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Amid Wealth, Arlington Struggles With Rise In Poverty

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Arlington County, with its super-low unemployment rate and consistent ranking as one of the 100 highest-income areas in the country, isn't the first place that comes up in a discussion of the effects of the economic recession on the D.C. region. Still, the economic downturn hasn't left the area unscathed.

Since the recession hit, Arlington has experienced a dramatic spike in the number of people living below the poverty line seeking help from the county government just to pay the rent, according to county officials.

The county is experiencing a growing number of people applying for the county's housing grant program, which provides rental subsidies for tenants of affordable housing units. "We're adding basically about 100 households every year," says Anita Friedman, economic independence division chief for the Department of Human Services.

"If you want to make these apartments, these affordable units, available to the really poor, there really is no other way to do it than to subsidize them," she says.

Demand has far outstripped the county's ability to supply housing subsidies to the very poor, and county officials are concerned that unless the program is expanded, they may have to institute a waiting list. Each week brings more people needing help, says housing grant supervisor Amy Yorczyk. 

"We see a lot of families who are really struggling to pay to meet their rental expense and other expenses," says Yorczyk. "And some have several jobs. They have other expenses, day care, medical, etcetera."

The program currently assists about 1,200 people who receive an average monthly rent subsidy of $536. Recipients of the program are working families with children, the elderly and people with disabilities. About half of the participants in the program receive a housing grant for fewer than two years, although one out of five participants stay on the program for five years or more. Some participants in the program make as little as $700 a month.

"The housing grant allows them to actually stay in Arlington, where it's a very hot place to live and rents are rather high."

County Manager Barbara Donnellan's proposed budget leaves more than 1,300 families without county assistance. Board members are considering a plan that would pump $2.2 million into the program, which would fill the gap, although that would mean board members would have to raise taxes or cut other programs.

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