Our View: Wanted: Better approach to affordable housing

Our View: Wanted: Better approach to affordable housing
The Bloom from the southern elevation.(Courtesy image)

Important issues will be discussed during next year’s local election campaign, such as approaches to street design, school capacity, in-person learning and environmental preservation.

We think the city’s approach to affordable housing should also be debated at length – particularly the current policy of giving developers significant density waivers in exchange for small numbers of affordable housing units.

This topic was discussed at length at the Dec. 12 public hearing, when members of City Council debated whether to up the percentage of units required from developers in some parts of the city. Councilors Mo Seifeldein and John Chapman also pushed for city staff to clarify the exemptions and potentially limit exemptions. See the Times’ front-page story, “Council debates affordable housing policy” in the Dec. 17 issue for the details of that conversation.

Mayor Justin Wilson pushed back against strengthening requirements on developers to contribute more affordable housing in exchange for increased density. He used the decision of developers to forego added density on Beauregard Street as a reason to demand less from them. “We don’t want to go too far or we’re not going to have anything happen,” Wilson said at the public hearing.

But is it actually bad for developers to build “by right” projects, meaning buildings that comply with Alexandria’s small area plans without being granted added density?

Given the litany of problems Alexandria is currently experiencing that are unintended consequences from over-densification – flooding, closed schools, environmental destruction, traffic bottlenecks – we think perhaps not.

An open, widespread discussion about Alexandria’s approach to affordable housing is overdue. The question is whether the few affordable housing units the city is gaining through developer contributions are worth the exacerbated problems caused by too much density.

We think a compelling case can be made that there should be a moratorium on further density waivers for any reason until the above-mentioned issues have been addressed.

As with many things, this boils down to simple math. Alexandria has lost around 90% of its affordable housing supply in the past 20 years, decreasing from about 19,000 to about 2,000 units.

When a developer who is planning to build a 200-unit building gets a density waiver to add another 100 units, the 10% affordable housing requirement only applies to the additional density, not the entire project. Under the above scenario, said developer would be required to provide 10 affordable units in a project that has increased 50% in size.

Is this a good tradeoff for the city?

We asked in our June 6, 2019 editorial, “Is development a net positive?” In it, we questioned the endless pursuit of more development. The ensuing 18 months, with all but six Alexandria children forced to learn at home because our schools are too crowded, plus monthly “100-year” flooding events, have made it increasingly clear that Alexandria should put the brakes on its current push for new development and more density.

Simply put, the affordable housing deficit is too large for six units here and eight there to be more than drops in the proverbial bucket. The net negative on life in Alexandria of continued density waivers is not offset by the handful of additional affordable housing units gained.

To be clear, we think a lack of affordable housing is one of our city’s biggest problems, and we lament the reality that many people who work in our city can’t afford to live here. But over-densifying the city to the point that it becomes unlivable for everyone is not the right policy either.

We need projects where big chunks of affordable housing can be obtained, such as The Bloom project in conjunction with Carpenter’s Shelter that’s yielding 97 units, or the 81- unit partnership between Fairlington Presbyterian Church, Wesley Housing and the City of Alexandria.

Those running for City Council next year need to be ready to have an honest conversation with residents about how to best approach housing affordability.

Loss of affordable housing is a conundrum. Runaway densification is not the solution.