On Monday night, that situation became a little easier to understand for the more than 50 people who turned out for Agenda: Alexandria’s panel discussion on affordable housing in the city.
With funds and space growing ever scarcer, the battle is not to build housing that everyone can afford, but rather hold on to the public, subsidized and workforce housing units that already exist, according to panel member Melvin Miller, chairman of the board of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“What we’ve been trying to do is maintain the number of units that we have,” Miller said. “There are a lot of problems with building any additions: First of all, where would you build in the City of Alexandria? If you look in the city, there’s not much land available and what is available is extremely expensive.”
Miller said the waiting list for the city’s roughly 2,800 low-income units both public and Section 8 housing is now capped with close to 5,000 names in the queue.
The length of that waiting list is eye-opening for a city of roughly 140,000 people that has seen 25,000 properties become “unaffordable” during the real estate boom of the past decade, according to a 2009 report from the city’s Office of Housing but it’s not a total revelation.
Barring “something real strange,” Miller explained, “you would not come to the top of the list for three to five years.”
Gwen Menefee Smith, one of the three speakers on the panel, has made the most of those affordable housing programs.
Smith, a retired social worker, lived in public housing in the city’s east side before becoming a homeowner. Without that low-cost foothold, life would’ve been greatly different, she said.
“I probably would not be the person I am today were it not for me and my children having a decent, sanitary place to live,” she said.
Today, many of the same social programs that aided Smith as a single, divorced mother are no longer available.
“A lot of services that I needed as a single parent as simple as getting a driver’s license are not being provided any more,” Smith said. “It was the services in the community … service organizations that were very helpful.”
The third member of the discussion panel, James Michael Davis, had dealt not only with the issue of finding low-income housing in the past but finding any housing whatsoever.
A self-appointed advocate for the city’s homeless population, Davis is familiar with that life after spending many years on the street himself. As a single man, the opportunities to participate in public housing were severely limited because preference went to women and children.
And, though it’s surely not going to happen anytime soon, the panelists agreed, bolstered services and housing opportunities would not adversely affect Alexandria’s quality of life. Based on his own experiences, Davis said the least affluent in the population would not abuse the services.
“They’re not flocking from other cities and towns,” Davis said. “They just want somewhere to live other than under the bridge or in a parking garage.”