Thursday, September 13, 2018
Katie Cristol is a resident of the Douglas Park neighborhood. She was elected to the Arlington County Board in 2015, and is currently the Board Chair. An education policy advisor with degrees from the University of Virginia and Princeton, she is concerned with a broad range of women’s issues, school policy, housing affordability, diversity, transportation, empowering opportunity for all, and the quality of Arlington’s community life. She lives near the Pike with her husband, Steve.
Interview by CPDP project director, Lloyd Wolf.
“I used to live in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, and now I live in Douglas Park. I’ve lived in Arlington about eight years. I grew up in the DC area, in Montgomery County. When I was leaving grad school, I knew I had an interest in public policy, especially policy surrounding human services and the safety net. I knew I was going to move back to the DC area, and I really wanted to live in a community where I felt like the policies matched my values and the things that I cared about. We picked Arlington for that reason. It was absolutely a conscious choice. I cared a lot about local government, and I knew there were choices in the DC area. There were different governments that had different levels of investment in the things I cared about, so it was very much a choice.
The diversity of your neighbors here in south Arlington is unlike almost anything else in the United States. You see it in the cultural experiences here. The art, the food, and there’s just a real sense that you get to know people from all walks of life. Not only people of different international origins, but there’s just a mix of ages here that you don’t necessarily get in other neighborhoods. What’s really special about south Arlington is that you get people from all different backgrounds.
I’ve always thought of the Pike as more of my neighborhood than my immediate neighborhood The kind of engagement that happens on Columbia Pike, the street festivals, or the outdoor movies, things like that, were more of the neighborhood events that I identified with rather than a specific neighborhood association, or even a block.
I am very interested in issues affecting women and families. it’s always driven my interest in government and policy. I was serving on our Commission on the Status of Women, most specifically working on a community response to sexual assault and for childcare affordability. The reason I ran for office was that I thought it was important to elevate those particular issues. Part of the reason was also that we had a crowded Democratic primary that year, and no women running. We had issues that affected women in our community that deserved some attention. I had never run for anything previously, unless you count running for elementary school president. I lost to a little girl who promised popsicles!
There are physical changes happening on the Pike. The subtlest and most transformative changes on the Pike are the investments in the streetscaping. The decision to bury the wires, all the utility poles, underground, makes it look like a place where people have invested. There have been some changes to the built environment. I think we’ve seen some redevelopment. One of the things changing most on the Pike, that most residents, myself included, can physically see with their eyes, but I know is changing the Pike, is that rents are going up here year after year. It’s getting more expensive to live here. That’s one of the things that worries me most, as someone who came to the Pike because I likethe people that have come from all economic classes, The loss of that is one of my biggest fears.
Our biggest strategy as a County government is to create committed affordable apartments. The County plays a role through land use and investment funds. It creates a permanent home for our lower income neighbors to live in, to know that they don’t have to live in fear of their rent going up every year, because it’s committed to be affordable to them. It also creates beautiful spaces for them, with the amenities that everybody wants.
Those are great, but they’re not enough, because rents are going up faster than we can build committed affordable units. There are a variety of other strategies that we’ve taken, including one that will have potential impact in Penrose, which is to try to preserve the remaining garden apartments that we have, by creating different tools and land use strategies that will make it more appealing for those landlords to invest in those garden apartments while still potentially keeping the rents affordable to folks. We have a really robust housing program that helps families that are lower income pay for rent. We’ve got a lot of fingers in the dam, but the tide is coming in.
It is possible we will reach a landscape on the Pike where even the thirty or forty year old apartments will have rents priced at a level that only people who make middle-class or higher incomes can afford. When you look at the history of the Pike, this has been a place where people who come often with almost nothing. It has been a place that has welcomed them, and has given them and their children an opportunity to flourish, to succeed. Being on the Pike means you can send your children to Arlington Public Schools, which are economic mobility engines. The quality of education is so good, the expectations for kids are so high, that kids who come from all kinds of backgrounds can grow and flourish. The schools are there to support your children to succeed. There is access to good jobs and to the transportation to get you to those jobs. For people who are strivers, whether their families have been in the United States for six generations or whether they arrived six months ago. The Pike is a community that is welcoming; the Pike has been a place for strivers. For it to no longer be that would be a real loss of identity.
