Kudos to city council for holding a lengthy discussion on funding options for affordable housing during its legislative meeting Tuesday night.
The decimation of Alexandria’s supply of affordable housing for low and moderate wage earners over the past 18 years is one of our city’s tragedies. More than 16,000 units have been lost in a city of over 140,000 residents. Considering that families lived in many of those units, that’s a loss of residents potentially equal to about a quarter of our population at a given time.
When people whose jobs are in Alexandria – such as city employees or restaurant workers – can’t afford to live here, it exacerbates other problems like parking and traffic because it eliminates the possibility of people walking or biking to their jobs. It also erodes our sense of community when people can’t afford to live near their places of employment.
Our current piecemeal approach to creating affordable housing, a goal we’re falling further behind by the year, is a stain on Alexandria. It’s simply not good enough for our city government and elected officials to wring their hands and declare their support for affordable housing year after year without taking concrete, sustainable action on this issue.
We’ve said it before on these pages and we will say it again: budgeting is philosophy. It’s also biblical, as in “your treasure is where your heart is.” If affordable housing is really something near to the hearts of Alexandria residents – who are often rightly complemented for our generosity – then our elected officials need to find a way to make it happen.
Which is why Tuesday night’s discussion, which took place at the prodding of Councilor Willie Bailey, was so needed. Bailey and Mayor Allison Silberberg have both put forth specific proposals for funding affordable housing. Bailey’s would add a one percent tax to restaurant bills, bringing the local tax total to five percent, while Silberberg’s would be a voluntary contribution by restaurant patrons to round up their bills to the nearest dollar.
City staff also presented options that would fund affordable housing through an increase in the real estate tax, a personal property tax hike and an increased tax on hotel stays. Raising real estate or personal property taxes would require action through the general budget process, while restaurant and hotel taxes could be raised at any time.
There is no perfect solution to funding affordable housing and each of the proposals above have flaws, many of which were pointed out by various council members. To wit: – Bailey and Silberberg’s proposals single out Alexandria’s restaurateurs, while the hotel tax singles out hotel providers.
– Silberberg’s proposal has the advantage of being voluntary but the drawback of being unpredictable.
– Many restaurants operate on thin margins and Bailey’s tax increase could strain their viability.
– No one on council wants to raise the real estate tax rate in an election year, which is why City Manager Mark Jinks went to great lengths to present his proposed budget last week without a hike in the tax rate, though increased property assessments mean residents will still pay about $11 million more in taxes.
We don’t buy the argument put forth by Council or Paul Smedberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson against dedicated funding streams and funding outside the regular budget. Our city already uses multiple dedicated funding streams. In fact just last year increases in sewer fees and an extra three-cent hike in the property tax rate were dedicated to outfalls and
capital improvement projects, respectively. Affordable housing should have similar, dedicated funding.
No solution is perfect, but something needs to be done. Of the options under discussion, the one least impactful to local businesses that would still be predictable is an increase in the hotel tax, since most hotels are owned by out-of-town chains.
In the end, Councilor John Chapman had it right: any tax increase is part of our overall
budget. The “how” isn’t crucial in this instance. As the slogan goes, “Just do it.”