Saving Westover Affordable Apartments: Establishing a Local Historic District is the Necessary First Step
With the demolition of about 70 apartment units in Westover over the past two years, it is clear what the fate of the remaining market-rate affordable units will be in the near future: a bulldozer. For this reason, community activists in June 2016 filed a petition to the county government to designate Westover Village as a local historic district, thereby providing some protections against any further demolitions. The county HALRB is to hold a public hearing on November 30 to evaluate this petition.
Developers and some Westover homeowners argue against the historic district, and suggest other affordable housing tools be used to preserve the 400 units at risk. Unfortunately, the county has no other ways to stop demolition so this is disingenuous. In any event, the county cannot compel apartment building owners to sell to them or to a nonprofit. A nonprofit housing group APAH with county funding was able to buy 68 units, but 400 unprotected units remain under bulldozer threat.
The Arlington County Board approved in September 2016 an $11 million loan to APAH to purchase these 68 units in Westover for preservation as affordable units, amounting to $161,000 per unit. Then APAH says it will remodel the units at a cost of $188,000 per unit, raising their cost to nearly $400,000 each. This leaves 400 units at risk.
If the owners of the remaining 400 units were provided the same financing per unit, the county would need another $62 million in AHIF loans. But, the balance of AHIF funds is only $21 million currently after the latest APAH project, and thus the county is $42 million short. Thus, the county could not immediately finance the additional 400 units even if its owners wanted to sell right away.
Some affordable housing supporters say that historic preservation will not solve the affordability problem, but in fact this is disingenuous. If the apartment buildings are demolished, there is no possibility of keeping historic affordable rental apartments at all, whereas with historic preservation and the buildings preserved at least short term, then there is time to find means to keep affordable rents.
Longer term with a historic district in Westover, the county and nonprofits would be likely to finance gradual purchase of buildings as their owners decide to sell. The local historic ordinance requires that the owner of an historic building must first offer it for sale for one year at a fair market price before it can be demolished. Thus, a nonprofit or the county housing agency could purchase such a building.
Thus, designating all Westover apartments as a historic district under local Arlington County ordinance is the necessary first step if the Arlington County Board sincerely wishes to preserve affordable rental housing. The later and necessary second step will be to provide financial resources to later purchase units or to subsidize their owners who will agree to permanently keep them as affordable rental units as has been the case in Westover for the past 75 years.