To the editor:
On May 12, the Alexandria City Council voted to confirm increasing the restaurant meal tax from 4 percent to 5 percent, and in turn, to use the additional funds to buy and maintain more low-income housing. Emotions are running high. One city council member has stated that “all other issues in the city, from infrastructure to schools, [are] secondary to being able to afford a place to live in the city.”
But providing housing has never been a traditional responsibility of local government. Commonly agreed definitions of local government responsibilities include maintaining roads, running schools, providing water and sewage, organizing fire and police services, establishing zoning regulations, licensing professions and holding elections.
Managing housing for residents is only a relatively recently assumed responsibility of select local governments. As the Washingtonian magazine recently reported, Fairfax County largely declines to operate public housing and manages less units of affordable housing than Alexandria, despite having roughly seven times the population.
Advocates point to the rising housing costs in Alexandria as justification for increasing amounts of affordable housing. This might be a valid argument if Alexandria was an individual community with few nearby options for housing. For example, relatively isolated Aspen, Colorado found itself in this situation in the 1980s when individuals who worked in the town had few options to afford local housing. But Alexandria is not mountainous Aspen. Alexandria is surrounded by a large metropolitan area with many opportunities for housing at differing price points.
Still, additional investment in affordable housing for Alexandria might be appropriate if all other higher priority needs had been addressed and the city was confronted with a budget surplus. But that’s far from the case. As we often hear, our schools are in dire need of capital reinvestment, and four of 16 of our schools consistently fail to achieve the most basic state accreditation.
Alexandria’s municipal debt continues to grow and servicing that debt claims an ever-increasing share of the city’s budget, in 2018 representing around 6.6 percent of the city’s budget. Perhaps most ominously, the recent openings of new nearby glittering waterfront retail areas at the D.C. Wharf and the MGM National Harbor pose an existential threat to the retail restaurants and shops of Alexandria, key contributors to the city’s annual revenue.
So how does our wise city council plan to meet this recent challenge? By raising the meals tax, making our restaurants even less attractive to visitors, potentially driving them to DC and Maryland.
Contrary to what some might believe, providing affordable housing should not be the highest city priority. Instead, satisfying resident needs for local government services and ensuring the long-term economic viability of the city must always come first. An increased meal tax for affordable housing meets none of those criteria.
-Tom Spoehr, Alexandria