County Board Adopts Housing Conservation District

Published on December 16, 2017

  • Signals intent to retain affordability in areas with market-rate affordable rental housing

  • Moves to implement established Affordable Housing Master Plan policies

  • Reclassifies townhouse development as a special exception use requiring additional review by the community and County Board

The Arlington County Board voted today to establish a Housing Conservation District in 12 areas with market-rate affordable housing. In 2018, the County will be engaging with the community to develop a series of zoning and financial tools to incent affordable housing in these areas.

The district is intended to prevent the loss of market-rate affordable housing, to encourage and incent the distribution of affordable housing throughout the County, and to preserve and enhance existing apartment neighborhoods, consistent with adopted policies from both the Affordable Housing Master Plan and General Land Use Plan.

"This Housing Conservation District will help preserve market-rate affordable housing in our community," Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette said. "We all know that Arlington's supply of affordable housing continues to shrink as property values and rents rise. Thousands of Arlingtonians living in market-rate rentals simply could not afford to live in our community if this housing were to disappear. If we are to remain a diverse, inclusive, sustainable community, we must do what we can to preserve these rentals."

Current County policies encourage the retention of affordable housing along the major transportation corridors. The Board's decision takes a step toward developing affordable housing strategies for areas of low- to mid-rise garden-style apartment buildings that are located further from Metro stations.

The Board voted 4 to 1 to establish the Housing Conservation District by adopting a Housing Conservation District Policy Framework that outlines a series of incentives that will be refined in 2018; amending the General Land Use Plan Map and Booklet to signal which areas will have access to planned housing incentives; amending the Affordable Housing Master Plan to reference the district, and amending the Zoning Ordinance to reclassify townhouse development as a special exception use requiring site plan approval within the district's boundaries. Board Member John Vihstadt voted no.

To read the staff report on this item, scroll down to Item No. 45 on the agenda for the Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017 Regular County Board Meeting.

Market-rate housing supply shrinking

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Since 2000, Arlington has lost more than 14,400 market-rate affordable units that are affordable to households earning up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income. Most of those losses were caused by rent increases, although some were the result of redevelopment. There are 13,775 market-rate affordable housing units remaining in the County, and just 2,780 of these are affordable to households earning up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income. Roughly half of the remaining 13,775 market-rate affordable units are in neighborhoods with adopted sector and area plans, meaning they may already have access to specific affordable housing incentives. The Housing Conservation District contains 4,714 market-rate affordable units, or 68% of the remaining 6,978 units.

About the Affordable Housing Master Plan

Adopted in 2015 and incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan, the Affordable Housing Master Plan (AHMP) establishes the County's affordable housing policy. The result of a lengthy and intensive process of community engagement, the AHMP calls for the production and preservation of a supply of affordable rental housing sufficient to meet the County's current and future needs.

In 2017, County staff published Market-Rate Affordable Housing: An Approach for Preservation, a study that recommended the creation of a new General Land Use Plan special district that could provide access to affordable housing tools and incentives. The Board responded by directing the County Manager to develop a Housing Conservation District.

The report also found that when market-rate affordable units in the County are demolished, they are typically replaced with more expensive housing, and often with townhouses.

Townhouse development reclassified

When townhouse designs are constructed by-right in Housing Conservation District areas, the community has no opportunity to review the proposed designs and layouts to consider whether the projects are compatible with the form and character of surrounding garden-style apartment buildings. The adopted Zoning Ordinance amendment does not remove the option to develop townhouses, but it will require that these conversations take place.

In voting to reclassify townhouse development within the boundaries of the Housing Conservation District, the Board said it will reevaluate this reclassification in 2018 in conjunction with implementation of Phase II of the district, and will consider at that time whether changes are needed.

More work to be done in 2018

By establishing the district, the Board has completed the first step in a two-phase process. In Phase II, the County will explore zoning- and tax-based incentives that could help preserve market-rate affordable housing within the district. This work will include identifying the types of context-appropriate building forms and layouts that could result from incentive-based zoning standards.

As envisioned, the Housing Conservation District ultimately will allow for a spectrum of development projects, ranging from renovation and minor additions to infill and redevelopment. Use of the incentives will be voluntary, yet in return for more flexible development standards, property owners and developers will be required to dedicate a share of on-site housing units for lower- and moderate-income households, earning up to 80 percent of Area Median Income. Phase II also will develop recommendations for the types of County and community review processes that would be appropriate for different incentive projects.

The Planning Commission has clarified that the Housing Conservation District designation along Lee Highway will serve as an interim measure to preserve affordability. Phase II, as well as the forthcoming Lee Highway planning initiative, will provide opportunities for the community to weigh-in on potential affordable housing tools and incentives that could work along Lee Highway. Depending on the results of Phase II analysis and engagement, recommendations from the Lee Highway planning effort may ultimately supplement or supplant those recommended by the HCD.

Public process

Staff met with several advisory groups during the summer and fall while working to develop the Housing Conservation District. During Phase II of the process in 2018, staff will re-engage with the Housing Commission, the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, and the Planning Commission, and will undertake more comprehensive outreach with other community stakeholders including property owners, civic associations, tenant groups, housing advocates, developers, and others in the development industry. Upcoming Phase II meetings will be announced in the new year. For more information, search for "Housing Conservation District" on the Arlington County website.