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            “Housing is a necessary of life.”

United States Supreme Court

Block v. Hirsch, 256 U.S. 135, 156 (1921)

(per Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.)

 

Despite the general recognition of the crucial importance of a good home to human development, tens of millions of low- and moderate-income Americans do not have the opportunity to buy or rent decent housing in wholesome neighborhoods. 

Exclusionary governmental housing practices (“regulatory barriers to housing affordability”), such as exclusionary zoning, are a major part of the problem. "State and local regulations are among the principal culprits behind the nation’s persistent affordability problems,” according to the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies. For more about those regulatory barriers, please click on EXCLUSIONARY HOUSING PRACTICES.

The Equitable Housing Institute (EHI) is a charitable organization that focuses on eliminating exclusionary housing policies in the United States, in order to reduce homelessness and poverty. EHI is the only national organization focused primarily on removing those barriers for all low- and moderate-income Americans. For more, please click on ABOUT EHI.

 

EHI ARTICLES

 

Amazon HQ2 in Northern Virginia is ahead of schedule,
but housing concerns are amplified by rising home prices

Amazon pulls out of negotiations for New York City headquarters amid widespread protests about its effects on housing, other issues

 

Prompt state and local approvals have put Amazon’s second headquarters (“HQ2”), in Northern Virginia, months ahead of schedule. Those operations began in Arlington County (a close-in suburb of Washington, DC) in June 2019. Amazon, a leading online retailer, plans to create at least 25,000 new jobs in Arlington and the adjacent City of Alexandria, by 2030—with an average salary of at least $150,000.

Amazon planned to create a comparable new headquarters in New York City, but the company dropped those plans In February, 2019. Among the factors in Amazon’s was strong opposition voiced by some groups and officials in the area where it planned to locate (Long Island City, in the Borough of Queens), based on the effects of such a development on housing prices and displacement of existing residents.

Similar concerns were raised in Northern Virginia, starting almost immediately after Amazon’s November 2018 announcement of its planned HQ2’s. Arlington and Alexandria officials have voiced confidence that those impacts can be managed effectively. However, there are growing indications that HQ2 could cause major problems of gentrification and resulting displacement of low- and moderate-income people in those areas.

“Frenzy” to buy homes near Northern Virginia HQ2

Home buyers and investors in the area near HQ2 “went into an immediate frenzy” after the November 2018 Amazon announcement (according to one Washington Post article). In June 2019, the Director of the D.C. region’s leading economic analysis group—George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis (“GMU”)—predicted a year-over-year increase of 17 percent in Arlington housing prices by December 2019. Some homeowners were pulling their homes off the market in Arlington and Alexandria, in response to the rapidly changing conditions.

A new, 65-acre mixed-use development to be built in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard, near Amazon’s HQ2, is expected to add to the pressure on housing prices. That development—including a $1 billion Innovation Campus by Virginia Polytechnic University (“Virginia Tech”)—will be quite close to what are now working-class neighborhoods, including the heavily Hispanic Arlandria neighborhood in Alexandria City. Given the housing price escalation that already is underway, major gentrification of neighborhoods near that headquarters, and displacement of many low- and moderate-income residents, appears inevitable.

Managing the housing challenges posed by HQ2

Successfully managing the housing-related problems posed by the Northern Virginia HQ2 will require unprecedented efforts by DC-area governments, and by Amazon. We have not seen a plan by any of those entities that lays out specifically how the problems will be minimized. There are some reasons for optimism, however. For example, there are:

One key part of the solution is for Northern Virginia governments to make full use of their authority to require inclusion of a certain number of affordable dwelling units (ADUs) in new, market-rate residential buildings. In addition, local and state governments should consider:

  1. Preserving existing low- and moderate-income neighborhoods near HQ2—if and where feasible; and 
  2. Devoting appropriate land, reasonably close to those neighborhoods, to suitable housing where their residents may relocate.

The latter approach could include well-established steps such as:

To read EHI’s full article on these issues, please click on AMAZON HQ2 HOUSING CONCERNS. (For background information, please click on EHI’s December 2018 article AMAZON HQ2’s BRING HOUSING CHALLENGES.)

Rapidly growing Loudoun County, in Northern Virginia, approves new Comprehensive Plan with much more housing than previously envisioned—as EHI urged

 

On June 20, Loudoun County, Virginia’s governing body (the Board of Supervisors) approved the first Comprehensive Plan in 18 years for that that burgeoning, outer suburb of Washington, DC. The amount of new housing that should be planned for was among the chief sources of debate during the 3½-year planning process, which included more than 100 public meetings. However, the final Plan (which covers the period to 2040) appears fundamentally consistent with the expanded housing demand forecasts by the County’s Planning Commission and planning staff, as well as outside experts—including EHI.

According to those forecasts, the county will need much more new housing than previously envisioned, in order to balance the tremendous job growth there by 2040. Loudoun anticipates about 110,000 new jobs by then—almost a two-thirds increase from 2015.

To balance that job growth, about 73,300 new housing units would be needed by 2040, based on the commonly-used standard of one suitable housing unit for approximately 1.5 jobs in the community. However, the county’s official housing forecast had been for only 45,800 new housing units—about 62.5 percent of that amount.

Failure to balance Loudoun’s enormous job growth with enough housing growth would lead to problems such as increased traffic congestion, development sprawl, loss of open space, housing price escalation, residents living in poverty, and perhaps even more homelessness—in Loudoun County and the Washington, DC, region.

