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Correction:

The original version of this story mis-identified an owner of several garden apartment complexes in Arlington. The owner's name is Ralph Johnson.

Columbia Pike housing: Can it really stay affordable?

January 18, 2011 - 01:19 PM
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Buildings like Penrose Square, which will include new, more expensive apartments, are the kind of developments that have come to the pike in recent years. 8 Photos
Buildings like Penrose Square, which will include new, more expensive apartments, are the kind of developments that have come to the pike in recent years. (Photo: Samuel Corum/TBD | Date: Jan. 18, 2011)

Like a lot of recent college graduates, Joe Onyebuchi moved back home right after he finished school, in need of a cheap place to live while he looked for a job.

A little over a year later, that decision is starting to seem less frugal and more foolish. Onyebuchi says the rent in the townhouse he shares with his father in South Arlington has gone up by “at least $200” since he moved back in 2009.

“I’d love to stay here … there are a lot of good opportunities here, and I grew up here. I don’t want to move away,” says Onyebuchi, who currently works as a financial aid counselor at American University. “But it’s becoming more and more obvious that if I don’t hit the jackpot, I’m going to have to move away.”

It’s a familiar story for residents along Arlington’s Columbia Pike, and one that county planners are scrambling to counteract. The area has the county’s largest swath of affordable rental apartments, but its growing popularity and rising property values are threatening to displace many of them.

A group of neighborhood representatives, developers, property owners, county planners, and consultants are now hard at work on the Columbia Pike Land Use and Housing Study, which they hope will result in planning guidelines that prevent the elimination of most of the Pike’s affordable housing stock.

The next month is a key time for the group, as they hold a series of high profile meetings, both along Columbia Pike and at George Mason University, to explore how to draft a zoning code for these areas that maintains the maximum amount of affordable housing possible.

“I see the people along the Pike, and I say, ‘God, what’s going to happen’?” says Susan Korfanty, executive director of Buyers and Renters Arlington Voice, an organization that helps represent Arlington tenants in housing matters. Korfanty recalls how she recently mulled all this while sitting on her back porch in the Douglas Park neighborhood, which backs up to the Barcroft Apartments — one of the largest affordable apartment complexes in the area. “I just had to say a little prayer, like, ‘please, let these people be able to stay there, and let these be affordable forever,’” she says.

The Columbia Pike corridor is home to nearly 9,400 apartment units; of those, 7,586 are affordable in some capacity. The majority, though, aren’t guaranteed to stay that way; they’re affordable because they’re in older buildings or they’re smaller apartments, so the rent, at least for now, hasn’t skyrocketed. These are the more than 6,300 apartments along Columbia Pike known as “market rate affordable,” meaning they’re affordable for families of four making anywhere from $62,000 to $82,800 per year.

The study group’s current goals include “retaining or replacing” 75 percent of Columbia Pike’s market rate affordable units with similarly priced ones over the next 30 years.

The majority of these units were built between 1946 and 1970, according to data provided by project consultant Dover Kohl. They won’t be around forever, and many of them would be prime acquisitions for large companies that develop rental properties.

“The preservation of the community is not theoretical. The market will change, and development pressure will increase,” says Inta Malis, an Arlington County planning commissioner and Columbia Pike resident who is leading the study group. “We’d like the opportunity to put some principles into place before the private entities start having to make decisions.”

In some areas, those fears are already playing out. Ralph Larry Johnson, who owns several garden apartment properties in Arlington, says he’s seen affordable units disappear during redevelopment projects even when there was an effort to maintain affordable units. “The existing garden apartments have a unique importance to this county, and what is happening, I don’t care what it says in the demographics, is that the demographics change significantly when you knock down half the units, and build new ones, or condos,” he says. “The environment totally changes.”

One of Johnson’s properties in North Arlington was recently assessed at $10 million. He’s been offered $20 million for it, but says he declined to sell because he wanted to preserve the character of those garden apartments. “It’s a lot of money to turn down,” he says. “But I like the older garden apartments, they’re sturdier, much better buildings than what you put up today.”

