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It was a slightly awkward Internet date: Arlington County, armed with slang from its younger days, invited young professionals to a dim, stuffy bar to munch on chicken wings and talk about settling down.
Monday night’s government-sponsored party was marketed as “Housing4Hipsters”—which would apply to no one walking Wilson Boulevard in the vicinity of the Arlington Rooftop Bar and Grill that balmy evening—using graphics that organizers hoped would look more like a disco flyer than a housing ad. “W00t!” enthused a sandwich board advertising the happy hour, designed to inform first-time homebuyers and renters about the various government programs available to help them live in Arlington.
Inside, a crush of khakis and buttondowns lined up for raffle tickets at a table topped with mini-gumball machines; the buzz paused occasionally as a county staffer called out the lucky winners of a gym membership, Nationals tickets, a custom home mural. Posters propped against the walls bespoke a different era: In one, a cartoon Jimi Hendrix rocks out beneath a speech bubble that reads “100% Financing? It’s Copasetic.” (Yes, it was spelled that way.)
The whole hipster pitch might not have done the county any favors in terms of turnout. “I was like, ahh, I dunno…” says Manda Kowalczyk, 33, a skeptic who decided to come anyway to see what she could find out. She works in D.C., but figures actually living in the District would be way too expensive. So she might like to buy something on Columbia Pike, where she’s been renting since 2004.
Off-key jargon aside, organizers were thrilled: About 100 people had shown up to talk to lenders and housing officials about their prospects for deals on housing. That’s 100 people who might end up buying homes—and paying taxes—in Arlington instead of Montgomery County, Fairfax County, or the District—people who’ll spend money eating, shopping, and raising their children in Arlington.
All it takes is a little help up front with a place to live. Most young professionals don’t think of themselves as “low-income,” says Doug Myrick, the county’s homeownership coordinator, but because of the region’s sky-high median income—$106,000 for a two-earner household—programs available to people making less than that can actually reach a lot of folks just coming out of graduate school.
“If you read the national press, you’ll think you need super-duper-high credit scores and lots of cash to buy,” says Myrick. “If I can get a client with three to five thousand dollars, I can get that person into a home. Let’s say for instance, a young person coming out of Georgetown Law making eighty grand, they’re never going to call me. They might pay $3,000 per month in rent, instead of $3,000 per month on a mortgage.”
Because of how the region is divided into three jurisdictions with their own budgets and legislative bodies, that Georgetown Law grad is the object of fierce competition—or should be, if the governments know what’s good for them.
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Mocking an event calling itself “Housing4Hipsters” is easy. But the policy question most government officials and nonprofit types ask, after rolling their eyes over Arlington’s gimmick, is a tough one: Why should we offer our scarce affordable housing programs to yuppies? People who’ll never make more than $60,000 are already banging down our doors, and we don’t have anything more to offer them.
So most other jurisdictions in the area don’t do anything like what Arlington just launched. In Montgomery County, there are long wait lists to get into subsidized housing. In the District, funding for a program that provides loans to help buyers has been cut in half since 2007. And the D.C. Housing Finance Agency’s mortgage program, which is supposed to offer favorable rates through a network of participating lenders, is currently on hiatus entirely while they replace Bank of America as a partner.
Virginia, on the other hand, is practically giving away money to first-time homebuyers: As the cartoon Jimi Hendrix suggested, the Virginia Housing Development Authority offers loans with a 0 percent down payment for households making up to $120,000 per year. And that fund is in no danger of running out (even if buying a house with no money down brings on a troubling sense of housing-bubble déjà vu).
That, plus a 2005 law that makes developers support some affordable housing (either by building it or by paying into a fund for it), has kept parts of Arlington more affordable than trendy D.C. neighborhoods. Add in the county’s reputation for safety and good schools—which is irresistible for many young families looking for a first home to buy—and suddenly, the west bank of the Potomac looks pretty good. Under-35-year-olds have already been moving into the county in record numbers, says Arlington Community Federal Credit Union vice president Jim Wilmot, so why shouldn’t Arlington adapt its marketing to fit the customer base? “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” he says.
Now, Arlington is trying to cultivate its cool factor, too, something Lisa Sturtevant, an assistant research professor at George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, noticed at a recent economic development conference for the county.
“This idea of attracting the hipster crowd, keeping Arlington hip, was sort of a common theme throughout that conference,” she says, remembering talk of retaining local businesses and fostering arts and culture venues, like Artisphere in Rosslyn. “I think this happy hour is probably as much about that as it is about housing.”
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Even without the clunky lingo Arlington used, it’s difficult to imagine a hipster outreach program in the District, where fears of long-term residents getting pushed out by white gentrifiers—especially with a mayor elected overwhelmingly by long-term residents—dominate the discourse. Imagine the reaction: You’re trying to help yuppies move into our neighborhoods and take our homes?
At the same time, Mayor Vince Gray certainly views young people moving into the District as a good thing, at least from a tax revenue standpoint; he attributed this year’s $240 million surplus in large part to the kids moving in. As far back as the Williams administration, D.C. government officials have lamented, and tried to reverse, the city’s decades-long slide in population—something the 2010 Census showed has finally happened. Cities that seem to be stagnating aren’t attractive places for residents or businesses. How many people do you know who are dying to go make a new life somewhere in the Rust Belt?
So last week, Gray stood up in front of a bunch of young tech entrepreneurs and preened over the 17,000 people who moved here between 2000 and 2010, and expressed hope that the people listening would join them in D.C. if they hadn’t already. He just doesn’t talk about what they should do to afford a $1,500 studio apartment, or what those prices mean for balancing gentrifiers with other residents.
Quietly, some D.C. agencies are marketing the idea of living in the city. The Department of Housing and Community Development says it’s ramping up its efforts to pitch homeownership incentives to District employees, and the Office of Planning recently rolled out a pilot program that will match incentives from big private employers to employees who buy homes in the District where they can commute by walking or taking public transit.
Meanwhile, those people back in Arlington? Besides cost, they’ve got all sorts of prejudices about D.C.—it’s too crowded, too crime-ridden, too hard to park. I ask Elizabeth, a 25-year-old who went to American University and moved out after graduating, whether she’d consider living in the District again. “No,” she says firmly. “Until a lot of their standards are brought up, I wouldn’t want to live there.” By standards, Elizabeth (who declined to give her last name) explains, she means building codes—as in, she’d heard there were a lot of fires, and that D.C.’s apartment complexes might be unsafe.
Or take Hana Sarsour, 26, who works at the Navy Yard, but wants to be able to buy a single family house and still own a car. She likes being able to hit three grocery stores in an afternoon to get everything she needs. “I don’t know what it would be like to not have a car,” she says.
Maybe the types of people most interested in living in Arlington aren’t the folks who’ll be interested in the District anyway. It’s hard to convince a suburbanite that city living is for them. But D.C. also offers suburban-feeling neighborhoods that are still affordable, like Fairlawn and Riggs Park. Closer to downtown, it’s becoming easier to live without a car and spend the money on housing instead; Sansour could hit Yes! Organic Market, Whole Foods, and Harris Teeter in an easy bike ride. And unlike Arlington, D.C. still has that $5,000 tax credit for first time homebuyers that could make the down payment a little easier to swallow.
It might just take some more outreach, beyond a once-yearly housing expo, to remind them.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield
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