I think what you’ll see more of in the coming months is a transportation infrastructure starting to come online. You’ll see more of the dedicated bus stops. These are not the million dollar stops. I’m really excited about this, in conversation also with CPRO as well as our economic development and our arts community, is how do you add some creativity to those bus shelters, whether it’s signage, or lighting. I think, I hope, that we can support a thriving retail market on the Pike, in an area that is still challenged. We’re a community that is sort of in transition between mixed-use and strip development. We’ve seen that some of our businesses do struggle, so having more transit-oriented development can really help people find their way to local businesses.
There are a few buildings under construction now that are committed affordable places on the Pike. These are places with committed to holding down rent increases, making sure they are places that families can go and stay and know that their rent will stay at a price that they can manage, is really transformative. It’s really good for kids and families. That’s done through the investment that the County makes along with Federal tax credits and committed affordable units. So about two blocks from where I live along the Pike you can see, for example, the Arlington Presbyterian Church is being redeveloped into Gilliam Place. Those committed affordable units are financed through a combination of County tax dollars and a number of other sources. Further down on the Pike, we had The Shell go up, working with AHC. I don’t think we are looking at an imminent loss of the garden apartments that have been so representative of what we think of as the Pike, that have housed so many of the Pike’s families. To my knowledge they are not immediate plans for redevelopment of those properties, but we do know that rents are climbing, so we’re trying to make sure that we have these apartments that are committed, where the rents can’t go up every year, because of the conditions under which they are developed.
We have a pretty robust affordable housing investment fund in Arlington. One way we develop that pool of money is when developers throughout the County wish to build more apartments than the zoning would otherwise allow them. They can say “I’m going to get more units than I otherwise would if and in exchange if I will either designate some of those units as affordable here on site, or I’ll pay money into the affordable housing investment fund.” We also contribute to it out of tax revenue, out of our budget. We use that money as a revolving loan fund. When a developer, usually a non-profit developer, especially one like APAH [Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing] or AHC sees an opportunity for a parcel that they own and would like to redevelop, they’ll put together their plan. They will come to us saying ‘this is really expensive to finance because we don’t stand to make a ton of money on the other side. It’s committed affordable.’ That’s where the affordable housing investment fund comes in. In exchange they make a commitment to the community. They will usually put forward that they will not charge more than thirty percent, or usually about fifty percent of area mean income [AMI], and we will keep them committed affordable.
We also discovered that a lot of our families are below 50 percent of AMI. $40,000 can still be pretty high, especially compared with other places across the country. So the other way support occurs is through housing plans, another County-funded program. It helps the renter match the gap between their committed affordable rent and what they can pay. I think about it a lot. We have these programs that are trying to bring some stability. People are working incredibly hard in this community. We see that you’re working out there, and it shouldn’t be terrifying year after year not knowing if you’ll be able to afford a place to rent. So we’re going to seek to build more committed affordable units, and we’re going to seek to provide more housing grants. They let you and your kids just focus on getting a good education and you focus on getting to work and taking care of yourself, without that fear. That’s one of the things I worry about as our community becomes expensive, that it’s becoming an uncomfortable place for lower-income people to live.
We had a series of round tables throughout the summer, based on the questions “how should Arlington grow? How are we changing? How do we feel about how we’re changing? What are we excited about?” It was a broad conversation. It did bring out some of the same folks we see frequently, but it also brought out a much greater diversity of people. Even if they’re not interested in weighing in on a setbacks zoning question, they are really interested in ‘how do we keep our diversity?’
I do a lot of ad hoc stuff personally, during my time on the Board. Every time I meet a talented young person or person of color that I know whose group is under-represented in all of our commissions and advisory groups. I follow up immediately, and show them our list of advisory groups, ‘let’s meet , let’s talk, let’s find one to match you with.” When people see themselves in positions of leadership, they’re more likely to come back. If you go to a transportation meeting and there is someone who looks like you, whether in my case it’s a fellow young woman, or an ethnic minority, or somebody whose first language isn’t English, you think ‘all right, look at this, we have a seat at the table. We belong here.” I’m a big believer that representation matters. When you can bring in good people who represent diverse voices in a civic leadership role, I do think it inspires the next generation to come after us.
