ISO: Af­ford­able Hous­ing for Pub­lic Work­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - Close To Home - — Kim A. O’Con­nell

M ost morn­ings, while his po­lice bud­dies are still sip­ping their cof­fee, Ar­ling­ton County De­tec­tive Rick Ro­driguez is al­ready on the in­ter­state, mak­ing the long com­mute from his com­fort­able house in Fred­er­ick to North­ern Vir­ginia. As an 18-year vet­eran of the Ar­ling­ton po­lice force, Ro­driguez en­joys work­ing in the county be­cause the pay and ben­e­fits are bet­ter than av­er­age and he knows the area well. He just can’t af­ford to live there.

“I saw co-work­ers work­ing a lot of off-duty jobs to pay the mort­gage, and I don’t have to work over­time,” he says. “It’s fine to work over­time when you’re young and sin­gle, but once you have a wife and kids you don’t want to do that any­more.” Ro­driguez is not alone. The Na­tional Low In­come Hous­ing Coali­tion re­ports that, based on a 2001 study, nearly 95 mil­lion Amer­i­cans do not have af­ford­able hous­ing. In the Wash­ing­ton re­gion — the 10th-most ex­pen­sive metropoli­tan area in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the coali­tion — the af­ford­able-hous­ing prob­lem has reached cri­sis lev­els. From 2002 to 2006, the D.C. Hous­ing Author­ity’s wait­ing list for hous­ing vouch­ers, a pri­mary source of af­ford­able-hous­ing as­sis­tance, in­creased by 23,000 house­holds.

Pro­vid­ing “work­force hous­ing” is a ma­jor is­sue, be­cause mu­nic­i­pal em­ploy­ees are dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected by high hous­ing costs. Dis­trict gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that nearly half of their 30,000-plus em­ploy­ees live else­where, in­clud­ing about three-quar­ters of the city’s po­lice force. Other lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions tell sim­i­lar tales. Re­cent pub­lished re­ports state that more than half of Fair­fax County work­ers re­side out­side the county’s bound­aries, while nearly 90 per­cent of Alexan­dria’s em­ploy­ees com­mute into that city. Mary­land faces a sim­i­lar prob­lem; about 25 per­cent of Mont­gomery County teach­ers and 75 per­cent of its fire­fight­ers live out­side the county.

In Ar­ling­ton County, the amount of af­ford­able hous­ing de­clined by more than 50 per­cent from 2000 and 2005, with nearly 9,900 rental units be­com­ing unattain­able for house­holds with in­comes at or be­low 60 per­cent of the area’s me­dian in­come. Fur­ther­more, since Novem­ber 2004, own­ers of more than 2,200 rental units in Ar­ling­ton have be­gun con­vert­ing them to high-end con­do­mini­ums and town­houses. Pub­lic ser­vants such as Ro­driguez fre­quently get el­bowed out of the mar­ket. Ac­cord­ing to the Ar­ling­ton Part­ner­ship for Af­ford­able Hous­ing, just 25 per­cent of Ar­ling­ton’s po­lice force, 9 per­cent of its fire­fight­ers and fewer than half of its school­teach­ers live in the county.

Pro­vid­ing af­ford­able hous­ing of­ten re­quires a mix of po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, creative part­ner­ships and lo­cal ac­tivism — a com­bi­na­tion that has proved fruit­ful in Ar­ling­ton. Last year, Ar­ling­ton County of­fi­cials wran­gled with a pro­posal to re­de­velop part of Buck­ing­ham Vil­lage, a his­toric De­pres­sion-era gar­den apart­ment com­plex that had long pro­vided af­ford­able hous­ing. At Buck­ing­ham Vil­lage, which is in a cen­tral part of the county where re­de­vel­op­ment has been ram­pant, three ar­eas were tar­geted to be de­mol­ished to make way for up­scale town­houses. This raised the ire of hous­ing ad­vo­cates and his­toric preser­va­tion­ists alike.

Last month, how­ever, the Ar­ling­ton County Board unan­i­mously en­dorsed a plan that would al­low re­de­vel­op­ment of part of Buck­ing­ham Vil­lage but also would in­clude the con­struc­tion and preser­va­tion of about 300 af­ford­able hous­ing units. The pro­posal in­cludes a $32.1 mil­lion out­lay by the county to ex­pand the Buck­ing­ham Vil­lage his­toric dis­trict and pre­serve af­ford­able hous­ing in that sec­tion, as well as in an­other sec­tion out­side the his­toric dis­trict, il­lus­trat­ing how po­lit­i­cal mus­cle and cre­ativ­ity can sup­port lower- and mid­dle-in­come fam­i­lies. “The suc­cess of any lo­cal econ­omy de­pends on all dif­fer­ent peo­ple and all dif­fer­ent in­come lev­els,” says board mem­ber Chris Zim­mer­man.

If Ar­ling­ton and other ju­ris­dic­tions around the re­gion take sim­i­lar ac­tion reg­u­larly, fu­ture rook­ies on the po­lice beat won’t have to live as far away from their jobs as Rick Ro­driguez does.


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