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August 19, 2013

Housing authority is on the November ballot in Arlington

Affordable Housing — @ 3:38 pm

house with solarJudge Bill Newman certified that the referendum to authorize the operation of a housing authority in Arlington for the first time is officially on the November ballot in Arlington County.

For voters, it is important to recognize the benefits of the housing authority will greatly outweigh any cost. The benefits of preserving what little affordable rental housing remains in Arlington accrue to the low income and working and even middle class residents who will be evicted from our community if the county government does not do something radically different and better from its current failed program.

It is difficult to precisely say what the cost and benefits will be since much depends on what the county board will authorize the authority to do and what funds and scope are provided by the county board. The referendum merely authorizes the county board to begin the operation of such a housing authority under state law. If Arlington follows the super effective Fairfax County approach, the authority will have no employees of its own.

The scale, cost, and scope of the authority would be up to the county board, subject only to state law and the U.S. Department of Housing. The county board could choose to do a lot or do a little; a parallel would be public schools where the county can choose to spend and do more or less. The authority is an agency of the county government, again much like the school board.

It however is a new approach never tried here, and given the abject failure of the county government to stem the loss of affordable rental housing, a new approach must be tried if indeed anyone earning under $60,000 a year will be able to rent here.

There are many benefits to the housing authority approach, particularly lower costs of providing and administering each unit over the current housing program. We anticipate that such an approach would reduce waste and duplication in county government and the many for-profit and nonprofit organizations that now provide the subsidized housing units. An authority can more easily raise the funds through issuing bonds as well as obtaining Federal tax credits than the current county program.

The current approach is opaque and disjointed, and generally more costly. There are many current providers of subsidized housing in Arlington today; the county government to date has been unable to tell us how many employees these separate organizations employ at public expense. We do know that the director of the largest provider, AHC Inc., is paid more than $230,000 annually, a salary higher than the school superintendent and the county manager. The high administrative costs of these government contractors are paid either directly by public funds or by higher rents charged to low income residents.

An Arlington tenant seeking a vacant subsidized apartment must personally go to each separate apartment complex even if the same nonprofit organization owns all these separate units. In Fairfax, their authority has a central waiting list and direct referral to tenants.

An authority–if it follows the example of Fairfax County authority–would have no employees of its own but use existing county employees to administer its operations. The citizens’ board of directors serve at no salary under state law. The authority would bring together Arlington county staff who work separately for affordable housing in the community, housing and development division with employees of the Department of Human Services so that affordable housing is provided at a lower cost to the public and more efficiently meeting the needs of lower income residents.

We anticipate that the authority can also issue bonds and obtain financing at a lower cost than the current county program does today. The authority will be eligible for Federal funds and credit guarantees not available today.

An authority can legally use public land and construct and operate rental housing. An authority could operate rental housing for public employees such as police and firefighters, the vast majority of whom do not live in Arlington. This is what the Fairfax Housing Authority already does.

Thus, we anticipate an authority could raise federal funds not available to the county today; be able to more efficiently borrow funds through bonds; and reduce the administrative costs of the subsidized housing units including the costs of both private groups and county employees. Lower costs mean that either rents charged could be reduced on these units or more units could be provided for the same total cost.