I see a rising generation of Latino leadership in this community. So many of them came out of the Dream Project. Dr. Emma Violand-Sanchez tapped them saying “ I see in you a leadership position.” Now they’re in law school, in engineering school, and they are coming back into this community and they’re leading. It makes a big difference.
My dream for the Pike is that it will continue to be a place that welcomes in people from all walks of life from all over the world, and provides the kind of community through great jobs, good schools, good transportation, housing that is manageable in price – for them to achieve whatever the good life looks like for them.
That gets down to a bunch of policy decisions about how housing, about transportation, about placement. That’s absolutely the goal. The balance of course is that to revitalize means that generally you are driving up economic value. I think that’s sort of an iron law. I think to some it will always feel that as long as the Pike’s real estate prices are less than the rest of the County we are failing to revitalize on one hand. I know for some, as values rise, there’s going to be a loss, because that means that folks will be feeling the pressure, feeling the squeeze here.
I can see a couple of different pictures for the Pike. One is that revitalization doesn’t come, that we don’t see the changes we’re hoping to see in terms of getting better public spaces, or better supportive retail, or more units of housing and it stays more affordable. Or I can see a rocket fuel scenario where revitalization happens quickly, and even though were working on all those committed affordable units we’re not keeping up fast enough and folks get priced out.
I spend a lot of time thinking about cities around the world,. I don’t know that anybody’s figured out a way to get around that iron law. believe we are trying. I think we are creating a really great place to live, full of economic opportunity, that has a place for everyone and not just the wealthy. That’s my aspiration; I know it’s a shared one. It’s been one that has been shaped by people long before me, too. We really stand on the shoulders of the work that this community has done over the years.
There are a lot of issues about whether and how we can grow. I do believe that one of the biggest traps we can fall into is believing that we have the option to keep everything exactly the same. That’s just not an option. I think there’s a real temptation to say we should stop growing, pull up the drawbridge, nobody gets to redevelop anything. I hear the phrase “moratorium on development” often. One of the things that is really abundantly clear is that there is no faster way to ensure gentrification happens is to stop growing. DC is such an amazing example, where they have had the strictest rules against any new housing, like Georgetown for example, and Takoma Park - and they become exorbitantly expensive. They have become even more expensive than the places that have allowed luxury housing. That is one of our biggest challenges in Arlington is that folks who are soprogressive, who pride themselves on living in a community that is so diverse, who would never dream of being exclusionary on purpose, but who say stop building, stop adding new housing, which can functionally have that impact.
The planning process now, when you get a new site plan coming and we know we want the first floor to be retail, and we know we want to engage the street in a certain way, and there’s a certain amount of square footage that you want to wrap around the building, but what you come up with is a pretty large retail space that is very expensive. Your small music venue can’t afford it, or your paleta shop or anything else. We’d like to bring the creativity we’re using on the housing side, to let people allow people to turn weird little corners of their building into small showcases. At the Gilliam Place development there’s going to be a small corner that’s going to be a tiny café. I think La Cocina Virginiais fundraising to try to move in there. They’d be able to use that café for their graduates to pilot ideas
I think the physical spaces that we allow have a real relationship to the types of people who can thrive there. Whether it’s housing or retail or anything else. I don’t want to overstate the potential for flexibility to push back against the tide of rising rents, but I think it’s one of the ways that we might be able to get out of our own way, by using a little more creativity.
When real estate is cheap, serendipity flourishes. Funkiness flourishes, because people can take risks. An artist can afford a studio, I think about that Tacos Y Tortas that made the leap from a food truck into that little storefront by the Cinema and Drafthouse. Retail rent is becoming so expensive. That is my absolutely biggest worry. I don’t know what the next frontier is and the role for government in it. But we don’t want to lose the funkiness, right?"
Photography by Xang Mimi Ho.