Thank you, Todd and Kate, and thank you to the Chamber for holding this annual event and for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.
I want to begin by expressing my thanks to our public safety personnel being honored this morning. I think we can all agree that this has been a challenging year for anyone on the front lines of public safety. On any day or evening, each of us may be in the position of putting our lives in the hands of our public safety professionals.
Please join me in a virtual round of applause for our public safety public servants.
In January, at the County Board’s organizational meeting I spoke of three themes for 2021—stabilization, recovery, and systemic equity. This morning, as many of us sit in our homes and some watch from your offices, we can be proud that we have indeed stabilized the health of our residents. We have a 0.6% test positivity rate and 1 case per day over the last 2 weeks.
But, before we talk further about our recovery and the year to come, I ask that we take a moment of silence to recognize that, even as we stabilize, we have lost 257 Arlington residents to COVID. For the families of those we lost, we offer our support now and always.
Please join me in taking a moment of silence for those we have lost and their families.
Moment of Silence
I would also like to acknowledge that this year was not easy for any of us. Our community – in fact – our nation – experienced collective trauma – not just in a public health sense or an economic sense, but because of the isolation we have lived through over the past year.
In light of the many challenges of the past year, and our improving COVID indicators, the state of our County is, finally, healthy and on the road to recovery. But if we’re honest, recovery is not all we are looking for. The state we have not reached that we must work to create: renewal.
As you are keenly aware, our business community – particularly our small business community – is looking for hope, but hope is not enough to make payroll. Our small businesses need our support.
Arlington Economic Development is preparing another grant program to help the business community as we look to mitigate the painful effects of the health pandemic. This has been a shared priority of mine and the County Board as a whole, as well as the County Manager. We all are prioritizing using the funds distributed from the American Rescue Plan to support businesses with 50 or fewer employees who are still feeling the effects from last year’s stay-at- home orders. More to come over the coming weeks and months.
BizLaunch is still seeing an increase in consultations from area business. It has launched its ReLaunch program, which assists small businesses with consulting and access to technology. Already more than 100 businesses have applied for the program, and work is underway to expand the program further.
We are seeing some signs of improvement in our economy as a whole.
Over past year, the State Department renewed its lease in Rosslyn, Microsoft committed coming to Rosslyn, Venture X opened a facility in Courthouse, Zebox committed to National Landing, and the County Board has approved numerous development projects that will drive economic growth and strengthen business and our economy in Arlington.
We’re hearing from our commercial real estate brokers that there is significant pent-up demand from tenants that delayed real estate decisions during the pandemic. Because of this, we expect to see deals increase beginning in Fall 2021.
We’re also seeing similar promise in our tourism and hospitality market. Occupancy is beginning to increase from the low 20 percent range to nearly 40 percent. Although that’s nowhere near the 80 percent it would be in a typical year, increased vaccinations are giving travelers confidence again, and Arlington Convention and Visitors Service has seen a definite increase in inquiries for events in late 2021 and early 2022.
The unemployment rate is also moving in the right direction. The April 2021 report had unemployment at 3 percent – significantly down from 7.2% in April of last year.
And of course, Amazon HQ2 continues to be a part of the conversation surrounding economic recovery. The company continues to meet or exceed its hiring and occupancy goals and has been a supportive partner to our small businesses. The County Board is on course to consider the 2nd phase of HQ2 later this year.
Right now, our office vacancy rate – at the end of the first quarter of 2021, stands at 18.7%, which is still up 2.1% from the same time last year. This concerns me, as I sought this office in part to help bring down the office vacancy rate. However, this outlook from our business community and pipeline of economic development projects both show promise, and I’m confident we can bring the rate down over the coming years.
So, there are many indications of economic recovery. What we have not yet realized is the economic renewal we want and need. Our economy is growing, but not as fast as at the start of 2020, before the pandemic, when Arlington’s prospects seemed unstoppable. And we still have more than 6.5% of Arlington residents below the poverty line of 13 thousand for one person and about 26 thousand for a family of four.
