To the editor:
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. Many neighborhoods in Alexandria are about to find out. “Group homes” for those with special needs located in residential neighborhoods, many for decades, now have been re-classified by city staff as “congregate” housing, a category associated with boarding houses and similar living arrangements. Such housing currently is prohibited by ordinance in all residential zones and has been for many years.
When group homes were established, the concept was that people with special needs would be helped by living in a residential setting that a single-family home and neighborhood would bring. For the most part that has been proven true. Such accommodations have been accepted by neighbors and benefited the occupants.
It was assumed without further thought that the zoning of these group homes would remain residential. That has been the case until this recent change in nomenclature. As “congregate,” these homes now apparently have been reclassified to become nonconforming uses in residential zones. Any new group homes or moves by existing ones will require re-zoning to a commercial zone.
How did city staff come to this conclusion? It likely can be traced to the current effort in the name of “affordable housing” to change the ordinance governing congregate housing and allow boarding houses and similar arrangements in residential zones.
A recent poll conducted by the city on the issue may have revealed considerable opposition to the idea. In a recent communication, an official of the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation had this to say: “It … appears that many in the City do not want that type of housing in residential zones (even if it required a special use permit) and even if the congregate housing currently exists throughout residential zones in the City.”
This important policy decision cannot be left to staff. It negatively impacts the future needs for group homes for the vulnerable in Alexandria. It raises uncertainties in every neighborhood that harbors such a home. Finally, the name change smacks of a ploy by city hall to “backdoor” the idea of congregate housing to a wary populace.
The mayor and City Council owe it to the public and our special needs population to make it clear, possibly by amending the ordinance, that group homes as a category remain within residential zoning.
-Jack Sullivan, Alexandria