Posted on November 10, 2014

Growing Pains: Multicultural Explosion Rattles Residents

Marisol Bello and Paul Overberg, USA Today, November 10, 2014

Take a good look at the scope and breadth of the ethnic and racial diversity in Northern Virginia, where students from up to 200 countries populate local schools.

Your community–and your schools–will look a lot like this within the next three decades.

The three fast-growing Virginia counties nestled near the nation’s capital–Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William–are at the leading edge of a diversity explosion sweeping the USA. Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics and Asians have moved to the area since the 1990s and account for 32% of the 1.8 million people in the three counties, triple the number in 1990. Blacks account for another 12%, and multirace residents, 1%.

But this rapid growth in diversity hasn’t arrived without consequences or controversy. Residents have been grappling with everything from a controversial policy to stop illegal immigration in Prince William to a housing squeeze that has pushed thousands of minority families out of Arlington. Fairfax wrestles with finding the funds to teach ever more students who are poorer and need added language training.


On the plus side, multiethnic families are boosting the regional economy by buying homes, opening businesses and shopping locally. They bring a richness of language, tradition and food that are evident in local shopping centers where African fufu–pounded yams, cassava or plaintains–can be had alongside Salvadoran pupusas–corn or rice tortillas stuffed with cheese, meat and beans–and Vietnamese pho, a noodle soup.

USA TODAY used Census data to calculate the chance that two random people are different by race or ethnicity and came up with a Diversity Index to place every county on a scale of 0 to 100. The nationwide Index reached 55 in 2010, up sharply from 20 in 1960 and 40 as recently as 1990.

All three of the Virginia counties topped the national average. In Fairfax, the index is 64; in Prince William, 69. In Arlington, it dipped to 55 in 2010 as some minorities relocated. It was the only county in Northern Virginia to drop.

The diversity boom here started in earnest in the 1980s when conflicts abroad, from civil war in El Salvador to a Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, led a wave of immigrants to the USA. The number of foreign-born residents in Northern Virginia rose from 177,000 in 1990 to 463,000 in 2010–27% of the region’s population.

And many of them are highly educated minorities, particularly Asians. Almost 10% of adults in the three counties speak an Asian language at home and have at least a bachelor’s degree and, in many cases, a high-paying job.

And those “highly educated, high-paying jobs also bring low-paying jobs because you need people to clean homes, take care of children, mow the lawn, these things come in tandem,” says the University of Virginia’s Cai.

So the new immigrants stayed. And had families. And more friends and relatives followed them. And they stayed, leading to a wide range of repercussions.

Fassil Berhe began noticing the trend five years ago: affordable apartments were being renovated or knocked down to make way for expensive luxury units.

He’d been in Arlington since 2000, hoping it would be the last stop in a journey that began when he fled civil disorder in his native Ethiopia in the late 1980s.


Berhe was making about $40,000 as a cab driver and his wife worked a minimum-wage retail job. So the family moved to nearby Fairfax County, where rents were cheaper.

Berhe’s family is typical of the one-in-five Hispanic and black households that move out of Arlington because it is too expensive, according to the county. Average rents have nearly doubled from $1,000 in 2000 to $1,900 in 2013.

The people feeling it most are blacks and Hispanics, who have much lower incomes. Black households in Arlington have a median income of $59,200; Hispanics, $62,500; and whites who are not Hispanic, $116,800.


The housing problem came to the fore in the late 1990s when a post-World War II housing complex called Arna Valley, home to 3,000 mostly Hispanic immigrants, was torn down. In its place came new luxury apartments.

And the trend continued as more high-rises and expensive townhouses went up. Wealthy, white 25- to 34-year-olds moved in and more blacks and Hispanics moved out. Census data show the combined black and Hispanic population shrank 7% from 2000 to 2010. The ranks of non-Hispanic whites grew by 16%.

The result is “a housing crisis,” says Mary Rouleau, executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, an education and advocacy group in the county.

County officials are offering tax breaks for developers who include more affordable apartments for families making $82,000 or less. The county also has a $12.5 million fund to build or renovate affordable apartments.

“We need to let people who are low-income have at least a chance to live in our community,” says J. Walter Tejada, a member of the Arlington County Board, who fought unsuccessfully to keep the affordable units in Arna Valley.

The county’s efforts have fallen short so far. Between 2000 and 2013, the county’s affordable housing program created fewer than 3,000 units. The county lost 15,000 units during the same time.

“It’s a losing battle,” says Rolf Pendall, director of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. “And it’s true all over the region.”

“If you want to see what the future of the U.S. will look like, come to any elementary school in Fairfax County,” says Ted Velkoff, a member of the Fairfax County School Board.

Weyanoke Elementary on the eastern edge of the county stands out. Located in one of the county’s most diverse neighborhoods, the school of 500 kindergartners through fifth-graders is made up of 15% Asian students, 30% black, 45% Hispanic and 8% white–and their families hail from 43 countries.


That diversity is reflected in Stacey Callaman’s second-grade class at Weyanoke. Almost all of her 21 students–like 65% of the school–don’t speak English as their primary language at home. That changes how she and her colleagues teach. She uses more visual aids and spends more time explaining concepts that are foreign to many students, such as what a prairie is or how farms work.


But that costs money. The district spends $3,454 for each student in its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, which totaled $66 million in fiscal year 2014. At Weyanoke, almost eight of every 10 students qualify for free and reduced meals.

Over the past eight years, the school district’s enrollment has grown by 20,000, most of them children from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. The district plans to add five elementary schools over the next five years.

The district faced a $190 million budget gap this year that it closed with $100 million in cuts and last-minute increases from the county Board of Supervisors. The district has no taxing power, so it relies on the state and county for funding.

It helps that Fairfax is one of the richest counties in the USA with a median household income of $109,000.