Streetcars Are Key to Retaining Affordable Housing
The following is a guest post by friend-of-the-blog and Columbia Pike advocate John Snyder.
Some folks seem to think that the way to preserve affordable housing on the Pike is to make it an undesirable place to live, so rents stay low. They worry that building the planned streetcar route on Columbia Pike will cause the loss of affordable housing. But their solution—to undermine the quality of life on the Pike—won’t preserve affordable housing. On the contrary, the streetcar system will be necessary to preserve affordable housing on the Pike.
Availability of high quality transit is not the only factor affecting the affordability of housing in Arlington. Over half of Arlington’s 6418 committed affordable units (3325) are in the Metro corridors, so good transit does not prevent affordable housing preservation. Nor does poor transit guarantee low rents. There are plenty of expensive places to live that have poor transit options. Note the hundreds of affordable apartments that are about to be re-developed in the Beauregard area of Alexandria, an area not served by Metro. Inflicting poor transit and traffic gridlock on the Pike neighborhoods will not preserve affordable housing.
For example, the former Concord Village Apartments (at Four Mile Run Drive and Walter Reed Drive) were converted into condos a few years ago, even though they are not on a Metro or streetcar line, and do not have bus service as good as that on the Pike. It was, and still is, very car dependent. Parking was, and still is, a big problem. Yet over 500 units of affordable housing were lost.
Other factors, like age of the buildings or internal business needs, affect a property owner’s decision whether to re-develop, or simply to raise the rent. Any property on the Pike in Arlington is within five miles of the job centers of DC, the Pentagon and Crystal City and thus can command higher rents than a similar building farther out. Even with the horrible traffic that will result from not building the streetcar line, an Arlington Pike resident will have to endure less of it than a Fairfax or Prince William resident, just by the Pike’s close-in location. Rents will go up. You just can’t hurt our neighborhoods enough to overcome their location advantage. Housing policy, not lack of transit, is necessary to preserve affordable housing.
The land use policy adopted decades ago on the Metro corridors—not the Metro itself--has been the primary anti-affordable housing driver in those areas. That policy allows high density development, encouraging re-development of land where affordable apartments once stood. Metro or not, zoning that allows larger buildings will encourage destruction of existing smaller buildings. The land use policy on the Pike is different, and is being reviewed with the specific goal of maintaining affordable housing. Additional density is being considered only as an incentive to preserve affordable units, but that density cannot be added (another 6000 apartments) without high capacity, high quality transit. Conventional buses are at maximum rush hour capacity now. Larger, articulated buses can only keep up with growing transit demand for 10 years, even if these 6000 additional apartments are never built.
Without the streetcar, the Pike neighborhoods simply can’t handle the density. The county’s best affordable housing preservation tool—bonus density—can’t be used. Without the streetcar, affordable housing on the Pike will be destroyed.