Health Equity, Recovery, and Renewal
Health care also reveals why we need to seek renewal over the coming year and not just recovery. The health inequities based on race and income in Arlington, like the rest of Virginia and the country, in COVID infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities are disturbing.
Our community made a commitment to work on these inequities. We worked intentionally to help all our residents with adequate access to COVID testing and vaccines by offering no cost clinics. We partnered with the Arlington Free Clinic and Neighborhood Health to help bring the COVID vaccine to underserved residents.
And our COVID response staff and volunteers spent tireless hours doing contact tracing, setting up vaccination clinics and more – often working seven days a week to ensure all Arlingtonians could be reached.
The dedicated volunteers of the Complete Vaccination Committee of which the Chamber and many of you in this virtual room are members – who were on the ground throughout our community almost daily – handing out flyers, doing registration drives, and offering information for those in our community who may have had questions or hesitancy toward the vaccine.
Due in part to all this work, I am proud to report that as of this week, about 2/3 of eligible Arlingtonians have now received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Renewal means continuing that work so that we get everyone in Arlington vaccinated and then moving beyond that to build a healthier community. Renewal means providing health care in a way that that is systemically equitable—focusing County resources on those people, organizations, and businesses most in need to help strengthen our community as a whole.
The pandemic has also shown us just how fragile the housing situation can be for many Arlingtonians, and we’ve made a commitment to ensuring quality housing access and affordability for all Arlingtonians.
Our priority on housing has been to make sure those in their homes do not get evicted. Families were struggling during the pandemic, and many of those struggles continue today. The last thing those families should be worrying about is whether they’ll have a roof over their heads in the morning. Arlington County has helped more than 1700 households via eviction prevention funding through Arlington Thrive and County efforts. We must and will stay committed to this priority, working with tenants and landlords through the recovery.
And our Housing Grant program, one that’s unique to Arlington County in supporting low-income seniors, working families, and Arlington residents with disabilities, is critical to help support and stabilize low-income Arlington households with their monthly rental expenses.
Over the past year, the County Board has allowed flexibility in the Housing Grant Program to help protect recipients, and we are investing in the Program to better serve some of neediest neighbors. Continuing to do so is part of what I mean by equity and renewal.
And we need to be sure that those in our affordable housing units have a safe and healthy place to live. Some of you are aware of the conditions reported at the Serrano Apartments. I’ve been to the Serrano and talked with residents.
I want you to know that we are working diligently to ensure those residents are cared for and needed fixes happen as soon as possible. This should not have happened. As a County government, I believe we must do better, make sure this is not happening elsewhere, and will not happen again.
Finally, on affordable housing, this year, the County will provide $16.9 million for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF). Over the last five fiscal years, the County has added 1,640 units to its supply of committed affordable housing for a total of 8,650 units.
Our commitment to housing in Arlington extends beyond those who rely on us for affordable housing support to housing affordability—helping our workforce, middle class and those working their way up the economic ladder. Some of you have heard me talk in the past about Housing Arlington, which is looking at several ways to help create solutions to our housing affordability challenges.
One of those ways forward is the Missing Middle Housing Study, which kicked off in October of last year. Hundreds of stakeholders have taken part in a series of community engagements to examine how new housing types – such as townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, and others — could help address Arlington’s shortfall in housing supply and gaps in housing choices by allowing additional types in more areas in the County.
Now, staff is preparing a Phase 1 Report, which the Board looks forward to reviewing in the coming months. Community input will continue to be a vital part to this important study in Phase 2 and 3. We hope to have recommendations for implementation sometime next year.
Those recommendations, along with our commitment to eviction prevention, Housing Grants, and AHIF are all part of a deeper commitment to housing that seeks the renewal we need. Simply put, Arlingtonians at every stage of life should have access to a safe and healthy place to live.
If you heard my remarks from our January meeting, you know how passionate I am about making sure everyone has access to adequate and healthy food. It’s something I think many of us take for granted, and the pandemic made that clearer than ever.
The number of households served by AFAC jumped 23 percent to more than 3,500. Home delivered meals to seniors saw an increase of 32 percent. Arlington Public Schools has provided hundreds of thousands of meals to students at 21 sites across the county for much of the past year.
