Amazon's arrival an opportunity for bold action

On Friday, March 15, 2019, The Alliance for Housing Solutions board of directors submitted the following letter to Arlington County ahead of their vote on the $23 million incentives package for Amazon.

This is an exciting time for our community as Amazon prepares to make Arlington its second home.

As we said at the time the Amazon announcement was made, it is also an opportunity for state and local leaders, as well as the people they represent, to redouble their efforts to support affordable housing. Since then, we have seen dozens of articles, blogs, op-eds and other expressions of concern for those who might potentially be displaced by the market forces and excitement surrounding Amazon’s new headquarters. We are glad to see that this important issue has risen to the forefront as a result of the community’s discussion about Amazon.

Our region simply does not have enough housing to meet the demands of our current population. While Arlington has worked hard to add committed affordable units (where rents are guaranteed to remain affordable) to the mix, the availability of market-rate affordable housing has been declining dramatically for decades.

In the year 2000, Arlington County had 20,000 privately-owned apartments that were affordable to households earning 60 percent of the area median income or less. By 2018, there were only about 3,000 of these units on the market as rents increased and redevelopment of older units escalated. AHS believes that we need to be doing more to reverse the loss of affordable units, replace the units lost, prevent displacement and expand affordable housing opportunities for people in Arlington. Amazon’s pending arrival accelerates the urgency for these needed solutions.

The confluence of housing demand and the focus and energy created by the arrival of Amazon and all of the associated businesses that will follow offers unprecedented opportunity for bold action on two fronts:

1. Prioritizing planning and zoning reforms to increase and diversify our housing supply—providing a variety of housing types and price points and in a variety of locations—to keep up with our growing employment base. Arlington should prioritize planning and zoning reform efforts that can help meet the housing needs for the thousands of middle-income households, seniors and others who struggle to find a home that meets their needs. This includes piloting new approaches as well as studying and working toward more comprehensive efforts.

2. Prioritizing near-term investments in affordable housing needed to create and preserve below-market rate committed affordable units for those with the lowest incomes. In Arlington, we use our revolving loan fund, the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF), to help fill gaps in development budgets and produce this committed affordable housing. AHS has argued for years that we should be allocating significantly more local resources to the AHIF, and this is more important now than ever before.

We know that Amazon’s new headquarters in Arlington will be likely to produce new resources for affordable housing in the long run–both additional net tax revenue that the County Board can choose to allocate to the AHIF, and specific payments required for all site plan developments due to our Affordable Housing Ordinance.

Unfortunately, the long run may be too late for those who are at risk of displacement.

AHS urges the County to prioritize near-term investments in affordable housing to help the 3,000 households living in the remaining market affordable units, provide more affordable and stable housing opportunities for those who are severely cost burdened, and to create more opportunity to return for those who we have lost and others like them who help make Arlington the diverse and inclusive community we strive to be. These investments could come from a variety of sources ranging from the County’s general fund, bond financing, tax-increment financing, public-private partnerships and other innovative sources.

We are hopeful that Amazon will put its significant weight and resources behind these efforts as it begins to make Arlington its new home. We are optimistic that their recent levels of engagement on affordable housing issues will continue and that as they learn more they will also bring their spirit of innovation and action to help solve our housing affordability challenges.