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What I learned from a local affordable housing planning process

On Saturday, Sept.19 I attended the meeting of the Arlington County (Virginia) Board when the five-member body unanimously approved an affordable housing plan and the associated implementation framework that will add thousands of new rental homes affordable to low-income individuals and families. This approval marks the culmination of a three -year community planning process, but also signals the beginning of the next phase, which includes the hard work of implementing the plan and measuring outcomes. The National Housing Conference, along with George Mason University, was part of the study team that conducted the housing needs analysis, collected data through surveys and focus groups, helped to develop policy options, coordinated community meetings and developed communications materials. At the end of the seven hour (!) board meeting—after testimony from more than 50 community members—I cheered along with the rest of the audience as five “ayes”from the dais set the path forward for affordable housing in Arlington.

Over the course of the 18 months that NHC was involved in the affordable housing planning process in Arlington, I learned a lot about how to draft and build consensus around an affordable housing plan. These are lessons, I think, that are valuable to other communities developing their own plans.
First, its important to have a common understanding of both current and future housing needs, and forecasts of need should be based on clear demographic and economic assumptions. One of the key elements of Arlingtons affordable housing plan is a goal of having 17.7 percent of all housing units (22,800 units) in the county be rental units affordable to households at or below 60 percent of area median income (AMI) by 2040. This specific number helped to focus efforts on households with the greatest needs. We developed these need forecasts based on clearly stated assumptions about demographic and economic trends in the region, and generated the forecasts independently and outside of a political process.
Second, data is very helpful to the process, and it is particularly important to have local datato help clarify the issues and respond to opposition. One of the biggest issues during the Arlington process was the geographic distribution of affordable housing in the county. The county was able to use its own data to display the distribution of affordable units in the past and where units would be in the future, given current land use plans and forecasts. These data and maps revealed that affordable housing in the county was, in fact, becoming more and not less dispersed. In addition, there were concerns raised about the impact on schools of concentrating affordable housing, with critics citing research on the benefits of deconcentrating poverty on school performance. The county made available data from Arlington Public Schools that showed that schools in neighborhoods with a lot of affordable rental housing performed better than many other schools across the county.
Third, community outreachthat happens early, often and at key decision making points is important for having community consensus at the point of the final vote. At the final board meeting, there were more than 50 people who spoke about the plan. Of the 50 speakers, there were only two with very modest objections. Nearly every speaker praised the plan and the process, and the surge of community support made it easy for the board to vote yes, even the two members who had had reservations early on. Small group meetings, large group meetings, online participation—these were all important to bringing the community into the process. But even more important was the opportunity for public input to actually have an impact on the planning document. County staff made it clear that they were listening to community members and not talking at them.
And fourth, the impact of storytelling cannot be overstated. If you have a chance, its well worth your time to watch just a part of the nearly two hours of public testimony at the board meeting in support of the affordable housing plan. Two main types of stories were told. The first was the “Mi Voz Cuenta (My Voice Counts)”storyline. Concerns had been raised during the process that the plan concentrated affordable housing and that would be a negative for the affordable housing residents themselves. But many residents stood to talk about the benefits they received from having lived in a subsidized home in the county, and rejected the concerns others had for them. The other set of comments during the board meeting had the theme of “I am your neighbor.” School teachers, college graduates and millennials with children all stood to talk about how they have benefited from a county housing program and to show that residents of affordable housing were good neighbors. Im not ashamed to say that I teared up more than once during the impassioned speeches.
Of course these werent the only things that made the plan and process successful. Arlington has among the most dedicated and hardest working local government staffIve ever met. They have elected officials with a long-held commitment to affordable housing. And they are a community that has as its vision that the county will be “a diverse and inclusive world-class urban community with secure, attractive residential and commercial neighborhoods where people unite to form a caring, learning, participating, sustainable community in which each person is important.” Arlington Countys affordable housing plan and implementation framework—and its process for making it a reality—can serve as a model for other local jurisdictions around the U.S.
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