Public Housing: City at a critical crossroad


Editors Note: This is the last in a series on public housing in Alexandria.

Federal funding cuts and a declining real estate market have converged to bring public housing in Alexandria to a crossroads, if not a crisis.

I am very concerned about those who live in public housing, said Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, who grew up in The Berg, one of the citys largest public housing developments. While it is certainly my hope for residents of public housing to move up to private rentals and then to home ownership, I recognize the fact that there will always be a need for public housing for some. As the mayor, I feel that we have a social and moral obligation to these people because they, too, are our citizens. I am particularly concerned about the elderly residents of public housing and those with disabilities.

Public housing for senior citizens and persons with disabilities
The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) owns one property built to house elderly residents and persons with disabilities. The Ladrey Senior High-rise was built in 1968 and contains 170 units. These apartments are set aside for persons over the age of 52 and individuals with disabilities. All must also meet certain income requirements to live there.

Willie Amos Holloway is the president of the Ladrey Tenants Association. He is 67 years old and has lived at Ladrey for six years.

Things have changed over the years, Holloway said. The newer tenants arent as respectful and not as willing to live by the rules as those who used to live here, and ARHA seems to have a hard time enforcing the rules.

One of those rules prohibits residents from having people live with them and limits visitors to a specified number of nights per year at Ladrey. People disobey that rule all of the time and nothing happens, Holloway said. That makes it more difficult for the rest of us.

Recently, many apartments at Ladrey were infested with bed bugs. We have taken care of that problem and are even exterminating in the apartments that were not directly affected, said A. Melvin Miller, chairman of ARHAs board.

Holloway would like to see ARHA hire a resident manager for Ladrey. Right now, we only have someone who helps people find jobs, not someone who lives here and who can deal with maintenance and other building issues, he said. That would solve a lot of our problems.

Most solutions to ARHAs problems require money. Hiring a resident manager at Ladrey costs money. Dealing with routine and long-term maintenance problems costs money. That is money that ARHA does not have.

The mortgage at Glebe Park is costing the Authority $65,000 a month, Miller said. We have been continuing to pay that while many of the units have been taken off-line because of mold and infrastructure problems. Also, the longer we wait to pay off the tax credit investors at Quaker Hill, the more that is going to cost.

We really cant afford to pay the mortgage on Glebe Park any longer, and the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could foreclose on that property at any time. We need the city to make decisions about funding for those projects and land use decisions on our proposal to redevelop James Bland and James Bland Addition.

That redevelopment would have paid for Glebe Parks redevelopment if our original plan had been approved. We have some other financing options but there are timing issues with most of those. We just need some decisions, Miller said.

Those decisions have been stalled since ARHAs application for low income tax credit financing from the Virginia Housing Development Authority was denied last spring. Before deciding on funding for the Glebe Park project, the Alexandria City Council appointed a Glebe Park stakeholder group to look at plans. The stakeholder group met throughout the summer and came away with, essentially, a split decision some liked ARHAs original redevelopment proposal; some wanted a completely different mix of market-rate and public housing units and others wanted even something different.

Glebe Park is also tied to the redevelopment of James Bland and James Bland Addition, properties near the Braddock Road Metro station and thus, attractive to Eakin Youngentob Associates, ARHAs development partner for the proposed project. Council has been reluctant to make any decision about these two projects until the Braddock Road Small Area plan is approved.

Also, any city funding is likely to be tied to an agreement to develop a strategic plan for all of its properties with ARHA, and to look at its general and financial management practices. Roy Priest is ARHAs interim director, brought on after William Dearman retired. The search for a permanent executive director is on hold for now while ARHA gets its current financial crisis under control.

Priest, a housing executive for more than 30 years, assessed ARHAs current status. Generally, ARHA is certainly doing as well as most of the Housing Authorities around the country, he said. I would say that maintenance here is actually a bit better than in some places and I would say that the over-all management is pretty good. There is always room for improvement and this Board is committed to making the necessary changes to make things better, he said.

The problem, however, is money. As HUD has made funding cuts, restrictions on how Authorities can spend money have increased. Also, the Authorities are still required to do maintenance on the same cycle. All of this costs money and there is less and less of that to go around, Priest said.

To find the best possible executive director, we need to resolve some of these outstanding issues, Priest said. If we do not, it is going to be difficult to attract a top quality individual. If we get things under control, I think it will be easy to find someone because of this area. Alexandria is a great location, close to Washington, D.C., and to all of the things that brings with it. But we must resolve some of these matters first, he said.

The Carrot, the stick and the stalemate
The person who said He who has the gold makes the rules was not a member of either the ARHA board or the Alexandria City Council. We control the money locally but we have little or no authority over ARHA, Mayor Euille said. Our only legal authority is to appoint ARHAs nine-member Board of Commissioners. We can encourage and we can negotiate but in the end analysis, all decisions regarding how the Authority is run is up to the ARHA board.

So, if Council wants to require a Memorandum of Understanding with ARHA that deals with strategic planning and management practices, were willing to look at that, but we are also looking at all of our other financial options, Miller said. Unfortunately, some of those options mean that we will have to raise the rents on some of our units and that will exclude some of the tenants who currently live in them because they will no longer be able to afford the rents.

Euille said he is committed to preserving public housing but is realistic. We dont have unlimited financial resources and this is going to be an even tougher year financially than last year. Council and the ARHA Board are going to meet next week to discuss a wide range of issues and I hope to arrive at a win/win solution. If we cannot agree, it could mean significant changes to public housing in Alexandria.

We are going to have to make a decision on Glebe Park in the next 30 to 45 days if ARHA is going to apply for tax credit financing this year. As to the rest, the Council is willing to work with ARHA. We have no wish to take over public housing. That was tried before and was not successful. We just want to make certain that there is a real partnership here, Euille said.