By Derrick Perkins
Not quite a month after the election, West End residents Veronica Calzada and Hector Pineda sit at their table and wonder whether affordable housing will become a forgotten issue, discarded on the campaign trail.
“They have all of these promises, but once they’re in office, they ignore us,” said Calzada, speaking through a translator. “This is the same kind of attitude [taken] by other city council members in the past. They don’t seem to care. We are asking that they have a more humanitarian attitude.”
Pineda, president of the tenants association, studiously folds and refolds a scrap of paper while his wife speaks. He occasionally shushes the couple’s children when they get too noisy playing video games in the Beauregard corridor apartment they have shared for about eight years.
Since real estate giant JBG bought the property, rent has risen along with everyday fees, Pineda said. Residents struggled to make ends meet even before city officials approved a plan in the spring that paves the way for the neighborhood’s redevelopment.
If the increased cost of living doesn’t force them out, the new development outlined in the controversial Beauregard small area plan will, Pineda said.
City planners, working with the area’s major property owners, envision more open space, retail opportunities and traffic upgrades in exchange for increased density. But redevelopment also will mean the displacement of thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of residents.
Estimates vary depending on who provides the figures. Officials admit redevelopment will push out as many as 2,500 residents during a 30-year period but ultimately will preserve upward of 1,400 affordable apartments. Critics contend around 10,000 neighborhood residents will be forced out of the corridor.
At stake is one of the last bastions of naturally affordable housing in the city. In 2001, Alexandria was home to about 18,000 apartments deemed affordable — attainable by a family making 60 percent or less of the region’s median income — but the supply has dwindled to around 5,600 units this year.
The Beauregard debate highlighted the city’s delicate balancing act to preserve affordable housing. By offering incentives — like increased density — officials secured apartments for low-income residents. Those same units might disappear if landowners opted for by-right redevelopment, which officials have little to no control over.
“Development is going to occur if we do nothing or if we adopt this plan,” said Mary Lyman of the planning commission in May. “The city is very limited in what it can do.”
Pineda understands the mayor — or any member of the city government — can’t simply snap a finger and create affordable housing or prevent neighborhood redevelopment.
But they could try harder, he said.
“Where [is] the local government … to protect this community? I know they can’t do whatever they want, but they can also ask [for more],” Pineda said. “Let’s work together.”
While the Beauregard corridor debate forced the issue of affordable housing — and the lack thereof — into the city council and mayoral debates, Calzada and Pineda worry newly elected and re-elected officials will forget about affordable housing and the neighborhood.
“As residents, as human beings, we’re fighting for something that belongs to us,” Calzada said. “We live in this city; we pay our taxes here. I don’t want to move. I want to live here.”
Though they have faced the brunt of resident criticism for fostering redevelopment, city officials recognize the loss of affordable housing — natural and subsidized — in Alexandria.
They unveiled a multipronged strategy to staunch the bleeding Friday, the culmination of a years-long effort to draft a comprehensive housing plan. The blueprint calls for — among other initiatives — a mix of incentives for private developers to set aside affordable units; teaming with Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority and local nonprofits to rehabilitate units and fund new construction projects; and loans and financial counseling for residents.
But rebuilding Alexandria’s affordable housing supply will take time, said Mildrilyn Davis, director of the office of housing.
“One of the problems is that the market-rate affordable units, which we have no control over, have really been dwindling,” she said. “Anything we do, we’re playing catch-up. … We’re hoping to preserve what’s already there.”
A redevelopment project spearheaded by Arlington-based AHC Inc. on East Reed Avenue represents a lone bright spot. City Hall agreed to give the nonprofit a $250,000 loan in October, which will go toward erecting a 77-unit building — the largest infusion of affordable housing in recent memory.
The loan, which will only be paid back if the project succeeds, is a tactic the housing plan encourages, Davis said.
But officials learned about the potential sale of Hunting Towers — another bastion of naturally affordable housing — the same week that AHC’s project went before the planning commission. While redevelopment of the riverside complex remains unlikely, new owners could raise rents, officials warned when news broke about a buyer.
There’s little time to protect affordable housing in those shoreline buildings, Davis said, but given the lengthy schedule to redevelop the Beauregard corridor, opportunities to help residents may arise.
“Beauregard is going to play out over a very long period of time, and there may be some things in this plan that will result in more units that will [serve as] a replacement housing resource for some of those people,” she said. “We’re also working separately on Beauregard. Hunting Towers, we don’t know yet what precisely is going to happen, but we certainly will want to be involved in finding a solution.”
Organizing for the future
City officials, Davis among them, will host a series of town hall meetings to get the public’s reactions to the affordable housing blueprint, beginning early next year. But Calzada, Pineda and their neighbors want to keep the issue — and the plight of Beauregard residents — in the spotlight.
Joined by their neighbors, the West End couple protested outside of a Commercial Real Estate Association event in Washington honoring JBG in October. During the lead-up to the election, tenants handed out fliers at debates and forums, highlighting their struggle.
And they have more demonstrations planned, including an event Monday to coincide with Human Rights Day. The situation is growing desperate, Pineda said.
“We want to enjoy the new area — the new schools, the new fire station. I see the future, but I don’t think the future is for this community,” he said. “The community that lives here, I don’t think there is a future for our community.”