Our View: Wanted: More low-income housing

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A resident speaks with Carrie Beach, deputy director in the Department of Planning and Zoning, during the Route 1 South Housing Affordability Strategy's charrette week, where residents and stakeholders weighed in on different aspects of the plan. (Photo Credit: Richard Lawrence)
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Housing affordability is an issue that continues to bedevil Alexandria.

We have frequently lamented on these pages the gradual loss of affordable housing units in the city over the past 20 years. As this week’s story, “Preserving affordability on Route 1,” on page 1 indicates, 88 percent of the city’s affordable housing units have been lost since 2000, according to Helen McIlvaine, Alexandria director of housing.

The issue was prominent in the election season ahead of the recent Democratic primary, when a proposal from incumbent Councilor Willie Bailey to add a one cent per dollar additional tax to restaurant bills and set it aside for affordable housing passed council by a 4-3 vote. However, Bailey went on to lose his re-election bid.

It’s difficult to say whether Bailey’s stance on affordable housing was the catalyst for his loss, or which part of the proposal – funding affordable housing, taxing only the restaurant community or dedicating the funding – might have been the sticking point with voters. Still, the fact that the most visible political gesture to support affordable housing in recent years went unrewarded, at best, by city voters does beg the question of how committed Alexandrians are to this issue.

One thing is clear: thanks to redevelopment and high property values, the problem of housing affordability is not going away. City officials, nonprofits and concerned residents are going to have to get increasingly innovative, and utilize a variety of approaches, to simply stem the loss – let alone make headway in replacing lost affordable units.

The new affordable housing complex being built in partnership with the Church of the Resurrection and the city is a creative plan. Another is the proactive approach being used toward two complexes – The Heritage at Old Town and Olde Town West III – that provide a combined 215 affordable units.

The city has put together a group of 27 stakeholders to discuss affordability plans and help create recommendations and expectations before the affordability contracts for the two complexes expire in 2019 and 2020. The plan being developed, the Route 1 South Housing Affordability Strategy, would hold rents in the existing buildings at affordable levels, and lay forth the expectation that redevelopment would maintain at least the same number of units in exchange for increased allowed density.

This tradeoff of density for affordable housing has drawbacks. The complexes are in a location, the southern end of Route 1 within city limits, that already has traffic issues. Congestion in this area will also get considerably worse if the proposed Alfred Street Baptist Church expansion moves forward. It’s unclear how this potential bottleneck will be managed.

There are other concerns from increased density. Will there be adequate parking? How will school capacity be impacted? Where will residents move while their current buildings are being redeveloped?

These agreements also appear to be non-binding on both the city and property owners. So, while the city can set forth expectations for housing affordability, their primary leverage appears to be the density exemption. Given that the sitting council has rotely granted increased density and reduced parking to developers all over the city almost without exception, we question whether the city actually has much leverage in this realm. It’s also yet to be seen if the city would actually hold the line if a future developer balks at keeping these units affordable.

Still, getting community input and setting forth expectations is certainly better than not doing those things. Attempting to establish new agreements before the ones in place expire is also proactive.

Given the cost of new housing construction in Alexandria, everything possible must be done to maintain our existing supply.

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