Arlington Mill Residences: Throwing Money at a Problem

Arlington County has trumpeted the opening of the new Arlington Mill Community Center (AMCC) and the completion of 122 units of “affordable” housing at Arlington Mill Residences located nearby. But the price tag on Arlington Mill shows why the County’s approach to affordable housing isn’t working.

The apartments cost $31 million to build, which comes to about $250,000 per unit. The Washington Post reports that there’s already a waiting list of 3,600 people for those units, and families earning less than $64,000 per year need not apply, as most units aren’t affordable to people earning less.

According to the financial director of the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority (FCRHA) the cost of constructing an affordable unit in Fairfax County is about $100,000. So why did Arlington pay 2.5 times that amount even though the county owns the land on which the Arlington Mill apartments were constructed?

Arlington housing non-profit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH) got the no-bid contract to construct the units, and therein lies the problem. When non-profits don’t have to compete for business and County Board itself measures compassion in dollars spent rather than dollars spent wisely, there’s no incentive to economize, and both the taxpayers footing the bill and the tenants paying the rents are short changed.

If Arlington had a depoliticized housing authority like Fairfax County, it could shop around for a better price. Thus more people could be served at lower cost, and taxpayers and tenants would win. This should be a no brainer. Yet incumbent Board member Jay Fisette, who is running against Yours Truly for reelection, said at a recent Civic Federation candidate forum that Arlington doesn’t need an authority.

It doesn’t matter that demand dwarfs the supply of affordable units or that the cost of the few units built is exorbitant. All that matters is throwing money at the problem. So what will County Board do in the coming months when BRAC closures and sequester result in less tax revenue to throw around? Don’t count on the County to tighten it’s belt any time soon. My guess is that it will simply hike tax rates to cover the cost of its big ticket capital projects.

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