more discussion and community input.

Proposed wording changes to reflect the opponents’ objections all failed, though by only a handful of votes.

The overall resolution of approval passed 47-29. Word is the county board takes the federation’s resolutions seriously—unless things get messy.

* * *

I supped June 3 at the annual Better Sports Club of Arlington banquet, an intergenerational celebration of youth athletic prowess to which the hosts add praise for academic achievements and revive some local sports nostalgia.

Keynote speaker was former National Football League star Eric Sievers (Washington-Lee High, ’75), who played tight end for the San Diego Chargers. In a surprisingly disarming manner, he described growing up with five sisters near Mt. Olivet Church, riding his bike in Waverly Hills, attending Stratford Jr. High, caddying at Washington Golf and working at Donaldson Run pool.

Sievers’ father was too busy serving in Vietnam to teach him sports, he said, so he took what he was given naturally and learned from peers and coaches, overcoming insecurities at each step of the way. His main message: “Let your actions do your talking.”

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