I am proud to say that in April, the County launched a Food Security Task Force to develop strategies to help address hunger in Arlington. The task force is already hard at work to coordinate efforts with non-profits, faith-based food pantries, school PTAs, and local businesses.
Many of you have heard of the extraordinary work the Randolph PTA has done to serve students in need of food over the past year. For 56 weeks, the Randolph PTA has fed more than 100 families on Friday afternoons.
Not only that – now other PTAs are joining together to help – namely the Jamestown Elementary PTA. That kind of partnership is exactly the kind of collaboration and renewed spirit that we need as a community.
The Food Security Task Force is working on similar partnerships. I look forward to working with this task force to better serve Arlingtonians and to ensure no one is going hungry in our community.
Public Safety and Racial Justice
Another thing no Arlingtonian should ever question is his or her safety in the community. None of us could have imagined what took place at the Capitol on January 6. I offer my sincere thanks to our sworn officers who were called to duty that day to help secure our Capitol building and ensure the safety of our community every day.
Last year, calls for criminal justice reform and police reform were heard throughout the nation, including here in Arlington. These calls gave us—all of us—reason to pause and wonder if and how we can improve public safety for all who live in Arlington or visit, and those of color in particular.
I come to this question by respectfully asking all of us to see both how hard the job of policing is and to acknowledge that Arlington—all of us in County government—have work left to do to address racial injustice.
We posed this key question to our Police Practices Group, a 15-member citizen group that was appointed by the County Manager last fall. The PPG presented its recommendations to the Manager earlier this year, and ACPD and Arlington County are working together with our community to implement them.
Leading this next chapter of policing in Arlington is our new police chief, Charles “Andy Penn, who was appointed earlier this month. I fully support the County Manager’s decision: Chief Penn has committed to increasing training and diversity, is open to change, and is committed to transparency and accountability. I am confident our officers will work together to help him succeed and ask our community to support him and give him the opportunity to earn your trust.
Our police force is just one part of Arlington County Government that is currently being considered for collective bargaining in employment. This came before the Board last Saturday and we plan to have a public hearing on this ordinance next month. This is something a significant percentage of our public safety workforce, and County employees as well as our community have been asking for, for some time. I’m glad the measure is being brought before the Board for consideration. I believe we can and should enact thoughtful collective bargaining, serve our residents well, and be a good place to do business.
I want to turn now to Arlington Public Schools. In what is a wonderful sign of recovery in our schools – high school graduations are happening – in person – this week. But we need to think ahead – and ensure that as our schools plan for a full in-person reopening in the fall, that process is accompanied with a philosophy of renewal – an equitable renewal that ensures the quality education of each one of our children. As partners in that journey, I stand ready to work with the School Board to provide appropriate resources to make sure APS opens in the fall and is a strong asset to help Arlington thrive as a community.
And as we look at renewal, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to talk about our commitment to renewable energy and sustainability. This year’s budget invests new funding for electric vehicles and charging stations and includes funding for composting, countywide. Additionally, we are now working with the Manager on a “whole of government” approach to achieving Arlington’s Climate Change and Sustainability goals.
I wanted to serve on the County Board in part to get to 100% renewable electricity by 2035. Our work on sustainability and our fight against climate change must take on a new urgency over the coming year.
As we look ahead to the year to come – I want to thank you for what you have done the past year. You have stepped up as individual members of the Chamber, and gone the extra mile for fellow businesses, neighbors, and our community as a whole. And you kept doing so week after week and month after month for the past 15 months. That’s resilience. That’s persistence. And that’s the spirit we will need as we recover and work toward a new era of renewal.
An era of inclusive economic growth, of housing policies that enable all of us to have a safe and healthy place to live, and an era where we work to makes sure all Arlingtonians have access to food. An era of inclusivity through public safety for all and racial justice for all. And an era of sustainability through renewable energy and an environment that we all can enjoy for decades to come.
Let’s create a new era of renewal in Arlington. And let’s do it, together.