Your Views: Outside group can’t dictate Alexandria housing goals

Your Views: Outside group can’t dictate Alexandria housing goals

To the editor:

My cap’s off to Mayor Justin Wilson for the thorough and informative monthly reports he shares with the community. They create awareness and spur discussion on matters core to our city’s future – including policies related to development, density and housing.

In his “Council Connection for August 2020,” the mayor states “[i]n September of last year, the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) unanimously adopted new regional housing creation targets. … These targets commit the city to the creation of additional units, with most of those units committed to be affordable for low to middle income households.”  

Do not be fooled. Despite its official-sounding name, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is not a governmental entity. It has no legal authority. It is a private non-profit organization. It is funded in part by private contributors whose identities are not easily discernable. It has no standing to “commit” our city to more housing or to any other policy for that matter. 

It is not clear why Wilson is charting our city’s future, and taking sweeping and irreversible actions, based on the dictates of a private organization run by people who do not live in our community and who likely care little about the impact their plans will have on our neighborhoods, our schools and our environment.  

Presumably, this “commitment” helps explain our city government’s rush to create more density in the midst of a pandemic by proposing to:

1) build apartments on top of elementary schools;

2) eliminate or reduce single family housing zoning;

3) authorize construction of structures on residential lots usable for Airbnb rentals; and,

4) greenlight more development while our infrastructure struggles to keep up with the population we already have.  

The regional targets advocated by the COG are a total of 320,000 new housing units in the region over the next ten years. At least 75% of the new housing should be in “Activity Centers or near high-capacity transit” and at least 75% of new housing should be affordable to lower- and middle-income households.  

Yet no one knows whether the assumptions upon which the COG targets are based will be valid post-pandemic, when we could see more teleworking, less use of office and commercial real estate and net migration out of metropolitan areas.

The COG wants Alexandria to add 11,500 new units, or 3.6% of its target for the region – even though our city comprises a miniscule 4/10 of 1% of the region’s land. To put it into context, if our region were the field at Nats Park, Alexandria would comprise the footprint of an average studio apartment.  It is silly to think our compact city, with the little green space we have remaining, can make a difference in achieving regional housing goals. 

Our neighbors have considerably more land available for meeting COG’s targets. Fairfax County, where nearly one in five of our region’s residents live, has 77% of its land zoned for single family housing. Arlington has 42%. Washington, D.C. has 36%.  Alexandria has only 29% of its land so zoned.   

Neighboring jurisdictions, other than D.C., do not see themselves as similarly “committed” by the COG housing targets. They are following their own paths. For example, Fairfax – which spans 406 square miles compared to Alexandria’s 15 square miles – has adopted plans far more modest than those proposed by the COG. We should do the same.

Housing is expensive in our city. Many of us have made sacrifices in other areas of our lives to reside here. It is not clear whether targets dictated by the COG are realistic, will improve housing affordability or will have an equitable impact on our city’s residents.  They could make quality of life worse for those who live here, and make it tougher to maintain the diversity that helps define our community. 

If recent events have shown anything, Alexandria residents are determined and committed to come together as one community to make our home as diverse and accessible as possible. Rather than imposing divisive and arbitrary housing targets cooked up by outsiders, Alexandria’s elected leaders should strive to build a consensus on housing policies, which would be a better way to keep the unique sense of community that makes our city special. 

-Darryl Nirenberg, Alexandria