Upending the Power Structure

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It is an axiom of community planning that neighborhood homeowner associations wield considerable influence over development decisions in their communities. These households have a significant financial investment in the community, and their real estate taxes are the largest source of revenue for local governments. As a result, homeowners believe – rightly or wrongly – that their investment gives them greater leverage in final decisions on the types and pace of development in their community. And over time, NIMBY attitudes can develop and prevail.

That was the case in Seattle until a new initiative upended the conventional power structure and turned it on its head.

After decades of relying solely on Neighborhood District Councils made up of homeowner associations, the City of Seattle ended this exclusive arrangement last July and created a Community Involvement Commission. The goal of this new commission is to engage underrepresented communities that include low-income households, renters, and homeless residents.  A second entity was established to advise all city departments on policies that affect renters, and monitor the enforcement and effectiveness of the city’s renter protection laws.

With a growing affordable housing crisis and a significant spike in homelessness, the power dynamics in Seattle had to change. The old advisory structure which had been in existence for decades – white, more affluent and older – no longer represented the complexity and diversity of the city’s population. More importantly, decisions being made by City Hall did not reflect the input of all its residents.

Areas of Northern Virginia share some of the same changing housing tenures that exist in Seattle.

Our Housing Tenure is Changing

Jurisdiction Percentage of Renter Households
Percentage of Owner Households
City of Alexandria 56% 44%
Arlington 53% 47%
Fairfax Co, City of Fairfax, Falls Church 30% 70%

 The homeowner-dominated neighborhood councils in Seattle, as elsewhere, typically argue against land use changes that allow more density (in the form of townhouses and apartment buildings) in and near their traditional single-family neighborhoods. Often homeowners mistakenly believe that multifamily development brings an increase in crime or diminishes property values.  As the article states: “Including more renters and low-income people in the mix could dilute, or even upend, those groups’ [homeowners] agendas.”

As we look at the decision-making processes for land-use issues in NoVA, do they include the views of those who rent? Are we engaging low-income households and people of color? Have we considered all points of view?

Over the last year, several local governments adopted statements of inclusion, fairness and equity for all residents. While the purpose of these statements may have been to address illegal immigration, these proclamations speak to a purpose and intention to foster local policies and decision-making processes that support social and racial equity and access to opportunity for all residents.

Families and individuals may desire to be homeowners, but are unable to afford the high costs of ownership in our region. These renters are residents, they are members of our workforce,  and they contribute to our local economy. They deserve to have a more formal voice in local policy decisions on land use, transportation and housing affordability, so creating a mechanism for their input should be considered.

It would also be a good first step in implementing our social justice and equity principles that so many adopted last year.