Preserving affordability on Route 1

Preserving affordability on Route 1
(Photo Credit: Richard Lawrence)

By Missy Schrott |

As Alexandria’s supply of market-rate affordable housing continues to diminish, the city is working to preserve the rare affordable units that remain.

The Route 1 South Housing Affordability Strategy, a long-range planning program focused on the redevelopment of a portion of the South Quadrant Small Area surrounding the corridor, is a major part of the city’s retention effort.

The two rental communities the plan focuses on, The Heritage at Old Town and Olde Towne West III, collectively have 215 affordable units. As affordability contracts for the properties near expiration in 2019 and 2020, the plan seeks to preserve affordability if and when redevelopment occurs over the next 15 years. The strategy will also apply to three commercial sites that are being considered for redevelopment south of Gibbon Street on Route 1.

“We’re trying to be very proactive,” Director of Housing Helen McIlvaine said. “If we don’t act, if we don’t do this, to replace the levels of affordability that we have here – if we could – would [cost the city] $100 million or more.”

McIlvaine said it was important to address potential redevelopment now, as the affordability of these units could be permanently lost if property owners choose to redevelop or opt out of their affordability contracts. The city has already lost 88 percent of its market-rate affordable housing since 2000.

The core team meets during a weeklong charrette process in which residents and others stakeholders discussed potential redevelopment of properties along Route 1. (Photo Credit: Richard Lawrence)

The strategy planning effort began in May 2017 when city council adopted its FY2018 Interdepartmental Long-Range Planning Work Program. The most recent draft of the strategy, published July 13, is available on the city’s housing website. The final draft of the strategy, influenced by a community engagement process, will go to the planning commission and city council in September for approval.

If approved, the final Housing Affordability Strategy will guide the properties’ redevelopment decisions by acting as a set of expectations. While the expectations determined by the strategy will not be initially binding, they will be implemented during the development review process and ultimately determined by council.

The city anticipates redevelopment to occur in phases over the next 10 to 15 years. The decision to redevelop, however, is entirely up to the private owners of the properties.

From the beginning, a multi-faceted community engagement process has allowed the stakeholders who will be impacted by potential redevelopment to have a key role in developing the strategy, McIlvaine said.

The process so far has included pop-up information sessions, formal community roundtables and a weeklong planning charrette. The charrette volunteer group included 27 stakeholders, composed of residents, property owners, neighbors, city staff and representatives from various community organizations. The group went through several intense planning meetings in February of this year to address areas of concern and find consensus on different aspects of the project.

Marta Ali, a resident who lives at The Heritage, said she applied to the charrette group because she had been interested in seeing the area redeveloped.

“I really wanted to see this kind of change for a long time,” Ali said.

Ali said because she had a background in architecture and urban planning, she understood the gravity of potential redevelopment.

“It’s a very important property,” she said. “It’s historical. It’s in a very important location. It’s the gateway of the city. We’re not going to get another chance to redevelop this property again. This is a one-of-a-kind project.”

Helen McIlvaine, Director of the Office of Housing speaks during charrette week. (Photo Credit: Richard Lawrence)

McIlvaine said one of the main takeaways from the charrette was that maintaining housing affordability would necessitate increasing density.

“I think people have a better understanding of what I will call development economics – that to preserve and sustain the existing deep levels of affordability will require that a greater number of market rate units come back in addition to these,” she said.

She said the charrette and community engagement phases of the project have been learning processes for both city staff involved and the residents who will be impacted.

“We’ve also had some opportunity to talk about why a mixed income development is healthier for the folks who are involved,” McIlvaine said. “One of the goals of our process is to learn from one another, so I think they’ve gained insights into that and into philosophies about how development should look.”

McIlvaine said the extensive engagement process was informed by the city’s experience with developing the Beauregard Small Area Plan in 2012. She said throughout that process, city staff grew to appreciate the value of a variety of perspectives.

“We’re having greater amounts of participation [in the Route 1 South project], which is terrific, and we have sort of a model for that in Beauregard,” she said. “I think that was one of our processes where we said, ‘It’s really important that the people who are going to be most impacted are represented and have an opportunity to weigh in.’”

Ali said she appreciated the outreach, but the process seemed to be too fast-paced, even for someone like her, who had a background in urban planning.

“They are trying to meet this deadline of approving it before their contract with the [rental communities] expires. That I understand,” she said, “but I think the pace, even for me, it’s kind of fast.”

Charrette members participate in a density exercise that encourages them to explore ways to preserve existing affordable units in the planning area using Legos. (Photo Credit: Richard Lawrence)

Throughout the community engagement process, some of the issues that have come up repeatedly are density concerns such as traffic, safety and school capacity, along with the fact that residents will be displaced during redevelopment.

Eric O’Leary, a member of the charrette group and neighbor of the potential redevelopment sites, was worried about increasing density when he first heard about the project. He said the engagement process, however, has eased his concerns.

“The last meeting I went to, a few people were still very concerned about the increases in density,” he said, “but … from my point of view, I think the city’s done a pretty good job explaining the numbers and the way ahead with all that.”

Residents of The Heritage and Olde Towne West, however, are more concerned about having to relocate than potential increases in density.

“I don’t think the residents are as much concerned about how big it’s going to be, but where we are moving and how long we are being relocated, how is this going to affect us,” Ali, one of the residents who may be relocated in the next 15 years, said.

McIlvaine said the city was still in the process of planning relocation protocols, but that displaced residents would have assistance.

In coordination with the Office of Housing, residents affected by future redevelopment will be provided with financial resources and counseling services to assist with temporary or permanent relocation, depending on whether they wish to return to the neighborhood after redevelopment.

Marta Ali, a resident of The Heritage, said she was most concerned about where and for how long she will be relocated during the redevelopment of her apartment building. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

Ali said she wants to return to the area because of her Ethiopian culture. She estimated that more than half of the residents of The Heritage are Ethiopian.

“I would love to come back, because it’s not just a residence, it’s like, for most of us, it’s like a home away from home,” Ali said. “There are a lot of Ethiopians here. After we left our country, I think the second place we have is here and we’re kind of mixed with the Old Town community, so it’s like we don’t want to go to another area. That’s a feeling I share with the other residents.”

One of the key components of the strategy is that displaced residents have the opportunity to return to a comparable unit on the same level of affordability, McIlvaine said.

Because of the federal rental assistance contracts in place at the properties, The Heritage and Olde Towne West are some of the most affordable properties in the city, meaning city residents earning 20 to 30 percent of the area median income can afford them, McIlvaine said.

In comparison, the new affordable housing project at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Beauregard will be targeted at those earning 40 to 60 percent of the area median income.

“The thing that has sort of motivated this all along is that we have very few housing developments that can offer this current level of affordability,” McIlvaine said.

As affordable housing continues to shrink in the region and in the city, McIlvaine said she hoped this project could be a template for future affordability preservation.

“You haven’t seen anything like it,” she said of the strategy. “We’re trying very much to create a way, that if it’s possible to preserve this affordable housing asset, that maybe it’s something we can replicate elsewhere where we have the same issues.”