City councilor finds inspiration in Prince George’s affordable housing law

By Erich Wagner (File Photo)

A new law giving Prince George’s County first right of refusal to buy multiunit residential properties for affordable housing could work in Alexandria — provided it’s backed up with cash.

A bill passed by the county council last week gives officials the right to purchase complexes with at least 20 residential units before going on public sale. The move aims to bolster the Maryland county’s affordable housing stock.

City Councilor John Chapman said his ears perked up when he heard about the proposal. He already has asked staff to weigh its viability in Alexandria.

And while Chapman lauded the new law, he admitted that convincing his fellow councilors to commit enough money toward a similar initiative would prove difficult.

“It really only works if you have the money to do something like that,” Chapman said. “I don’t know if there would be enough support on council to support buying any development on the scale of Hunting Point or Foxchase or something that massive.

“The city is really not trying to be in the business of owning property and having to maintain housing and property.”

Chapman raised the possibility of letting entities with outside funding — like the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority or local nonprofits — serve as a designee for the city to circumvent funding obstacles.

“It’s definitely an aggressive move, and I would definitely try to support it, depending on how we set it up,” he said.

Roy Priest, president of the housing authority, agreed that allocating significant funding for the proposal is necessary to give the law teeth. But he said it’s unclear whether such a mechanism would matter in cases like the Hunting Point sale, since it was formerly owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

“We did submit a letter of interest to acquire that property, but we were not successful,” Priest said. “I think [VDOT] would have been the ones who would have had to institute requirements on maintaining affordability on the property, and that was not necessarily done.”

But Priest highlighted a recent case in which his organization holds first right-of-refusal powers, which could make a positive impact on the community.

The housing authority is in negotiations with the owners of a church at the corner of Alfred and Madison streets, thanks to a provision dating back to when the organization sold the church land several years ago.

“We have advised the owners that we’d like to exercise that [first right of refusal] and have made an offer, and while they haven’t accepted the offer yet, we’re still in negotiations,” Priest said. “We’d like to turn it into a family resource center, carrying out events and providing a meeting space for local groups and organizations.

“[We’ve] thought about whether it’s possible to run a small daycare operation at that location, which is a critical need for a lot of women or men trying to get back into their place of work.”

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(3) Readers Comments

  1. There’s something called the Dillon Rule in Virginia, which does not exist in Maryland. The rule essentially states that localitiesonly have the powers granted to them by the state. Mr. Chpman and other Members of Council may want to see if the General Assembly has granted Alexandria and other municipalities the right of first refusal to buy multiunit residential properties for affordable housing before they make suggestions that may not be legal or workable. I doubt that the General Assembly has passed such a law, alhtough I could be wrong.

  2. Matt– The Dillon Rule would preclude city council from forcing “right of first refusal”, and I doubt that the General Assembly would ever grant that. But, what we could do, is work with the development community to have a voluntary “right of first refusal” provision for any developers or properties that would be interested in such a proposal. That’s what was meant when I said that I would support it,”….depending on how we set it up”.

    • Point well taken. The original report did not make that clear. Glad to have your clarification.

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