AHS is actively involved in helping develop and implement affordable housing strategies and solutions in Arlington County. One area we are working on is the preservation of apartments in the Westover area of North Arlington. This page provides some background information on the need and current status of the efforts. (Read more about the study of the Westover neighborhood for consideration as a local historic district.)
- 9/23/16 - The County Board will consider providing a loan to APAH for the purchase of eight Westover apartment buildings. See the AHS letter of support for APAH's purchase
What's going on?
In the past two years, 62 apartments in seven buildings in the Westover area have been demolished for by-right townhouse development. Westover is a vibrant and diverse community in North Arlington that is centered on the Westover Village shopping district, home to many beloved independent retailers and restaurants. The surrounding residential area is a blend of low-rise garden apartment buildings and single-family homes primarily built during the 1940s. The small businesses in Westover thrive in part because of the walkable nature of the area and the built-in market provided by the nearby apartment residents.
Why is this happening?
The small garden apartments in the Westover area are privately owned, with over 40 different owners, many of which have owned their properties for generations. Nonprofits AHC and APAH also own several hundred apartments in the area that are committed to maintaining long-term affordability for the residents. Apartment buildings owned by other owners generally are not required to retain affordable rents.
One key issue that has led to the current situation in Westover is the ability of property owners to build townhomes by-right within multifamily zoning districts. By-right development means that an owner can move forward on a development as long as the basic requirements of the zoning ordinance are met. The zoning places limits on the number of dwelling units per acre that can be built. This has led to incentives for developers to replace modest and affordable apartments with a smaller number of large townhomes, even though the area is zoned for multifamily housing.
What can residents do?
When owners want to redevelop their properties by-right, there are no special requirements related to tenant relocation, as there would be if the redevelopment were occurring under a County-sanctioned site plan process. The County’s Relocation Guidelines provide helpful advice for tenants and landlords who are impacted by redevelopment, but their use in by-right development is optional. Both tenants and landlords can also refer to the County’s Tenant-Landlord Rights and Responsibilities page for additional information.
Would a Historic District help?
The historic nature of the Westover area has been recognized by its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, but this is primarily an honorific designation that does not prevent demolition or redevelopment. In June, some residents of the Westover area submitted a request to the County to establish a Local Historic District zoning overlay for the area (see the County's website for details on the process). This would allow the County to control much of the demolition, renovation and construction activity in the area under an established set of design guidelines that would be created as part of the designation. The County is currently reviewing the request, which will take a substantial amount of time (potentially several years) to get through the steps required by law.
Local Historic Districts focus on preserving the external physical structures and natural environment of an area. They do not (on their own) impact whether the units remain affordable for the residents. In fact, there is some concern that a Historic District designation could cause some owners to raise rents in the long run.
The bottom line is that a new Local Historic District is not on its own sufficient to preserve the affordable housing resources currently in place in the Westover community.
What else is needed?
Policy 1.1.3 of Arlington’s newly adopted Affordable Housing Master Plan (AHMP) states that the County will “Make every reasonable effort to prevent the loss of market-rate affordable rental housing.”
One of the most straightforward ways to preserve market-rate affordable apartments is to convert them to Committed Affordable units (CAFs), such as through a purchase by a nonprofit housing owner. These owners have a mission of maintaining the affordability of housing for the foreseeable future. Arlington County officials are also considering land use and regulatory solutions that could have an even broader impact in Westover and around the County. APAH has announced that they intend to purchase several of the at-risk buildings in Westover to preserve affordability, subject to the County's approval of an Affordable Housing Investment Fund loan to cover the gap between the financing available and the market value of the properties.
The AHMP mentions several existing land use and regulatory tools available, such as:
- Special Affordable Housing Protection Districts – currently applicable only within the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, these districts require one-for-one replacement of affordable units in exchange for receiving higher planned densities.
- Transfer of Development Rights – a tool that has been used in a variety of places by Arlington in the past, allow owners to preserve affordable housing and open space by selling their unused density to sites where this density is more usable.
The plan also mentions the need to consider new density definitions in medium density zoning categories – such as switching from a units per acre density measure to a Floor-Area-Ratio measure, which would provide an incentive for developers to build smaller units within the same space if redevelopment does occur.
We will need to look for creative alternatives to prevent the continued loss of this valuable, affordable housing resource in North Arlington. AHS continues to work with the County and other stakeholders to implement solutions sooner rather than later to prevent further displacement of lower-income renters.
Since this post was published, the County Board approved an $11 million loan to APAH for the purchase of eight Westover apartment buildings. See the AHS letter of support for APAH's purchase.
AHS honored APAH, A-SPAN and the Westover Civic Association with the 2017 Ellen M. Bozman Award for their collaboration toward preserving affordability in Westover.