Letter to the Editor: Council should call the question for affordable housing

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To the Editor: 

Alexandria has lost more than 17,000 market-affordable rental homes since 2000 – a shocking 90 percent loss of the city’s moderately priced housing stock. These apartment buildings were the victims of sweeping market forces that have demolished older housing stock in desirable close-in locations throughout the region. In their place, we’ve seen an explosion of high-cost rental housing that is threatening to change the very character of our city, enabling only the wealthiest of households to live here.

As the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment approaches $1,700 a month, working residents with modest incomes, new families with young children and seniors on fixed incomes are being priced out of the city’s housing market. Our workforce in the restaurant and hospitality industry, healthcare workers, small business employees and many others struggle to find housing that they can afford.

As affordable housing opportunities diminish, their choices are bleak: pay more for rent, or move farther away from your community, job, church, school and services. We know that many families are paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent, with little remaining for food, transportation, medical expenses or childcare. Just ask the extensive network of nonprofit organizations and faith communities in Alexandria that form the safety net of services for these residents. Collectively, they provide almost $1 million annually for emergency assistance to households in need, with rental assistance being the number one request.

Our city’s economic well being, resiliency and valued diversity is being tested by this issue. The mayor and members of city council have spoken frequently over the past few years about the importance of affordable housing, but there is reason to question their commitment. While broad market forces have eliminated the vast majority of our affordable stock, it is the mission of a small, experienced group of developers to build
new affordable housing. However, this cannot happen without public sector investment in these projects. Multiple funding sources are needed for financing these developments, and local government dollars are a critical component in producing housing that is affordable to lower income residents.

Recently the Office of Housing made a presentation to council, warning that the city’s investment fund for known projects in the development pipeline over the next three to five years was an estimated $66 million short. Councilman Willie Bailey introduced a proposal to increase the meals tax by 1 percent, which would create a $4.75 million annual funding stream for affordable housing.

Mayor Allison Silberberg suggested a voluntary program where restaurant patrons could contribute to a housing fund. Additional strategies were presented, including an increase in the property tax. The conversation from council was inconclusive with no clear follow-up plan for further discussion or action, even as members spoke about the importance and priority of this issue.

In addition to the zoning and land use tools that the city utilizes to promote affordable housing, a source of funding to support this development is essential. Potential sources include a meals tax increase, which would be broadly shared and have a negligible impact on the customer; or a line item in the Capital Improvement Program that allocates an established amount of funding to housing production over a ten-year period.

Additionally, council could make a commitment of an annual allocation of general tax revenue to the Housing Fund. What is important is that the source be reliable, substantial enough to address housing needs and provided annually. It is time to call the question.
Supportive words are nice, but insufficient. Council must act now and find a way to address this important and growing need for our city.

– Michelle Krocker, Executive Director, Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance

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