Official commitment to and investment in racial equity work can encourage public engagement. The creation of the Unity Council signaled to residents the City’s commitment to addressing racial inequities. The Unity Council differs from other community engagement initiatives within government both in its focus on racial equity and in the fact that it is resident-led and chaired by a respected community member. Between July 2020 and February 2021, the Unity Council hosted three town halls, eight public meetings, 15 focus groups, and 30 one-on-one in-depth interviews to solicit the public’s feedback on their experiences living in Arlington and recommendations to improve their community.
Transparency is key to accountability and can foster community trust. At its induction, the Chair presented the Unity Council’s timeline for engaging with the public and process for developing recommendations based on its findings. The Unity Council publicly posted agendas for upcoming meetings and town halls in advance. Residents were invited to email or dial into a conference call to offer their live feedback in direct response to findings or draft recommendations discussed by the Unity Council during the allotted times for public input. After each meeting, the Unity Council posted meeting video and audio recordings for public consumption.
Focus groups and one-on-one interviews informed the Unity Council’s recommendations in its final report. Subsequent updates, including progress reports, implementation trackers, and specific policy proposals presented to the City Council were all made available to the public.
Data provided a shared understanding of Arlington’s challenges and highlighted potential solutions. The subcommittees dove into quantitative and qualitative research to uncover drivers of racial disparities related to their respective focus areas. They identified and closed knowledge gaps with input from subject matter experts. With consensus on the city’s prevailing challenges, the subcommittees developed and aligned on targeted recommendations.
Setting timelines for goals improves transparency and accountability. The Unity Council designated each policy recommendation as short-, medium- or long-term. These designations helped the public and City Council understand what potential next steps would be. Short-term recommendations could be addressed immediately. Medium- and long-term recommendations required additional resources, more public engagement, or regulatory changes to implement.
Creation of the Unity Council
On June 23, 2020, Arlington City Council voted to commission a resident-led Unity Council “(1) to study equity strategies that the City of Arlington could implement to promote and encourage greater equality; (2) to gather community input on the need to use equitable measures to build greater equality; and (3) to report findings and recommendations to the City Council.” The Unity Council served for nine months in an advisory capacity with staff to formulate its recommendations. Its membership consisted of 15 members from the City’s Community Relations Commission and an additional 15 resident members appointed by the Mayor and City Council. The Unity Council produced a presentation about racial disparities in Arlington and 57 recommendations to promote racial equity, all of which the City Council accepted. After completing this advisory work, the Unity Council dissolved.
Research and development of racial equity recommendations
The Unity Council first convened in July 2020. From August and September, the Unity Council planned its public engagement efforts and studied the quantitative research sourced from the U.S. Census and the Arlington City Satisfaction Survey demonstrating racial disparities in their respective subcommittee focus areas. From October to December, they pivoted to conducting and reviewing qualitative data from 30 one-on-one interviews with local residents and 15 focus groups of various identities such as race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexuality, and youth. In January and February, the Unity Council reviewed and finalized each subcommittee’s recommendations to be presented to the City Council for consideration.
The Unity Council divided into five subcommittees focused on economic disparities; education and workforce training; housing; health and wellness; and police and criminal justice. The Housing subcommittee met eight times in addition to monthly full-Council meetings between August 2020 and January 2021. The subcommittee partnered with city officials, including the Executive Director of Arlington Housing Authority and the Director of Planning and Zoning, to better understand the local legal landscape. Guest speakers from the Brookings Institute, Inclusive Communities Project, multifamily real estate developers, civil engineering and landscape architecture consultants, and real estate brokerages supplemented this research. The collaboration and input from a diverse coalition of racial and ethnic backgrounds, ages, lived experiences, and professional interest groups, in the Unity Council’s estimation, strengthened the final recommendations.
The Housing subcommittee identified five overarching housing concerns:
- The city’s housing stock did not contain enough affordable and accessible housing for all income levels.
- Its zoning ordinance disadvantaged older neighborhoods for redevelopment.
- Zoning served as a barrier to developing affordable housing and sustainable, equitable communities.
- The city did not have sufficient resources for residents to learn about home rental, buying, and homeownership.
- Arlington neighborhoods did not uniformly represent the diversity of the city’s population.
To combat these challenges, the Housing subcommittee recommended:
- Establishing infill and redevelopment standards;
- Revisiting existing ordinances to remove barriers to development;
- Creating financial education programs; and
- Investing in affordable neighborhoods to increase access to services.
Presentation to City Council, Project Handoff, and Monitoring Recommendation Progress
In February 2021, the Unity Council presented its research findings to the City Council and put forth 57 policy and programmatic recommendations that seek to rectify racial inequities in Arlington. Short-term recommendations could be addressed immediately. One short-term recommendation was the installation of a permanent 10-member Unity Council responsible for tracking progress of recommendations and holding Arlington City Council accountable. Medium- and long-term recommendations required additional resources, more public engagement, and/or regulatory changes to implement.
The City Council agreed to adopt the recommendations and began delegating implementation to relevant city agencies. As of January 2022, seven recommendations are complete, 34 are in progress, and 16 have not yet been initiated. The City Council quickly adopted several program recommendations that did not require legislative action. Examples of completed short-term recommendations are expanding free Wi-Fi at public parks and libraries and hosting a job and resource fair in East Arlington where unemployment rates are highest.
Housing subcommittee recommendations were passed to Arlington’s Housing Authority, Planning and Development Services, and Chief Equity Officer. All Housing subcommittee recommendations are in progress. As of May 2022, the City Council is actively reviewing proposals for increasing housing density, including upzoning, legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and creating mixed residential zones. Despite unanimous City Council support for the Unity Council’s recommendations when they were first proposed, implementing many of the Housing subcommittee’s recommendations has proven challenging. The City Council has expressed apprehension that significant overhauls to Arlington’s Unified Development Code (UDC) standards intended to increase housing density would have unintended consequences. Councilmembers have also expressed concern that proposals to upzone would disproportionately benefit existing landowners without increasing housing supply and improving affordability in Arlington. Instead, the City Council has expressed a preference for adopting incremental infill and redevelopment measures to best monitor impact and mitigate harmful effects. Therefore, the City Council will host additional town hall meetings to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on these proposals.
Arlington’s Unity Council attracted significant attention for its institutional commitment to racial equity. In March 2021, the National League of Cities awarded the City of Arlington the 2021 Cultural Diversity Award for the Unity Council’s work. In its aspirational charge to create “an equity plan which includes strategies to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination and to advance unity in Arlington,” the Unity Council demonstrated the importance of robust public engagement and of a comprehensive, cross-sector approach to advancing racial equity. In its final Report, the Unity Council addressed the Mayor and City Council: “We hope that our work together, our struggle to reach consensus and our unity will provide an example to Arlington residents that it is possible to work with people who are different and truly enjoy the experience.”
Public support for and trust in the Unity Council fueled civic engagement, adding momentum and weight to the Council’s ultimate recommendations. Because of the Unity Council’s mission and the effects its recommendations would have on low-income residents and residents of color, public engagement of historically excluded communities was vital to the Unity Council’s efforts from the start. The process of translating these recommendations into policy is challenging and iterative, illustrating the importance of maintaining channels for public engagement not just in idea generation but throughout the implementation process.
- 2021 Unity Council Report, February 2021
- Residential Infill and Development Standards Focus Group Update, October 2021
- Residential Infill & Redevelopment Standards Focus Group Update, December 2021
- RIR Standards, February 22, 2022
- Presentation on Engagement and Public Open House with timeline for engagement and adoption, March 8, 2022
- Implementation Update, January 2022
- Arlington’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted March 2015