City council adopts new housing goals

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A rendering of the renovated facility for The Carpenter's Shelter at 930 N. Henry St., which will combine a homeless shelter with 97 affordable housing units (Courtesy Rendering)
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By Luke Anderson | landerson@alextimes.com

With Amazon’s HQ2 and Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus coming to the region, the city is proposing new housing goals to keep up with the anticipated demand.

City council unanimously approved a new resolution to address projected housing demand at its March 14 public hearing. Over the next 10 years, the region is projected to require 320,000 new housing units, according to a regional housing initiative proposed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. This is 75,000 more units than previously projected.

The City of Alexandria plans produce to 11,500 of those 320,000 units over the next 10 years, 3,000 more units than previously forecasted. Of those 3,000 additional units, 75 percent must be affordable for those who make between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income, according to Helen McIlvaine, the city’s housing director.

Of the 24 local jurisdictions that are COG members, the City of Alexandria is the third jurisdiction to officially adopt COG’s housing targets, behind Montgomery County and Washington D.C. The COG board of directors unanimously adopted the recommendation in September 2019.

The discussion regarding housing, especially affordable housing, is not new. Policy-makers are facing a new urgency to address the issue as Amazon and Virginia Tech move in.

COG began its analysis of the housing market while Amazon was still deciding on its HQ2 location. Amazon announced in November 2018 that it had chosen Arlington for its second headquarters and promised to bring more than 25,000 jobs to the region. At the same time, Virginia Tech elected to build its Innovation Campus in Potomac Yard.

“Amazon[’s decision] presented a very special moment in time where, all of a sudden, there was the possibility of many jobs moving here in a very short period of time,” McIlvaine said. “… So I think that was just a catalyzing moment to make people who had not been involved in the discussion before about the connection between economic development and housing affordability to suddenly say, ‘This is really important.’”

McIlvaine originally presented the resolution to council during a legislative meeting on March 10. However, council agreed to postpone voting on the resolution until after hearing community feedback. Of seven speakers who voiced their opinions at the March 14 hearing, four supported the resolution, while three opposed it.

“While we understand that the COG goal is aspirational and not legally enforceable, we know that this COG target will become our benchmark for housing policy,” Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Association, said. “Adopting this resolution without defined financial costs and an honest explanation of proposed zoning changes with more outreach to the general public is a disservice to our committee.”

Flemming asked the council to defer voting until more information on what the resolution involves could be conveyed to the public.

Councilor John Chapman argued that council could not afford to pass up this opportunity.

“We are at a point of crisis in this community around housing, housing at several different levels,” Chapman said. “Many of our homeowners here in this city could not lose their house and buy the same house again. That’s an issue of affordability regardless of low income, middle income or upper income. … That means things are unaffordable.”

Two of the opposing speakers cited a statement in City Manager Mark Jinks’ March 4 memorandum to city council that the fiscal impact of the resolution is yet to be determined. Chapman said information surrounding cost is likely cloudy because it’s still unknown how the target will be accomplished.

“We’re going to think about pros and cons on each of those things, and the public is going to have more than enough time to opine and weigh in and probably change the trajectory of those conversations,” Chapman said.

Councilor Mo Seifeldein reiterated that this is not a legally binding resolution. Seifeldein said that he would like to see that Potomac Yard redevelopment plan, which will include Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, devote a specific amount of density to affordable housing and public housing.

Some speakers expressed concern with adding density to a city that is already quite dense, therefore placing additional strains on transportation and quality of life.

Jinks said that the resolution would not drastically increase the current number of affordable housing units being produced anyway. Although the resolution would increase the target number of affordable housing units from 200 to 325 per year, the city has been producing about 300 units per year over the last five years, he said. With the current production so close to the resolution’s target, some questioned why the resolution is needed.

“One of the purposes of this resolution is to basically tell our neighbors around us who have not had the affordable housing commitment that the city has had for decades … that they need to step up to the plate like we have been stepping up to the plate,” Jinks said.

McIlvaine said that the city has been meeting the goal it set for housing units after the 2008 financial crisis. She spoke to the importance of setting tangible goals.

“I don’t know that we would be making such progress and be so focused if we didn’t have that roadmap to guide our investments and our policies,” she said.

Councilor Del Pepper agreed.

“If you don’t have a challenge like this in a resolution, there really isn’t another way to offer that challenge,” Pepper said. “… I don’t know right off-hand of another mechanism that works as well.”

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