Public Housing: Cost or conscience

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Editors Note: This is the first of three parts looking at public housing  in Alexandria.

As Alexandria faces increasing demands for services and fewer real estate tax dollars, what will happen to public housing in the city? That question will take center stage this fall as City Council wrestles with what to do about Glebe Park and public housing in general.

Glebe Park is a 152-unit complex on W. Glebe Road and Old Dominion Boulevard. Its ancient plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning systems and mold in many of the units make redevelopment essential. A number of the units have been removed from service and others are likely to be removed as time passes.

The complex has served as a mixture of public, Section 8 and affordable rental housing since the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority bought it in 1987 to replace units that were lost in the redevelopment of Cameron Valley. Now, however, faced with a monthly mortgage of $65,000, ARHA must redevelop the property or risk losing it to foreclosure.

Last spring, ARHA, in partnership with Eakin Yongentob and Associates, proposed redeveloping the property and making all but six of the units public housing units. The Virginia Housing Development Authority denied ARHAs application for low-income tax credits, which would have helped to finance the project, and ARHA went to the city for help.

We asked for assistance because, if we cant pay the mortgage, there is a lender out there who wants his money and will foreclose on the property, said A. Melvin Miller, chairman of ARHAs Board. Somehow, we got into a whole other process.

That process began with a stakeholder group comprised of representatives from various housing advocacy groups and nearby neighbors. Some members of the group felt that there needed to be more of a mix of market-rate and public housing while others felt that there was such a need for affordable rental housing in the City, the ARHA/EYA plan was appropriate. Finally, there was a vote and a split decision, leaving City Council and/or ARHA to make the ultimate decision.
That decision will not only impact Glebe Park but possibly all of ARHAs properties. The city has proposed developing a master plan that will encompass all of public housing throughout the city. City staff has also proposed that ARHA engage in a strategic planning process to create a long-term plan for sustaining all of their public housing and publicly assisted housing units for the future.

The cost of the Glebe Park project will be somewhere between $2-$6 million, depending on which plan is finally approved. ARHA had originally planned to pay for the project with tax credits and with the sale of the land on which James Bland and James Bland Addition sit. EYA would redevelop these properties into a mix of public and market-rate units much like the development at Chatham Square.

This successful collaboration between ARHA and EYA has won architectural and public housing awards locally and nationally and is working, for the most part.
Timing, however, is critical. Without the money from the sale of the Bland properties, ARHA has no money to redevelop Glebe Park. The city wants to look at Bland in conjunction with the Braddock Road Small Area planning process. That process will determine density and, perhaps, proportions of public and market-rate units on the two properties.

We dont have to redevelop Bland. EYA has proposed redeveloping it to pay for Glebe Park. The ARHA Board is looking at all of our options because were not sure we have the time to wait for the City to make a decision, Miller said.

Thats not the only outstanding decision Council needs to make. Last December, Council approved a bridge loan to pay off the tax credits that financed Quaker Hill, a mixed use development in the citys West End. Here, publicly assisted town homes and condominiums are mixed with market-rate units. The investors have fulfilled their commitment at Quaker Hill and ARHA must pay them.

If the City does not give us the loan, we have other options but that means these units will be less affordable than they now are and will attract a different group of renters, Miller said. We dont want to do that but its an option. We are still negotiating with the city but the longer we wait, the more the buy-out is going to cost.

Public housing
There are approximately 1,140 public housing units in Alexandria. All of these units are owned by ARHA, like Annie B. Rose,  sits on land that is owned by ARHA, but is privately run.

In ARHAs own 889 public units alone, there are 998 families, including 1,055 children under the age of 18. People who live in these units pay an average of $400.30 per month in rent, 30 percent of their income, as required by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Most of the public housing units are in self-contained developments such as James Bland and James Bland Addition but there are scattered sites around the city and mixed use projects are increasing. The Fair Share rule requires that no section of the city have an overwhelming number of public units.

ARHA has a budget of $13.7 million a year and must maintain all of its units with that money and the revenues the agency collects from its various properties. In addition to the public housing units, ARHA manages several project-based Section Eight developments. These are developments that accept Section Eight vouchers, which are federally-subsidized, income-based subsidies for those who qualify. Units in these developments are market-rate but are rented to those who qualify for Section Eight. HUD sets the amount of the subsidy allowed, based on the income of the recipient. Recipients must then pay a portion of the rent and HUD pays the remainder. ARHA receives that rent from HUD, as well as an administrative fee for overseeing the Section Eight program.

Many of the developments were built in the 1940s,50s and 60s and ARHA has been replacing windows, electrical systems, heating and air conditioning and roofs. As these upgrades have occurred, maintenance needs have decreased. Six years ago, maintenance staff were handling around 15,000 requests a year. That is now down to about 7500. However, as costs of materials have risen, HUD subsidies for public housing have decreased. Next week, a look around public housing and the cost of maintaining the current number of units.

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