Housing Conservation Districts: the Solution to Ongoing Demolitions

Comments at Arlington County Board Meeting on December 16, 2017.

I support County staff’s proposal to create a Housing Conservation District (HCD) consisting of the remaining affordable neighborhoods in the County, as well as the incentives provided to preserve the garden apartments therein.

Among the prominent members of the community who oppose HCDs are Peter Rousselot, who recently weighed in against the plan in his ARLnow blog.

According to Rousellot, HCDs aren’t ready for prime time because there are too many unanswered questions, including:

  • the legality of imposing restrictions on by right development;
  • the amount of affordable housing that will be actually be constructed;
  • the budgetary implications on the County; and
  • environmental impacts.

Rousellot concluded by asking rhetorically “What’s the rush?”

The answer to the last question is easy. Unless the County acts now, the remaining affordable units in Westover and elsewhere in the County will soon be history.

On November 7, the building manager of my Westover garden apartment building confirmed a rumor that this building and the one next to it on 10th Road are going to be demolished in early 2018. Rumor has it that several garden apartments on the north side of Washington Blvd. are also going to be flipped.

Thus as fast as staff moves to salvage affordable units, landlords move faster to tear them down. In this context, the question is not whether the County should act now, but whether the plan will work.

Given the profits to be made from flipping Westover properties, I suspect that most landlords will scoff at the modest inducements in the HCD plan to renovate rather than tear down their units.

County records indicate that the sale price of the three Westover garden apartments demolished in 2013 to make way for 20 luxury town homes was $4 million.

At $250,000 per unit, the cost of construction was $5 million. The aggregate sale price of the new town homes was $16.8 million. Thus the developer cleared $7.8 million on the deal. That’s almost a two hundred percent return on investment.

With profits like these to be garnered from gentrifying historic neighborhoods, I doubt that any inducement the County might offer could stop the demolitions ongoing in Westover. In a word the HCD plan is too little too late.

Neverthless I’m sure I speak for most Westover tenants in asking the County to delay the inevitable. Certainly eviction in the dead of winter is not a welcome prospect.

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