Roadmap to affordability

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

It’s been years in the making, but City Hall finally has a plan for tackling one of Alexandria’s most daunting challenges: the dramatic loss of affordable housing in recent years.

The city saw more than 12,500 homes deemed affordable for those making 60 percent of the area’s median income disappear in a 12-year span. And hardest hit was Alexandria’s stock of housing for its most vulnerable: Homes attainable by those making just 30 percent of the region’s median wage dropped from 10,374 to just 454.

At the same time, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment shot up 71 percent, while the average assessed value for residential property more than doubled, from $191,341 to $449,411. The area median income jumped as well, up to $106,100 in 2011.

The sudden crunch has put city leaders on edge. During the run-up to the 2012 election, affordable housing — and how to save it from near-extinction in Alexandria — came up time and again.

Last month, city councilors took a step toward stemming the tide, unanimously approving a master housing plan while setting a goal of saving or creating 2,000 affordable housing units by 2025. While the plan’s adoption comes after years of work, Mildrilyn Davis, director of the city’s office of housing, believes the real heavy lifting has yet to begin.

“It’s good to have it done,” said Davis, who oversaw the plan’s creation. “We have our work cut out for us now — we’re going to be very busy — but [there] is a feeling of relief, to get it approved and move forward.”

She describes the plan as a toolbox, a document that lays out known strategies for fostering affordable housing and encouraging homeownership. The plan also incorporates the framework for more innovative approaches to the problem — such as creating a community trust dedicated to saving existing affordable housing — but these ideas will take time to flesh out, Davis said.

“We had a couple of [the new ideas] at the beginning that we got adopted along with the plan. Others will take more time,” she said.

Among the immediate changes, developers are expected to give more toward affordable housing than in previous years. Tweaks to the city’s zoning ordinance also were included in the plan’s initial adoption.

And another alteration, which gives developers increased density in exchange for more affordable housing units, received the planning commission’s OK last week, sending it to city council for approval.

“We’re just trying to get busy and make things happen,” Davis said. “[Setting a goal of 2,000 units] is something that I think was gratifying to all the people out there who have been saying we need to have a target. Now the onus is on us.”

The response around town is largely supportive. If there is anything to critique, said Cheryl Malloy, it’s that city councilors held off on funneling more tax dollars toward the cause.

“A lot of initiatives in the plan talk about developer contributions and additional density that will get you affordable housing and that will get you closer [to addressing the problem], but the city is going to have to put money in this,” said Malloy, who serves as co-chair of ALIVE!’s affordable housing committee. “It is expensive.”

Finding the right avenue for spending taxpayer dollars on affordable housing has become a contentious issue on city council. An attempt to eliminate a set-aside — so-called because it automatically shunts tax revenue toward the cause — in the spring created a sharp divide among Alexandria’s top elected officials.

City Councilors Paul Smedberg and Justin Wilson have adamantly opposed any attempts to dedicate dollars to affordable housing outside of budget negotiations, when policymakers traditionally make tradeoffs for certain causes. Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and City Councilor John Chapman, on the other hand, have pushed at various times to boost affordable housing spending — in and out of budget talks.

“I understand what’s happening on city council, that they have to look at the budget each year and look at the other things they have to fund,” Malloy said. “Clearly affordable housing should be one of the things at the top of the list, but they have to deal with schools, with sewers, with a lot of other major capital issues.”

Like Malloy, Katharine Dixon, chair of the city’s affordable housing advisory committee and executive director of Rebuilding Together Alexandria, called the plan a start.

“As a committee, we would have loved to have seen more targeted goals and dollars assigned to the actual plan,” she said. “But … at least [city councilors] were willing to put a stake in the ground and at least say 2,000 [units] by 2025.”

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