Under Loudoun’s new Comprehensive Plan, the new housing will be concentrated in the urbanizing Eastern end of the county, near Dulles International Airport and the county’s two future Metrorail (commuter rail) stations. A substantial portion of that housing will be affordable to low- and moderate-income people, under Loudoun County policies.

Loudoun’s comprehensive planning process was spearheaded by first-term Board Chair Phyllis Randall. The county’s Planning Commission came out strongly for meeting housing needs, in its Draft Comprehensive Plan transmitted to the Board in March.

EHI has been involved in Loudoun’s housing planning for four years. EHI’s in-depth report on Loudoun’s Metrorail-related housing needs was submitted to the members of the current County Board at the beginning of their terms, in January 2016. EHI’s President, Tom Loftus, has been a member of the Loudoun County Housing Advisory Board since 2017.

EHI submitted written comments to the Board as part of the public hearing in April 2019. To read them, please click on EHI COMMENTS TO LOUDOUN BOARD ON 2019 COMP PLAN. To read EHI’s previous report mentioned above, please click on LOUDOUN’S METRORAIL-RELATED HOUSING NEEDS (2015). For further background, please click on EHI's other Loudoun articles, such as LOUDOUN COMP PLAN HOUSING ISSUES (Dec. 2018).

EHI recommends “leveling the playing field” for victims of economically exclusionary housing practices, by authorizing courts to require reimbursement of their litigation expenses by violators 

 

Stronger protections are needed for low- and moderate-income Americans, from the major and increasing problem of economically exclusionary housing practices—which include exclusionary zoning and other regulatory barriers to housing affordability. Those practices are prime culprits in Americans’ persistent housing cost and segregation problems, and they reduce the nation’s economic growth.

As documented on EHI’s website, a virtual consensus has emerged, among housing policy experts across the political spectrum, that those problems are so serious that broad-based reform of zoning and land use regulations is needed. For more about that emerging consensus, please click on EMERGING CONSENSUS ON REGULATORY BARRIERS TO HOUSING AFFORDABILITY.

EHI believes that, whatever shape legal reform ultimately takes, a key ingredient should be an individual right by persons who suffer the adverse effects of those discriminatory, exclusionary practices to take legal action to have them corrected. Such a personal right is included in the federal Fair Housing Act and in numerous other, major civil rights laws. So too is authority for a court to order reimbursement of the victims’ necessary legal expenses by those found to have violated them..

Litigation fees and costs often amount to hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of dollars. “Fee-shifting” statutes make it feasible for Americans generally to defend their legal rights, regardless of their level of income or wealth. Indications are that those statutes are getting results.

The Fair Housing Act applies to economically exclusionary housing practices that have a demonstrable, “disparate impact” on members of a racial minority or other protected group. However, that statute is not designed to solve the general problem of economically exclusionary housing practices. The major increase in residential segregation by income level in America over the 50 years since that statute took effect suggests the statute’s limitations.

EHI published an extensive memorandum in June 2019 that summarizes:

  1. The increasing housing affordability problems of low- and moderate-income Americans; 
  2. The mounting interference of economically exclusionary housing practices with American economic growth;
  3. The increasing residential isolation of Americans by income level in recent decades, while residential isolation by race has been diminishing;
  4. The much stronger legal protections that exist against racial and certain other forms of discrimination, than against economically exclusionary housing practices generally; 
  5. Provisions of major civil rights laws and related statutes for reimbursement of victims’ necessary legal expenses by those found in violation; and
  6. The financial barriers faced by low- and moderate-income victims of economically exclusionary housing practices, due to the courts’ lack of such a provision for proven victims unlawful, exclusionary housing practices generally.

 To access EHI’s memorandum, please click on LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD FOR VICTIMS OF UNLAWFUL, EXCLUSIONARY HOUSING PRACTICES.

 Pursuing “win/win” solutions with current residents, to resolve concerns about permitting needed, new housing in their area

 

Residents’ resistance to permitting new housing in their area is probably the chief, underlying obstacle to creating enough housing in the right places, suitable for the low- and moderate-income people who need it. That resistance—often called NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) sentiment—is quite powerful, because the local officials responsible for decisions on housing issues are either elected by those residents, or appointed by elected officials.

Any new housing development, or any other land use that has potential side-effects on existing residents, will get a predictable response from those residents: “How will the development impact me and my family?”

Residents in the area may have a myriad of concerns. Typically, among the biggest worries are the risks of increased traffic congestion, loss of open space, lower property values, and/or higher taxes resulting from the development. Such adverse impacts generally can be avoided, but doing so takes careful planning and follow-through.

The surest way to overcome the NIMBY syndrome is to make sure that the vast majority of people in the area understand that the benefits that will flow to them and their community from the new development will outweigh whatever costs and impacts they are likely to experience. It appears that such a “win/win” solution often can be achieved through: (1) sufficient analysis and explanation to residents of the actual facts, combined with (2) a reasonably supportive attitude by the local government.

For example, the local government often can provide assurances pro-actively, early on, that it can commit adequate funding to make the needed infrastructure improvements (roads, schools, and other public services)—without heaping new tax burdens on current residents. The necessary public funding usually can be supplied from the increased tax revenue generated by new development overall, including commercial growth (such as new office, retail, and industrial development). Commercial growth typically provides a great deal of net tax revenue to the locality.

For more about strategies for overcoming the NIMBY syndrome, please click on PURSUING “WIN/WIN” SOLUTIONS TO MEETING HOUSING NEEDS.

 

MORE EHI ARTICLES

 

 

Equitable Housing Institute

P.O. Box 1402

Vienna, VA 22183