City Council considers Chirilagua housing affordability plan

City Council considers Chirilagua housing affordability plan
The Arlandria/Chirilagua neighborhood is surrounded by some of the most significant developments in the region. (Image/City of Alexandria)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City Council discussed an ambitious draft housing affordability plan for the Chirilagua neighborhood and its majority Hispanic residents that would expand access to deeply affordable housing during the Tuesday legislative meeting.

The city’s growing need for affordable housing has been a topic of conversation on the City Council dais for years, with councilors stressing the need to keep Alexandria livable for its lower income residents. The plan presented by city staff on Tuesday targets the Arlandria/Chirilagua neighborhood in an attempt to not only increase the city’s affordable housing stock but preserve the neighborhood’s cultural identity, according to staff.

“We’re looking at every possible way to celebrate, to enhance and to maintain the culture and provide every tool possible, along with that affordable housing, to keep those folks in,” Jose Ayala, a city planner involved with the plan, said.

Located on the border of Arlington, Chiralagua is a largely low-income, Hispanic neighborhood surrounded by the developing National Landing Area, the site of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus and the future Amazon HQ2.

“The location of the neighborhood and the context in which a significant amount of development [is taking place], which is good news, also creates economic and market pressure for the neighborhood,” Ayala said.

Based on the neighborhood’s census tract profile, the median household income among renters is $53,000, far below the city’s $100,939 median household income. According to a 2019 survey of 285 Chirilagua households conducted by community organization Tenants and Workers United, 95% of the households surveyed earned less than 40% of the area median income, between $35,000 and $58,000 per year for a household of one to six in 2020.

About 28.5% of the households surveyed had five or more people.

Tamara Jovovic, a city planner in the Office of Housing, said that those data points illustrate an inherent divide between the housing needs of residents and what is available in the current market.

Currently in Chirilagua, the majority of rentals are priced at between 60% and 80% of the AMI and are one- or two-bedroom units, Jovovic said. Residents are hard pressed to find units they can afford, let alone fit their family in.

“As a result we have a proportion of households in the community that are housing cost burdened, so they’re spending more than 30% of their gross income on housing and having to make that difficult tradeoff between paying for rent and utilities or buying food, setting aside a little money for a rainy day, for medicine or childcare,” Jovovic said.

The arrival of Amazon in the region accelerated the city’s affordable housing plans for the neighborhood, according to staff. The plan staff presented to council on Tuesday is one half of the overall project, which will, later this year, involve a detailed land use plan to address the needs of the neighborhood.

The city’s approach to tackling the neighborhood’s affordable housing needs involves a three-pronged approach, according to staff: expanding affordable housing, preserving and investing in existing housing and empowering residents.

In order to expand housing at the level of affordability that residents in the neighborhood require, the city is looking to explore potential co-location opportunities for affordable housing and other uses in the neighborhood.

The city is also continuing its strategy of permitting developers to pursue additional density and height in their projects in exchange for expanded affordability, Jovovic said.

Typically, the city’s policy is to require that between 8% to 10% of added density is designated affordable. In Chirilagua, the city is pushing primarily for 10% and with deeper levels of affordability in those units, Jovovic said.

“What you’ll see here is that the expectation would be that 5% of the net new units, these are units that are above the density that’s currently permitted under the 2003 plan, would be affordable at 40% of the AMI and 5% would be affordable at 50% of the AMI,” Jovovic said

According to the staff presentation, the city will also be developing financial incentives to push property owners to pursue renovations on existing residential properties.

Outside of providing more units, Jovovic acknowledged that the city will need to provide programs for residents to ensure that they are able to access new affordable housing opportunities as well as protections so that tenants are supported if a property gets redeveloped.

“[Residents] have been anxious over losing their community and having the culture of their neighborhood whittled away gradually through redevelopment,” Jovovic said.

The plan will involve enhanced landlord-tenant mediation and support and programs that prioritize Chirilagua residents when new affordable housing units are made available in the neighborhood.

“We’ll be working on a ‘ready to rent’ framework or program, and the intent of that program is to empower residents to be able apply and qualify for new affordable housing units,” Jovovic said.

Councilor Canek Aguirre expressed excitement for the project. When considering potential co-located uses in the neighborhood, Aguirre encouraged staff to explore potentially moving Neighborhood Health, a local nonprofit that provides service to underinsured or uninsured residents, closer to the neighborhood or creating a satellite office for the Department of Community and Human Services.

Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor John Chapman urged staff to consider using city zoning tools, such as the residential multifamily zone, to encourage redevelopment with added density, affordability and flexibility.

“That’s definitely a tool we will be looking at as we move through this land use process,” Jeff Farner, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said.

While Wilson said that the RMF zone is an “invitation” for affordability, Aguirre cautioned council and staff not to rush the redevelopment process in Chirilagua.

“[We need] to make sure that we’re bringing folks along at a pace that everyone understands so that we’re not trying to rush through something,” Aguirre said. “ … I’d really like to emphasize that we try to make sure this specific community has a greater understanding of this before we start moving forward.”

Chapman expressed interest in how the city and council can further celebrate and preserve the neighborhood’s culture moving forward.

As part of the plan, the city hired a consultant to perform historic analysis of the neighborhood. According to Ayala, preserving and expanding affordable housing is the best way to preserve the neighborhood’s culture by ensuring residents can stay in Chirilagua.

The city is also looking at the kind of art, businesses and activities that are particular to Chirilagua and how they can be enhanced and supported. Ayala pointed to the neighborhood’s sidewalk food and custom goods vendors as an example of something that should be preserved and supported by the city’s efforts.

Aguirre, the first Latino member of City Council, spoke to the vital place Chirilagua holds not only in the city but in the region.

“I was watching Univision a couple nights ago and the reporter was in Alexandria, in Arlandria, and what did it say in the location? It didn’t say Alexandria, Virginia. It didn’t say Arlandria, Virginia. It said Chirilagua, Virginia,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre made a motion, which was seconded by Chapman, to receive staff’s report. The motion was approved unanimously, 7-0. City staff will return to council at the public hearing in May for a final vote on the plan.