Cheapest House you can Build
In just about every political constituency in the country, there are things you can’t say and expect to get elected. You can’t endorse gun control in Tennessee. You can’t make light of climate change in Seattle. In Arlington, Va., where I live, you have to watch what you say about affordable housing.
To question the suburban county’s ambitious subsidized housing goals is to risk alienating what is perhaps the most vocal lobby in town. I know that the citizens of Arlington who advocate for expanded housing opportunity don’t think of themselves as power brokers. They don’t put big sums of money into campaigns. They’re almost always quiet and polite. But they are in possession of a sacred cow, and they know how to milk it.
I don’t say this as a criticism, just an observation. There are worse things for a county to be obsessed with than providing decent shelter for working people who need it. But the uniformity of elite opinion sometimes precludes constructive debate on a subject for which the best policy choices are far from clear.
There’s no doubt that Arlington has a housing problem. Back in 2000, it had more than 20, 000 places to live that were deemed affordable to low- and moderate-income residents just on the basis of market price. Since then, more than 13, 000 of these units have disappeared, casualties of Arlington’s emergence as an upscale destination for affluent young professionals. That leaves at least 7, 000 less-fortunate people, many of them employed in the county, who can’t afford to live there.
Arlington’s elected officials have been promising to do something about this for more than a decade. In 2005 the county board passed an ordinance directing residential developers either to create affordable housing in their new projects or to pay a fee into an affordable housing fund. The majority of them chose to pay the money, and by 2014 the county had amassed more than $12 million in the fund while falling far short of the annual affordable housing targets.
So in 2015 the board unanimously approved an affordable housing master plan, committing to the creation of 400 new units every year, eventually reaching the number that existed before the rapid decline began. Some of this housing would be created through loans to private developers who agree to make their apartments affordable; some would rely on “bonus density” awarded in exchange for making portions of a new project rent-reduced.
The master plan won widespread approval even though it wasn’t apparent how the target of 400 units per year might be reached. Over the previous five years, Arlington had been averaging about 220 new affordable units annually and in some years far less, despite relatively generous outlays from the housing fund. There was no estimate of how much the county might need to spend in coming years to reach its goal.
There is one way to create affordable housing without spending much public money, and that’s through mandatory inclusionary zoning. It’s a simple idea: You just require a developer to promise a fixed number of affordable units in order to get a project approved.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of this to financially strapped communities, but it’s a risky game. If you set the mandate too high, projects don’t pencil out and buildings don’t get built. If the developer agrees to participate but there’s a high ceiling on income eligibility, then the project may be a nice gift to a few middle-income families but do virtually nothing for the poorer ones who need help the most.