Management & Labor

The Magic Word: Affordable

"My fellow citizens, I rise today to speak in opposition to affordable housing, quality day care and the Baptist Church." I briefly considered saying those words a few weeks ago as I spent a long Saturday afternoon at a County Board meeting in Arlington, Virginia, waiting for the five minutes allotted to me as a citizen speaker on a public issue.
by | December 2004
 

"My fellow citizens, I rise today to speak in opposition to affordable housing, quality day care and the Baptist Church."

I briefly considered saying those words a few weeks ago as I spent a long Saturday afternoon at a County Board meeting in Arlington, Virginia, waiting for the five minutes allotted to me as a citizen speaker on a public issue.

I didn't end up saying them, for a pretty good reason: I'm actually in favor of day care, housing and Baptists. But after five hours of debate and nearly 100 speeches on a deeply divisive question, I was beginning to wonder whether I was somehow deficient in ordinary human compassion.

It's a long story. Let me start at the beginning.

In the beginning, there was the First Baptist Church of Clarendon, a thriving congregation housed in a tasteful red-brick building in the commercial center of Arlington County, occupying the better part of a square block. The church, built mostly in the 1920s, boasts a white steeple that rises 107 feet into the air. Not too long ago, this steeple was taller than virtually anything for several miles in either direction. You could see it from miles away. Every Sunday for decades, hundreds of parishioners showed up for services in the simple but spacious sanctuary. During the week, hundreds of families used the day care facilities made available in the back portion of the building.

But times changed. The old church members began to die off or move away, and the affluent young singles and couples coming into the neighborhood didn't include many traditional Baptists. By the start of this decade, there were only about 80 active members of the church, and Sunday services would frequently attract only a few dozen hard- core worshippers, huddled in the front pews of a largely empty sanctuary, now in need of repair.

It wasn't too difficult to predict the future of this institution. The congregation would eventually disappear altogether, and the building, located on one of the choicest sites in the entire county, would be sold off to developers. But somebody came up with a clever idea: Why not set up a First Baptist Church Development Corporation, borrow against the $6 million land value, erect a new residential building on the site, and include within the new structure a smaller and more practical sanctuary, one that would be attractively designed and might even lure in a newer and younger religious clientele.

Creative as this sounded, it posed a few problems right from the start. In order to attract needed construction subsidies, from state and federal sources and from the county's own housing investment fund, the project would need a substantial number of subsidized units for low- and moderate-income families. But to meet its cash-flow needs and pay for itself in the long run, it would also need a sizable number of luxury units renting at high market rates. This meant the building would have to be tall--probably taller than 100 feet, maybe even taller than the steeple that had long been a neighborhood icon.

But it wouldn't be easy to build such a structure, because the land wasn't zoned for anything taller than 75 feet. Without a zoning variance, the church couldn't go higher than six or seven stories, which its accountants labeled inadequate to meet costs. It's always possible to ask for a variance, of course, but that guaranteed opposition from homeowners living in the immediate vicinity, who had been watching 10 story buildings going up all around them during the past couple of years, and saw the specter of architectural gigantism looming closer and closer to their quiet tree-lined streets. The church property was a only a few hundred feet from a Metro train stop, but it did extend beyond an informal boundary that the homeowners considered to be an end line for commercial development encroaching on residential territory.

This sensitivity marked a considerable irony in itself. Ten years ago, Clarendon was a slightly dingy specimen of early 20th-century inner suburbia, with old and neglected buildings and little nightlife or high-end commercial shopping of any sort. But it did have something most of the surrounding suburban areas lacked: small-scale, urban- style streetscapes, with storefront space for local merchants and restaurateurs, and broad sidewalks suitable for pedestrian traffic. To make a long story a little shorter, Clarendon evolved in the course of barely five years from an obscure backwater of metropolitan Washington, D.C., to a hot and pricey commercial and residential enclave. As one multi-story project after another began appearing in dizzying succession, local homeowners who had spent years hoping for some commercial action began to worry about just the opposite: new mega-buildings threatening the low-rise attractiveness that had brought the neighborhood back in the first place.

