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Housing still a dominant theme in County Board race

Arlington contenders push various ideas to address cost concerns

A cradle-to-grave, nanny-state support system to keep housing costs artificially low for Arlington residents?

The six candidates vying in the June 20 Democratic County Board primary didn’t go quite that far, but at a recent debate each of them seemed to be advocating for at least certain portions of it.

Individually, they pushed for a variety of strategies aimed at restraining market forces, which continue to push housing prices higher and which even fans of the Missing Middle housing policies enacted locally earlier this year acknowledge will barely make a dent in that trajectory.

“The price of land goes up every year. There’s really no way to block it and stop it,” sighed J.D. Spain Sr., one of the six seeking to become two Democratic nominees for the County Board seats being vacated by Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey.

Members of that sextet have been making the political rounds at a large number of debates, a tacit acknowledgment that the Democratic primary has become the de-facto general election in Arlington. Their stops included a May 3 forum hosted by the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

During the event, Spain suggested the county government investigate the possibility of establishing land trusts as one approach to addressing the issue of housing costs, while acknowledging there are pros and cons.

Contender Susan Cunningham promoted reuse of existing buildings and expanding tax-deferral options for senior homeowners who might find it hard to cover Arlington’s spiraling tax bills on real estate.

(Cunningham did note that “it’s hard sometimes to feel sad for someone who’s sitting  on a $2 million asset,” but still advocated for helping seniors put off their tax obligations until they depart their homes.)

At the other end of the life cycle – and stressing the needs of the majority of county residents who are not homeowners – candidate Maureen Coffey lamented the lot of herself and others trying to find rental units and afford spiraling rents in the county.

“I was outbid on rent by people willing to offer hundreds of dollars more per month over the listed rent price,” Coffey said. “That’s not sustainable for normal people. That’s not sustainable for me. That math does not work out.”

Yet in a state where private-property rights are sacrosanct and local-government autonomy is handcuffed by the legislature (no matter which party controls it at any given time), local officials don’t exactly have a lot of tools to work with.

But Arlington should leaders be more aggressive with the tools they do have, several candidates said.

Natalie Roy, a real-estate professional herself, said local leaders have squandered opportunities to aim big and acquire parcels, such as the former Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard and the ex-Key Bridge Marriott in Rosslyn.

“We’re a land-strapped county. When we have opportunities, we should be looking at them,” she said.

Doing so, however, could catapult the Arlington government in the property-development arena, something voters multiple times in the past have said they do not want.

In several referendums, local voters have turned down creation of a public-housing authority. The last time that happened, in 2008, it lost by a 3-to-1 margin, and the Arlington County Democratic Committee was among the groups leading the charge to reject it.

So at a certain point, and given the limited tools available, perhaps the best one could expect from candidates is words of comfort and a promise to do something – anything – to help.

“We really need to focus on every aspect of affordable housing,” contender Jonathan Dromgoole said. “Individuals are being pushed out.”

Candidate Tony Weaver pressed for more housing grants, especially those aimed at the middle-and-working-class families becoming increasingly scarce as Arlington continues its evolution into an enclave largely for the affluent on one hand and those living in subsidized housing on the other.

Weaver also pressed for higher salaries for county-government employees to help them afford housing in Arlington, but like the other five candidates largely was mute on where all the money to pay for all the collective largess might come from.

Early voting in the County Board race began May 5, although the bulk of the action is still likely to place at the polls on June 20. Under new instant-runoff procedures being implemented for the first time, voters in the County Board race (but no others on the ballot) will be able to rank up to three candidates in order of preference. If no candidates hit the threshold of votes needed on the first ballot, low-performing aspirants will be eliminated and their votes reallocated as instructed by their voters.

Because election officials will have to wait to fire up the instant-runoff process until after straggler mail-in ballots arrive, it likely will be at least three days after the polls close until Arlington voters know who actually has won and moves on to the general election.

Waiting in the wings in November will be independent Audrey Clement, a perennial candidate. Republicans and further independents have until late June to file ballot-access paperwork.