Arlington County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, who lives near Columbia Pike and has made the affordable housing issue there a hallmark of his agenda for the coming year, says the signs of these changes have been around for some time. “We were seeing threats to affordability 10 years ago,” he says, remembering the transition of Wakefield Tower apartment to Taylor Place, and then eventually to The Whitmore.

“An owner came in and moved everyone out, fixed it up, and then they raised the rent,” Zimmerman says. “And then they did it again a few years later.”

When Onyebuchi came back to his Columbia Heights West neighborhood in Arlington after attending college at Johns Hopkins, he “knew 30 percent less of the people in the neighborhood than when I left,” he says. “It was interesting to me.” And since the rent has been increasing, there’s been high turnover on his street. “On my actual block, six families have moved in and out,” he says.

So Onyebuchi is working with BRAVO and in his own neighborhood to get the word out about the affordable housing study underway on the Pike — he says he feels like a lot of his neighbors don’t have much input. “It seems like there’s not as much of an effort to keep minorities in the neighborhood,” he says. “I hope that’s not the case.”

But community leaders say that’s exactly the point of the affordable housing study. John Snyder, president of the Douglas Park Civic Association and one of what he calls Columbia Pike’s “housing and urban policy ninjas" that have worked on development issues along the corridor for several years, says that maintaining diversity of the area is a top priority for everyone.

“On our neighborhood conservation study that we conducted recently, the number one thing people responded in that survey was striving to preserve places where poor, working class, and middle class people can live,” he says.

“To some extent, bringing in more affluent people helps that,” he adds. “I think it can create opportunities. If you have people within a wealthier district, that can also bring along more rent, and now you’ve got the money to do more of that affordable housing.”

The question then becomes, as Snyder puts it, “with increasingly affluent people coming in, how do you do it without displacing other people?”

Zimmerman points out that recent new housing construction on Columbia Pike has consisted of a “narrow range of fairly expensive housing.” (Some examples, The Halstead, Siena Park, and soon, Penrose Square, didn't displace cheaper housing, however. Instead they were built in existing commercial areas.)

“If you do nothing, that’s what the future looks like,” he says. Establishing a system by which it’s profitable for property owners and developers to build, renovate, or preserve existing affordable housing will be a challenge, but it’s one he hopes to see Arlington tackle. “I’d like to see us set an aggressive goal, and don’t think that’s unrealistic, with the right combination of tools and commitment early on,” he says.

Pike residents like Sandy Steinberg hope the county is able find the balance and achieve the goals of the study. She says she’s already seen many changes in her neighborhood, some welcome and some not. “The Pike is rich in auto shops and drug stores, but there’s nowhere to buy shoes or a coat,” she says. “I hope the changes will benefit us all, without out-pricing us all.”

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  1. Sigmagrrl Sigmagrrl

    BJ Christine

    Jan 18, 2011 - 03:27:27 PM

    No one of modest means (ie a non profit worker vs. a Fed) can afford to live ANYWHERE safe inside the Beltway without compromising safety or privacy. It's ridiculous.

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    • yuppiehell yuppiehell

      Patrick Beatman

      Jan 18, 2011 - 05:26:07 PM

      Stop working for a non profit and get a job that pays the bills. Just Sayin

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  2. yuppiehell yuppiehell

    Patrick Beatman

    Jan 18, 2011 - 03:09:52 PM

    Sadly enough columbia pike is probably next place anxied for re development. Which means tearing down the current community to replace it with an affluent one. Its hard to stop what's coming, espically being close to DC. However I devised some easy ways to kwwp columbia pike affordable. 1). Race War - If the Watts or LA riots have showed us anything is that looting and burnig down businesses bring down property values. 2). Child Abductions - Kidnap a couple white kids and no one wants to live there. 3). Widespread Meth addiction - This is horrible drug that destroys communities. However, its mostly contained in the midwest because of their limited amount of access to harder drugs and its inexpensiveness. Though the widespread addicition to meth might take some re-branding and to make it sound more chicke. I'm sure there are some out of work marketing majors who can't find a job that can help out with this. The overall solution to keeping columbia pike more affordable is keeping white people afraid of living there.

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