School Board deals a blow to co-located affordable housing

School Board deals a blow to co-located affordable housing
T.C. Williams High School (Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kochurova)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

The Alexandria School Board voted unanimously to exclude consideration of co-located affordable housing at the redeveloped T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard campus during the Feb. 4 school board meeting.

The decision was the latest wrinkle in an ongoing debate around co-located uses of school sites that touches two of the city’s most pressing concerns: school capacity and affordable housing supply.

Alexandria City Public Schools will still consider other co-located uses at Minnie Howard, including ACPS administrative offices, a teen wellness center and an early childhood learning center. However, the sound rejection of co-located affordable housing at the site is a welcome sign to many in the community, which is generally opposed to the concept, according to ACPS.

ACPS staff presented an initial series of test fits for potential co-located affordable housing opportunities on the 12-acre Minnie Howard site, which drew widespread opposition from the board, during a Jan. 21 school board work session.

According to Erika Gulick, ACPS director of Capital Programs, Planning and Design, an initial site analysis confirmed that if the school board were to pursue co-located affordable housing on the site, the Minnie Howard campus could accommodate a school with a minimum capacity for 1,600 students and between 60 to 85 affordable units.

Regardless of how or whether the site integrates a co-located use, ACPS aims to prioritize educational programming and will design for underground parking and no net loss of athletic fields, Gulick said.

“The school program is the number one priority in the Minnie Howard campus,” Gulick said. “It will take precedent and space over [other] things.”

During the work session on Jan. 21, the school board voiced concerns about how co-located affordable housing could impact the school district’s need for capacity and flexible space within ACPS facilities.

“As long as I’ve been a part of this school board, we’ve had nothing but urgency bordering on crisis about capacity,” school board member Ramee Gentry said. “I just cannot imagine a scenario in which I can get behind a decision that would actually take away capacity, considering how limited we are.”

ACPS’ current enrollment projections for FY2022 through FY2031 anticipate high school enrollment to hit 4,768 in FY2024, the year that the campus will open, and 5,357 by FY2031.

School Board Chair Megan Alderton, who serves on the educational design team for the Minnie Howard project, said that the educational focus for the redesigned school has been on smaller learning communities and flexible spacing. The latter, Alderton argued, is jeopardized by the presence of affordable housing.

“My biggest concern is that affordable housing doesn’t give the flexibility that we need,” Alderton said. “… If you have 80 units where people are living, if we needed that space in the future for something else, we could not easily make a shift.”

Echoing a community concern, school board member Jacinta Greene argued that co-locating housing on a school site would put ACPS students at risk.

“It’s our job to educate and keep our students safe. It is not safe to have housing on school grounds, and I just, for the life of me, still don’t understand how we got to this point,” Greene said.

During the work session, Gulick noted that the community generally opposes co-locating affordable housing on the redeveloped school site. Even those that generally support the city’s need for additional affordable housing expressed concern about the presence of housing units on a school site, Gulick said.

Community members have generally voiced opposition to co-located affordable housing and other nonschool uses on ACPS sites since January 2020, when a feasibility study for a potential apartment complex at George Mason Elementary School was released to the public. ACPS apologized and noted that the apartment complex concept was something staff had been investigating and had decided not to move forward with prior to the concept drawing making its way into the public eye.

However, co-located school uses, including affordable housing, remain a priority for the city, as it addresses an Alexandria-wide need for affordable housing.

“The co-location goals … were not only trying to make sure that we had those complementary uses but also increasing the use of the site outside of traditional school hours,” Mayor Justin Wilson said at the Jan. 25 city council and school board subcommittee meeting. “ … I would encourage us to continue looking at those kinds of opportunities, working closely with the city.”

ACPS leaders, staff and school board members were less gung-ho about the push for co-located housing at the meeting. Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. said that some of the other potential co-located uses, including social service centers, could provide support for students and the general public.

“That’s something we want to keep in mind: Some of these other co-locations do complement the educational programming and support services that we provide our students in the building,” Hutchings said.

Despite the city’s stated priorities, during the virtual Feb. 8 school board meeting, the board members voted 9-0 to exclude consideration of co-located affordable housing on the expanded high school site “to allow for more maximum flexibility for current and future ACPS uses,” board member Cindy Anderson said.

The board will vote on design concepts for the high school project on April 8, and final designs will go before city council in early 2022.