So the church had a complicated set of political forces to contend with. Ultimately, it had two choices: It could buy off the neighborhood by ramping the size of the building down to seven or eight stories, which likely would have ended community opposition but also allegedly threatened the project's financial viability. Or it could try to win over the county manager and five board members by making the whole project politically attractive to the county as a whole.

How would they do that? There's a simple answer. Put in more affordable housing. The church's original plan called for a 102-foot- tall building with 118 apartments, most of them at market rate. They went back and emerged with a second proposal for a building of 96 feet--still far too tall to meet neighborhood objections--but with 60 percent of the rental units in the "affordable" category, aimed at citizens earning no more than 60 percent of the area's median income. The Baptists knew what they were doing with that second offer. They conceded virtually nothing to the neighborhood on height, but by adding the extra "affordable" units, created an offer the county leadership did not dare to refuse. So it was that the "Views at Clarendon" apartment project finally became a serious deal.

Anyone who has not lived in a liberal inner suburb such as Arlington may have a difficult time understanding the emotional freight that the phrase "affordable housing" carries in local politics. It is an issue on which candidates campaign, on which activists make officeholders feel guilty and on which a remarkably forceful social service coalition, anchored by churches and nonprofit organizations, can amass lots of political power. Nobody is ever sure exactly what "affordable housing" means, but nobody running for office ever wants to be on the wrong side of it.

From the debate not only in Arlington but in similarly positioned communities around the country, it's pretty clear that some activists think of "affordable" as a housing unit that recent immigrants and other low-income residents can pay for. It's equally clear that others have a much more middle-class vision of affordable housing--they're thinking about units that will be available to nurses, firefighters, teachers and other reasonably well-paid families that work in an affluent community and want to be able to live there as well.

The typical developer, in order to qualify for affordable housing loans and other assistance, normally has to rent 45 percent of his units at an amount no greater than 60 percent of his area's median income. For families in much of suburban America, that's actually a lot of money. An "affordable" 2-bedroom apartment in the Views at Clarendon would currently cost more than $1,000 a month. This suggests that the subsidized units would be most attractive to singles with relatively well-paying jobs, or to double-income couples without children. What it doesn't suggest is occupancy by immigrant or minority families at the bottom of the economic ladder.

In any case, the number of "affordable" units created by even the most ambitious project is never more than a tiny blip in a metropolitan housing market. No local government, no matter how well- intentioned or well-financed, can subsidize nearly enough units to create a significant change in a residential real estate market region-wide.

To housing activists, however, this not especially important. What matters to them is that there is a housing crisis--also rarely defined in precise terms--that dealing with it is a morally significant cause, and that any new units created, under whatever circumstances, are a contribution to social justice. The claims made in behalf of any new project tend to be rather grandiose. In discussing the Views at Clarendon, one supporter declared that as a result of its creation, "there will be a place in Arlington for us, our parents, our grandchildren and their children." For that to be true, an awful lot of people would have to crowd into 70 units.

Notwithstanding the exaggeration, I thought the Views at Clarendon generally was a good idea. I think affordable housing is a good idea. What troubles me is a political system in which the vague goal of affordable housing is allowed to trump all other considerations-- including, most notably, sensible urban design. Housing policy decisions can be made and reversed every few years; urban design decisions are permanent, or as permanent as anything can get in the world we live in.

That's what I tried to express when I finally got my five minutes of speaking time at the County Board. A few days later, I went into the county's video archives to see what I had actually said. What I said was this: "Urban design and affordable housing are two different issues. When you sacrifice one to the other, what you get is bad public policy." I think that's pretty much true.

Anyway, the board proceeded to debate the issue, and one by one, the members expressed their concerns about height, design and overbuilding. Then they supported the project, all 96 feet of it, by a margin of 4-0, with one abstention.

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