Housing master plan aims for affordability, balance

Housing master plan aims for affordability, balance

It may be a little more than a year away, but the City of Alexandria will finally have a comprehensive guide for development, with an eye toward one of its most fleeting resources affordable housing.

The city’s Housing Master Plan process, which wraps up next June, kicked off last Thursday. Given the course of the past decade, when the city lost more than 25,000 units of affordable housing, combined with city leaders’ aspirations for sustainability, digging deep into the issue has become an imperative for officials and residents alike.

“We’ve certainly lost a lot that will be very difficult to get back or to fully replace, there’s no question about that,” said Midlrilyn Davis, director of the city’s Department of Housing. “But if we don’t do it now, we could end up losing even more.”

Meeting once a month for the next 15 months, the team hashing out the goals for the master plan has plenty of fodder for discussion.

In the past, additions to the city’s affordable housing stock have been inconsistent and haven’t come close to bridging the gulf in affordable housing for Alexandria’s civil servants and non-affluent residents, city leaders have said.

Recently, the city added 44 affordable-housing and 20 workforce-housing units with The Station at Potomac Yard and 33 more at the Beverly Park Apartments in Arlandria.

Even with 84 more affordable-housing apartments being developed at Glebe Park, also in Arlandria, it remains a drop in the bucket.

Because just 15 percent of city employees live in Alexandria and make an average salary of just under $60,000, according to the city’s human resources department, commuters only add to the region’s traffic woes and the city’s concern for economic sustainability in the future.

The master plan advisory group, made up of the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and six other stakeholders, will delve into zoning practices, land use tools, how to fund new development and how best to allocate affordable housing around the city, according to its charter schedule.

“For the first time, we’re bringing in the land-use component and looking at various zoning tools that can help us provide affordable housing,” Davis said. “It’s covering really the gamut of all kinds of affordable housing needs.”

An initial draft of the plan is slated for release next March.

Michael Caison, chair of the AHAC, said he envisions the master plan becoming a blueprint for city planners and developers.

“I could see where the development community would like it just because it helps them map out what their plans are,” Caison said, citing added clarity on where high-density development can and cannot occur within the city limits.

Caison, a real estate professional, said he isn’t convinced that having such a plan 15 years ago would have made a huge difference in stemming the loss of affordable housing over the last decade.

“To some degree the city has been a little bit on the leading edge,” Caison said, noting its trust fund and one-cent tax to fund affordable housing projects. “Losing that housing, that’s market forces.”

According to Davis, while funding new housing projects remains the biggest hurdle, reviewing land-use practices should pay dividends.

“We’re trying not to leave anything unexamined in talking about how we go about providing [affordable housing] in the city and how we distribute it with as much balance throughout the city as we can,” Davis said.