As the calendar turns to 2017, I’ve been thinking a lot about optimism and hopefulness. Specifically: on what terms they are still possible for the year ahead, and how to believe in the best of what we are collectively capable, while preparing for the worst.
And so I found helpful a year-end interview with Steven Pinker, who described “the distinction drawn by the economist Paul Romer between complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents, and conditional optimism, the feeling of child who wants a treehouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one. I am not complacently optimistic about the future; I am conditionally optimistic.”
I am not starting 2017 with the complacent optimism with which we might greet an easy year; this will not be an easy year. Ahead are the budget pressures of WMATA and student population growth; the difficult and sometimes unpopular siting decisions to be made to ensure continued delivery of core services throughout the County; and a federal policy context that will make the work of County government and the lives of our residents more complicated in ways we cannot yet fully predict.
But conditional optimism is possible yet; that Arlington can and will be better than the national currents of pessimism and insularity. Here’s my commitment as a Board member, and my call to action for my fellow residents: In the year ahead, we will work to ensure that Arlington will still be a home for all economic classes. We will work to demonstrate that we are still a place that is capable of empathy even in the face of resource pressures. We will still be a County that models pluralism and democracy.
Economic Integration and Affordability
In an era of rising inequality, Arlington has put a stake in the ground for economic diversity. For the idea that the best of civic society – access to recreation, to fulfilling professional work and entrepreneurial purpose, to intellectual stimulation and excellent education – is not just for the wealthiest. To bring that lofty promise into the next generation, that requires a relentless focus on one, frequently-used word: “affordability.” With market forces all trending the opposite way, affordability takes consistent work and clear vision. 2016 was a year of such hard work, including the first test of principles of preservation and of distribution in the newly-adopted Affordable Housing Master Plan: quick action for nonprofit acquisition and preservation of affordable rental units in Westover.
We are not done with affordable rental housing (we are not even done with affordable rental housing in Westover). As we keep those efforts humming, however, I will aim to turn some of our public focus to the issue of childcare affordability. For me, 2016 was a year of gathering information and perspectives from providers, experts, property owners and parents; 2017 is a year to act. We have a range of policy options before us, including improving permitting and economic development support to help launch new providers; reducing our regulatory burden, particularly regarding physical spaces, in light of higher state quality standards for childcare centers; exploring ways to incent the creation of affordable spaces for childcare use in our planning policies. Working with our staff, my goal is to have initial guidance for consideration by my colleagues and the community as part of our FY18 budget process.
Similarly, thanks to efforts of community leaders like Affordable Housing Solutions, the idea of “missing middle” housing – forms like duplexes, small cottages and multi-plexes that can add more affordable ownership options in lower-density neighborhoods – is now growing in popularity around the County. As staff works this year on amendments to the accessory dwelling category of the Zoning Ordinance, I aim, along with my colleagues, to use that community conversation as a springboard to a larger discussion about how diverse housing forms can enable more socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods.
Resource Pressures and Facilities
Our facilities and land use needs are great in this small county. What keeps me up at night, however, is not whether we can find homes for a growing bus fleet, storage for snow vehicles, more seats for more students and recreational spaces that meet a wealth of needs – I am conditionally optimistic that all this is not easy, but possible. Rather, what keeps me up is whether we can do so while maintaining our sense of Arlington as a whole, rather than a balkanized collection of neighborhoods, lobby groups and causes.
It’s our job as County Board members to set the tone, and to create the structures, for community-mindedness. I’m proud of the Joint Subcommittee of the School and County Boards that Mr. Fisette and I stood up this past year with Barbara Kannenin and James Lander of the School Board, and the countless hours we spent on our very first job: Painstakingly reviewing dozens of resumes and applications to create a Joint Facilities Advisory Commission with members that were truly at-large, rather than just a set of voices for different competing interests and priorities. If these are the tent-pole initiatives, 2016 was also a year where we tried to live these values of collaboration and community-mindedness in small and occasionally painful ways. The decision of the Manager, at the Board’s urging, to go public with an unsolicited offer for a land exchange; the work to merge “County side” and “School side” planning processes for the new elementary at Thomas Jefferson.
There is more to come from us, as County Board members, in 2017, as we engage with the advice of and support the new JFAC, and as we make an unprecedented number of facilities siting and land acquisition decisions for one year.
This is not just about government and elected leaders, however. I hope our advocates and residents will join me in my new year’s resolution to be more empathetic in these debates in 2017. May we all challenge ourselves to do a better job to see our neighbors and fellow Arlingtonians behind the land uses and facilities that may not be our own preferences for a given site or for our neighborhood. To see not “bus parking,” but the exhausted Columbia Pike professional who needs some relief from the standing-room-only, overcrowded 16Y on her ride home from work. To see not just “baseball fences and bothersome lighting” but the squirming fifth grader who will learn self-discipline and teamwork on that field. To see not only the “wasted empty space,” but the senior citizen for whom fresh air and open parks are a prescription to treat his isolation and chronic illness. It doesn’t mean we agree on the best use for a parcel, or that we don’t fight to mitigate impacts, but let’s strive create the kind of trust and mutual respect that will allow us to meet our siting needs creatively and jointly.
Inclusion and Participation
Speaking of trust, in 2017, I am committed to keeping Arlington a community that models the ideals of democratic participation, where diversity is not decorative, but rather informs policy and governance.
For me, over the last year this has meant working with the leadership of the Latino Roundtable – new and old – to sustain a line of communication with the Board office established under our predecessor, Walter Tejada. Personal conversations allow us to hear the issues of greatest concern – such as the relationship with School Resource Officers, on which the Partnership for Children, Youth and Families helped host a forum; the distinctions between immigration enforcement and local law enforcement, on which I hosted a conversation in partnership with public safety leaders in October; or access to driver’s licenses for residents without documents, which my colleague Mr. Dorsey so capably led the Board to act upon. The year also saw us pursuing new ways of outreach, especially on social media, which was rewarded with new voices. This was reflected best in our short-term rental, or “AirBnB” deliberations, which brought renters into the fold and allowed us to re-advertise and shape a policy that addressed their concerns.
In the year ahead, I am committed to creating more fora for those who feel concern and worry about the rising tides of discrimination, threats of deportations and religious registries. We’ll have to do this in partnership with all levels of government – from the School Board to our member of Congress.
Similarly, 2017 will be a year to redouble our efforts to engage voices in new ways. In my outreach throughout 2016, I heard often that serving on Commissions and standing bodies is not the right avenue for every resident, and that many Arlingtonians are interested in not only their immediate neighborhood issues but also cross-cutting issues. Working with our new Director of Communications and Public Engagement, I look forward to launching a series of coffees focused on “big picture” issues targeting young Arlingtonians in particular, as well as exploring other models to tap the brainpower of Arlingtonians across different walks of life.
There is no easy road ahead. But here we find ourselves, not just with the ability but the imperative to aim higher in 2017, to protect what we value and to advance it. And aiming higher requires us to see higher, to look to what is possible yet, despite our challenges. I look forward to looking on the – conditionally – bright side of the year ahead with all of you.