Our View: Should affordable housing be built on school property?

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Students at the opening of the Patrick Henry k-8 school in early 2019. (Photo/ACPS)
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It’s well documented that Alexandria’s supply of affordable housing has declined dramatically during the past 20 years. The downside of a growing city with revitalized neighborhoods is that poorer residents are often pushed out by rising rents.

Alexandria’s leaders have repeatedly said that providing more affordable housing is a priority, and in recent years creative collaborations have taken place with churches and nonprofits. The city has also required developers to provide small numbers of affordable housing units in exchange for density waivers – a tradeoff that we generally don’t think is a net gain for Alexandria.

More needs to be done, however, and outside-the-box thinking is necessary for real progress to occur. In that vein, we applaud the city’s approach of examining each rebuild of city buildings to see if provision of affordable housing units could be a part of the project.

The city’s largest landholdings are its various schools and school grounds, and numerous city schools are in need of repair or rebuilds. So it’s no surprise that the topic of whether affordable housing can be paired with city schools is now under consideration.

For years, the Times has challenged city leaders to back up their words with actions. But now that they’re trying to, there’s an uproar from many quarters.

Two specific school projects involving preliminary plans for co-located affordable housing have come to light in the past week or so: Douglas MacArthur Elementary School and George Mason Elementary School, and there has been a predictable backlash of anger from parents and neighbors of these schools.

We think everything should be on the table for discussion surrounding affordable housing, but that that discussion should not take place in a piecemeal way, but rather as a citywide conversation.

Here are some of the questions that need to be considered and answered by Alexandria’s residents, elected officials and city staff before moving forward with any plans to pair affordable housing and schools:

•Is it a good idea to pair affordable housing units with city schools?

•Should it make a difference whether it’s with an elementary school or a middle or high school?

•Does it make a difference whether the proposed housing would be part of the same school building, as has been suggested with MacArthur, or a stand-alone building on school grounds, as was floated for George Mason?

•If taking open space from city schools, as in the case of George Mason, is under consideration for affordable housing, does it make more sense to examine small city parks where affordable housing could be built? This would eliminate some of the logistical and security concerns that would come with putting any housing project adjacent to a school.

While more needs to be done on affordable housing, and the option of pairing it with schools should be on the table, these larger questions need to be answered before individual projects are considered.

What rankled many regarding MacArthur is the late hour at which this proposal came forward, just before the school board was slated to vote on designs. The MacArthur community and members of the MacArthur Design Advisory Committee were right to be alarmed and upset with the way in which this has been proposed.

Fueling both the concern and outrage of many residents is the knowledge that city leaders seldom float plans that aren’t already well on the way to being a fait accompli. Let’s have the larger discussion surrounding use of school property for affordable housing and then go from there.

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