Why I Can't Afford to Live Where I Grew Up.

AuthorBirenbaum, Gabby


Growing up in the Lyon Park neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, I knew my house was the place to be. It was conveniently located between Clarendon, our shopping center, and my middle school, which meant that everything I could desire was a walk or a short bike ride away. Across the street from my house was a sledding hill so popular that you had to show up early on snow days to get in some good runs. I absolutely loved the place. My parents became first-time homeowners in 1998 when they bought the house, a four-bedroom, blue-green colonial about half a mile from the Clarendon Metro stop. I was born a few months later in Fairfax County, because Arlington's hospital wouldn't take my parents' insurance (a fact I resent with Leslie Knope-ian fervor), but other than that slight snafu, I grew up a proud resident.

I attended elementary and middle schools ranked among Virginia's best, with a financially, racially, and ethnically diverse student body. At my middle school's International Night, where students would bring food that represented their culture, the entire gym would be filled with the enticing smell of pupusas, samosas, and injera. After school, my friends and I would walk or ride our bikes into downtown Clarendon--one of the biggest downtown areas and Metro corridors--to peruse our favorite consignment store, have snowball fights at the park, and get frozen yogurt. (This was, after all, the early 2010s!) It didn't matter that we were too young to drive. Without having to rely on a ride, I could go to all of my friends' houses, to parks, stores, and restaurants, and even to downtown Washington, D.C., hopping on the Metro. If I hadn't been a gangly preteen who thought it was acceptable to wear water sandals to school, my memories would be truly idyllic.

Arlington was an amazing place to grow up, largely because it has rejected the rigid and exclusive aesthetics that give suburbs their notoriety. Its embrace of mixed densities lent it the walkability and diversity that fostered an amazing childhood. Once a sleepy backwater, Arlington County adopted prodevelopment policies in the years after World War II. As the county's population exploded along with the size of the federal government, zoning ordinances changed to permit multifamily housing along streetcar corridors and in the areas around federally built apartment villages for defense employees. Arlington's character as a suburban outlier especially took off after the construction of the D.C. Metro system, during which county officials successfully advocated for the building of two Metro lines to run through its commercial corridors, rather than expand highways. As part of those negotiations, the county struck what housing organizers refer to as a "grand compromise"--permitting high-rise development around the new transit corridors and zoning the areas beyond transit centers, sometimes as close in as a quarter mile, for single families. It's the perfect example of an anti-sprawl strategy that urban planners refer to as "smart growth." (Arlington's Ballston neighborhood, a downtown area only a mile from my childhood home, is even pictured on the term's Wikipedia page.)

I may only be in my 20s, but the county has changed significantly over my lifetime. As a neighbor to D.C. and the home of the Pentagon, Arlington experienced a 20th-century boom that brought with it a transplant population of mostly highly educated federal employees. As the military-industrial complex grew, so did the number of defense contractors stationed in Arlington, including divisions of Boeing, BAE Systems, and a number of specialized cybersecurity and military technology firms. When my parents bought their house in 1998, new homes were still affordable for young couples and families. The neighborhood was mostly populated by retirees from the military or federal agencies. As I was growing up, most of our neighbors were federal employees, consultants, or in the nonprofit sector, with new immigrant families settling in the neighborhoods to the south, where more multifamily complexes are permitted. But in recent years, the growth has gone completely gangbusters. In 2017, Nestle made Arlington its corporate headquarters; in late 2018, Amazon chose...

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