Veterans are vulnerable to homelessness. At any given time, they represent 9 to 14 percent of the homeless population. According to the Military Times, there was a sharp increase in 2017 in veteran homelessness for the first time in seven years.
President Barack Obama was successful at the federal level to curb the number of homeless veterans; after redistributing funds at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of homeless veterans fell from 75,000 homeless in 2010 to 40,000 in 2016.
But veteran homelessness must be addressed at the local level, too. Arlington County effectively eliminated the problem in 2016, after launching a 10-year plan to end homelessness in 2018. But the recent surge in veteran homelessness nationwide predicts a reversal of that success. And it’s not clear if Arlington is prepared.
Despite good intentions, Arlington has not been reaching the goals for affordable housing set in its 2015 master plan. The city will have to generate 585 units per year in order for 17.7 percent of housing to be guaranteed affordable by 2040. In 2018 it was short by 70 units and in 2017, by 29.
Thankfully, the Arlington County Board unanimously approved a plan in February to redevelop American Legion Post 139 to include affordable housing for veterans. The timing couldn’t be better.
Board President Christian Dorsey said the project, developed in partnership with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, should be complete within a few years. In a related action, the board allocated a $5.79 million loan from Arlington’s Affordable Housing Investment fund to build it.
The plans for the project are impressive. The environmentally-friendly high rise will include 160 affordable units, built on a pedestrian-friendly campus within walking distance of Virginia Square Metro station. The current American Legion Post 139 will occupy the ground floor, expanded to include services for veterans. The units will be reserved for families and individuals earning from 60 to 80 percent of the area median income, guaranteed for 75 years. The design focuses on being non-intrusive, including a wall that shields houses from tenant’s headlights and green space that will be open to the neighborhood. Although some residents at the public comments portion of the meeting were skeptical about issues like parking and quality-of-life, no one wanted to shut down the project. Hopefully APAH will work with the community to everyone’s satisfaction.
Arlington’s plan is a good first step in the fight for affordable housing. Washington, D.C. is gentrifying more intensely than any other American city, and Arlington is following close behind. Buildings are shooting up, cranes are common fixtures and roads are constantly being detoured due to construction. Development is not necessarily bad, and new neighbors shouldn’t be unwelcome. But we can’t deny that one demographic is benefiting at the expense of another. With the American Legion project, the Arlington County Board has demonstrated that this trend does not have to be an inevitability.
Sarah Tascone is a freelance writer in the D.C. metro area. She’s also an Arlington resident who advocated in support of the American Legion redevelopment.