by Michelle Krocker, Executive Director, Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance (NVAHA)
“Economic development” and “regional cooperation” are the buzz words in the news these days as business leaders express growing concern about our regional economy. Sequestration dealt the metro area a severe economic blow, and we continue to struggle in the aftermath.
Consider these statistics
Federal spending has dropped, both in jobs and in procurement. As a result, higher wage jobs in the business and professional sectors have declined. The Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University reports that from 2012-2013, the DC metro area had the lowest job growth among the 15 largest metropolitan regions in the nation. All of these trends point to FY16 as another difficult year for local governments to fashion balanced budgets that can adequately fund growing service needs in an environment of anemic property values, tepid job growth and rising vacancies in commercial office space.
But a few voices are emerging with strategies that would foster innovation, encourage business diversification and job growth and promote healthy, vibrant communities, and localities would do well to take note. In a report released in December titled “New Virginia Economy,” Governor Terry McAuliffe identifies five priorities to leverage and expand the state’s current assets to diversify and grow the economy. These include building critical infrastructure; diversifying and growing strategic industry sectors; promoting an entrepreneurial and competitive business climate; and workforce training to meet the needs of business and industry.
Affordable housing and sustainable growth
It is within the priority of infrastructure, that the report maintains the importance of affordable housing for the workforce, stating “Quality, affordable housing is a core component of sustainable economic growth. Housing is foundational for a high quality workforce, great school performance and health communities.” Key housing recommendations include:
- advancing economic and community development strategies that integrate housing initiatives including adaptive reuse, mixed-use development and mixed income housing and the preservation of existing affordable housing, and
- creating affordable housing that meets the need of working Virginians in areas where high housing costs impede economic development, productivity and the quality of life.
Where will our region’s jobs sleep at night?
To attract and retain new businesses, our region needs to provide housing opportunities that are affordable for a wide variety of jobs, with locations near transit and job centers. Cost of living that is too high can be a deterrent to new businesses that want to locate in an area or businesses that are considering expansion. Recruiting and retaining employees becomes a bigger challenge, and those businesses may seek other locations or regions that provide an infrastructure conducive to growth and expansion. Think Houston, LA or even Detroit.
The notion of housing as infrastructure is not new, but it is one that not all jurisdictions have embraced. Housing production creates substantial economic activity and jobs, and provides homes for hard working people who spend their paychecks in the local economy. And the outcome is that people who work in our community have an opportunity to live in our community. Now is the time to invest in housing, and we should capitalize upon existing opportunities that present themselves.
What needs to happen?
To meet our region’s unmet housing needs, we need:
- adoption of policies that promote both preservation and production of housing that is affordable
- land use policies that provide density near transit and job centers; and
- financial tools such as local housing trust funds and commercial impact fees to provide the gap financing needed for these developments.
As many suburban jurisdictions watch with concern the growing vacancies in older commercial office space, we need greater flexibility in our local zoning ordinances to be creative with adaptive re-use of these structures for a mix of uses that include mixed-income housing. Vornado’s partnership with WeWork, a national company with co-working offices in major metropolitan areas is one to watch. This project, located in Crystal City, will convert an aging, vacant office building into an innovative live-work space containing shared amenities, a sense of community and opportunities for collaboration in a residential building.
More than ever, we need to incentivize the private sector in this effort, as they will produce the majority our housing. Along with transportation, air quality and disaster preparedness, addressing the region’s housing needs should be an essential component of regional cooperation, and now is the time to come together on this issue.