EDITORIAL: Upping the ante on affordable housing

(Photo/File Photo)

For months, if not years, we have urged our elected leaders to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to the city’s rapidly disappearing supply of affordable housing. There have been a few steps in the right direction — most notably for giving AHC Inc. financial support last year for the construction of a 78-unit building along East Reed Avenue, a complex dedicated to affordable apartments.

But in a city where towering cranes provide everyday reminders of gentrification, there’s always more work to be done to protect our most vulnerable residents and our much-touted diversity.

Thankfully, we got another positive sign this week from John Chapman.

The first-time city councilor expressed interest in the news that nearby Prince George’s County had enacted a law that gives municipal officials the first right of refusal to buy residential property and buildings, which then will be set aside for affordable housing. Chapman already has directed city staff to examine the possibility of replicating the law in Alexandria.

While the prospect of City Hall scooping up high-priced property left and right might leave some readers questioning our financial sanity, we believe there are a few safeguards and potential financial maneuvers to assuage the fears of even a strict fiscal conservative.

For one, first right of refusal can’t set the stage for a city council-led spending spree. Our elected officials — as well as our civically engaged residents — know Alexandria is staring down a slew of capital projects in the coming years. There won’t be a lot of money left over for massive land grabs.

And to ensure private property owners don’t see their land snapped up at a price far below market value, we believe any such legislation could include a provision that requires an independent assessment of property value. Real estate agents often do this before settling on a building’s price. City Hall could easily emulate this system to guarantee fair play.

Lastly, we imagine the city, which is not designed to serve as a landlord, can find a way to transfer the property to a third-party — a nonprofit like AHC or the Alexandria Housing and Redevelopment Authority — with a portion of future rents redirected toward paying off any debt accrued from the original purchase.

Most importantly, though, such legislation would prove whether our elected officials truly believe affordable housing — and Alexandria’s lack thereof — is a problem worth tackling. There was a lot of talk about the city’s dearth of inexpensive housing in the lead-up to November’s elections.

Enacting legislation similar to that of Prince George’s County would show that our city councilors believe affordable housing is worth saving.

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