CNCounty News

LUCC members see housing cooperation in Arlington County, Va.

Harris County, Texas Commissioner Adrian Garcia describes how no zoning does not necessarily mean no problems when it comes to promoting housing affordability. Photo by Josh Reed

Key Takeaways

When discussing housing affordability, the most important factor is location, location, location…and partnerships.

Amazon could have easily done a “cannon ball” into the local housing pool when the retailer decided to move a significant portion of its workforce to Arlington County, Va. Thousands of highly paid workers threatened to overturn the housing market, which was already hot thanks to a host of secondary and tertiary federal government industries around the Washington, D.C. region. But the company’s Housing Equity Fund is helping to mitigate its workforce’s effects on the nation’s geographically smallest county.

“Partnerships are essential to creating and sustaining affordable housing,” Russell Danao-Schroeder, the county’s principal housing planner, told the leadership of NACo’s Large Urban County Caucus (LUCC) during a May 2 fly-in at Amazon’s Arlington headquarters. 

The Amazon Housing Equity Fund is allocating $2 billion among Arlington County, Nashville-Davidson County, Tenn. and King County Wash. to create and preserve more than 20,000 affordable homes near its offices, with 16,000 complete thus far. 

In Arlington County, that has taken the form of a loan, along with one from the county, to a real estate management company to purchase a 1,334-unit garden-style apartment complex that will remain affordable for renters making 60 percent or less of the area median income. The fund also donated to a local housing conservancy to fund the purchase of an apartment building and vacant land that would support 550 homes available to low- and medium-income renters.

But there’s more to it than just raw spending power.

“The Housing Equity Fund has had the biggest impact where there have been policies that enable and invite more affordable housing, where there is funding to do things like what we were able to do with [the garden apartments], where our investments can be even more catalytic,” said KellyAnn Kirkpatrick, senior product manager for Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund. She stressed that just providing housing isn’t enough, that partnering with service providers who can communicate in the languages that residents speak and coordinating with transit agencies is crucial to making sure housing works for residents.

“From the public sector side, partnerships start with having the tools in place and being ready to be deployed to support opportunities as they arise,” Danao-Schroeder said. 

That leads to a number of questions:

  • Does your comprehensive plan or general plan clearly articulate your jurisdiction’s affordable housing policy?
  • Do your zoning and general land use planning documents provide ample opportunities for multifamily development, regardless of affordability?
  • Do you have inclusionary or incentive-based affordable housing policies to leverage affordable housing benefits when private development occurs? 
  • Does your jurisdiction have a housing trust fund or other mechanism for financing production or increasing affordable housing? 
  • Is your affordable housing trust fund adequately funded to meet the needs of the community? 

“But,” Danao-Schroeder said, “even with all these elements in place, we sometimes come up short.” 

LUCC Chair David Crowley noted the importance of housing in citizen’s well-being.

“In Milwaukee County, housing is a matter of public health and housing stability is a critical social determinant of health,” he said. “Housing can influence our health, can influence our economics, can influence our education, our safety and our resilience.” 

Salt Lake County, Utah Mayor Jenny Wilson noted that counties have increasingly taken multilateral partnerships into consideration in recent years.

“Partnering with private entities enables counties to access a broader pool of resources and networks that may have not been traditionally available to us or maybe we weren’t even aware they were there,” she said. “I really feel that it’s even more accelerated post-COVID. I think we have to unpack everything; we all go back to the revenue we received, the greater and deeper relationships with community partners have made this next phase more effective. 

“So, there’s a little something good that came out of that horrible couple of years.” 

Hennepin County, Minn. Commissioner Angela Conley said the zoning authorities rest with municipalities and create a minefield for counties and developers. 

“Oftentimes, developers of affordable housing are navigating this really intricate maze of regulations and rules and associated bureaucratic processes from neighborhood groups to planning commissions and this presents hurdles for developers when pursuing equitable housing solutions,” she said. “Taken alone, each of those local regulations may have significant benefits, but also those benefits should be weighed against broader affordability implications. Sometimes the most effective solution is really the smallest one and that’s a periodic review of your local regulatory barriers.” 

“By identifying and addressing these barriers, policymakers like us can promote equity and inclusion, and that is ensuring affordable housing is available to everyone to all residents regardless of their socioeconomic status.” 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Harris County, Texas has no zoning at all, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy.

“When I became a county commissioner in 2019, affordable housing was at the top of my agenda for my team to achieve,” said Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia. “We are barely breaking ground on some of the projects that we started exploring and trying to navigate in 2019. The problem is finding plots of land that are absent of environmental issues and flood problems. And when you’re using state or federal dollars, the environmental studies are all-or-nothing, meaning it either has some contamination or it has none. Then, we have to find other dollars to remediate what we think is a good developable piece of property.” 

Arlington County Board Member Matt de Ferranti noted that despite all the policy mechanisms available to encourage housing affordability, leadership from elected officials is a necessary ingredient.

“In many communities, you can see the seeds of the affordable housing push a decade ago,” he said. So is, “creating a context where you have leadership that is willing to stand for affordable housing. There’s no substitute.”

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