Editorial: Playing softball with developers

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(Cat VanVliet)

Developers want to exceed the density allowed in the West End’s Beauregard neighborhood by building 6,500 new apartments, condos and houses, and City Hall seems bent on realizing their desires. If it passed today, the plan would be at the expense of thousands of people losing their residences and a severe blow to what’s left of affordable housing in Alexandria.

Five giant developers including JBG and Duke Realty have the right to build what they want on their land if it is within legal zoning parameters. But to realize their vision of adding a mass of new housing units, the city must increase zoning limits. As city officials consider bending the rules, developers are salivating at the prospect. Why? Because to get what they want, they only have to preserve 700 units of affordable housing.

That’s the lopsided deal on the table: Developers will demolish more than 2,500 market-rate affordable homes and build 6,500 new ones. When construction is complete, the area will host about 9,500 housing units, mostly gleaming and new. In exchange for the city’s permission, developers promise to subsidize 700 homes to freeze the rent and keep it affordable, at least for 30 years.

But “affordable” is perhaps one of the most relative terms in the English language. Some Alexandrians can afford a Lamborghini while others can’t scrape together money for a Huffy.

So how does the City of Alexandria determine what’s affordable?

It starts with the annual median household income of the Washington area according to Housing and Urban Development: $107,500. Any household making 60 percent of the median income or less qualifies for affordable housing, according to the city’s definition. So a household making $64,500 a year or less is considered eligible.

Yet the 700 units being labeled “affordable” in the Beauregard plan are feasible only for households making between $59,000 and $80,000, according to the city’s housing department. The available units don’t reflect Alexandria’s housing needs.

Another problem: The city’s formula skews the local reality. Alexandria’s median income is about $81,000, far less than the regional figure. That means city households making $48,600 actually require affordable housing. Developer contributions don’t even scratch the surface of aiding Alexandria’s needs. The gap between reality and fantasy grows deeper.

There is a serious gap between what the city portrays as generous developer contributions and what is actually occurring. The gloomy facts are the city stands to lose 2,000 decently priced housing units and, more importantly, displace thousands of residents. At the behest of developers, Alexandria will become less diverse economically and ethnically despite years of lip service condemning such notions. City Hall should play hardball with developers and refuse to up-zone the Beauregard area under the current plan.