This is what Arlington residents think about their county

Arlington residents of all ages are concerned about housing costs. Many like new urban amenities and denser development but are worried about displacing lower-income neighbors. Others point to the county's affluence and pockets of racially homogenous communities and wonder what that says about their progressive values. These are some observations from a recent community engagement event hosted by the Arlington County Board.

Amid site plan reviews and feasibility studies, we don’t often take a step back to look at the big picture of community change. It’s even less often that we have the opportunity to join with those outside our immediate social circles to share perspectives on the place we call home.

At this recent meeting, participants weighed in on questions like: What makes Arlington unique? How is growth affecting our communities? Who is being left out of Arlington’s growth?

So what’s the “Big Idea?”

Arlington County is an affluent urban community experiencing rapid population growth as more people seek job opportunities in and around the District. The result has been a severe housing shortage at most price points and rapidly increasing home values.

At the same time, Arlington has a high vacancy rate in commercial real estate. The lack of commercial tenants and the ensuing loss of tax revenue has put fiscal pressure on a County Board that is accustomed to providing a high degree of services. The recently-approved budget for FY19 includes cuts to programs and staff positions.

In light of these challenges, the County Board is organizing a round of community engagement sessions. Dozens of Arlingtonians will gather in community centers in a series of roundtables called “The Big Idea.” The point is for neighbors to come together and speak directly to each other about the challenges and opportunities the community is facing.

“These roundtables, framed around some critical issues, are open-ended and not limited to any one issue, policy, or site proposal,” Arlington Board Chair Katie Cristol said. “Our goal is to create a space for and spark a conversation among civic leaders and residents of all backgrounds about their hopes for our County’s future as we grow and change. We look forward to lively conversations about diversity, density, affordability, traffic, and beyond.”

I attended one of these events on June 4. Convening in the Drew Community Center, located in the historically-black neighborhood of Nauck, our group of 25 residents represented a range of perspectives but fit the typical profile of an engaged Arlington citizen. For example, nearly all the participants owned a home, townhome, or condo, even though the majority of Arlingtonians are renters. Most of the participants had lived in Arlington for 10 or more years.

Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:

I love Whole Foods, but I hate losing my sight line

To be honest, I came not expecting to hear a lot of enthusiasm for urbanization, density, or smart growth. I heard that a previous roundtable devolved when one participant retorted, “If you want peace and quiet, move to Leesburg [a Virginia city outside the beltway].”

But on this evening, I was pleasantly surprised to hear many Arlington residents express a desire for more urban amenities and welcome housing for more residents. Many liked the new amenities and options for shopping and socializing that came with growth.

Two participants represented progressive citizen groups that actively campaign for County-subsidized affordable housing units to address the displacement of lower-income residents. Another spoke about the environmental necessity of urbanization.

However, the challenges incumbent in adding more people while keeping the environmental quality that many were accustomed to in Arlington’s days as a sleepy suburb were apparent.

Is Arlington really diverse?

Arlington’s sense of identity is critical in the discussion of growth. We were asked to describe “what makes Arlington Arlington?” in five words or less. While many participants mentioned diversity, others described our community as affluent. Arlington has a higher portion of non-Hispanic, white residents (64%) than nearly every jurisdiction in the region. Arlington’s poverty rate is well below the national average, and significantly lower than DC.

What we have was described best by one participant as “comfortable separatism”: pockets of communities that are largely homogenous. Young, highly-educated professionals living in the dense Metro corridors, affluent homeowners living in North Arlington, immigrant communities living along Columbia Pike, and the historically black neighborhood of Nauck (where the event was held) exist as separate islands where residents experience Arlington differently.

This isolation also exists in Arlington’s lauded school system, in which some elementary schools have 80% of students in poverty while others have only 2%. Thinking big about Arlington’s future must include a sober assessment of how well we are collectively living up to our progressive values.

Who is being left out of Arlington’s growth?

All the participants expressed anxiety about Arlington’s future, whether it was a concern for the rising cost of housing or denigration of the environment as the result of fitting more people in 26 square miles of land.

Participants of all ages were concerned about housing costs, whether they be seniors being priced out by rising home value assessments or renters who worried about their ability to afford housing (that would be me). Some participants felt stuck in the middle – too wealthy to qualify for subsidized housing, but not wealthy enough to afford a home without financial sacrifice.

Arlington has cultivated a high expectation of civic engagement and public input at all stages of decision making and on all types of projects and initiatives, a practice dubbed the “Arlington Way.” Participating in these public engagement opportunities makes even a relatively recent transplant to Arlington feel like a full-fledged resident. But it also creates a sense of entitlement.

We live in Arlington because there is something we love about it, and when we feel that that something is threatened, we expect our elected leaders to fix it, regardless of the larger consequences. I challenged the participants to question whether their vision of Arlington makes room for more neighbors, or whether it continues to build a wall of affluence.

More big questions than big answers

I am sorry to report that we did not find the magic recipe for growth during our discussion. We all want an easy formula that makes room for new residents, offers committed affordable housing for low-income residents, and creates opportunities for homeownership at all price points, while maintaining a robust tree-canopy, manageable traffic, and small class sizes.

But there was agreement that we need to be more creative about density. For too long, Arlington has “worshipped at the altar of the single-family home,” in the words of one participant. I sincerely hope that Arlington can lead the nation by modeling a new vision of housing that supports all types of families in all circumstances, while knitting the community together into an inclusive whole.

Want to weigh in on Arlington’s growth? The Big Idea Roundtables continue through June 20. You can RSVP online.

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