Our View: A good approach to affordable housing

Our View: A good approach to affordable housing
Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

What a conundrum affordable housing continues to be for Alexandria!

The general consensus is that affordable housing in the city declined by around 90% between 2000 and 2017. Government officials, faith-based organizations, nonprofits and concerned residents have discussed, worried and acted to try and stem this tide.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, we have been rowing against the current: In recent years, more people moving to Alexandria coupled with rising pre-pandemic economic prosperity has continued to squeeze the housing supply, causing prices to soar. To wit:

• Home valuations have increased by an average of 44.5% in Alexandria in the last 10 years, according to bestplaces.net.

• More than 50% of those living in Alexandria rent housing, according to bestplaces.net, a growing trend in urban areas across the country and globally.

• The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria is currently $1,813, which is a 5% increase compared to this time last year, according to zumper.com.

• Almost 57% of Alexandria’s housing supply was built prior to 1980, according to bestplaces.net. While old, well-maintained, single-family homes can be charming, old less-well-maintained apartment buildings are decidedly not for those who live there.

Our city is not alone, of course. Urbanization around the globe has increased the number of renters in cities, which has raised rents and squeezed out low-income residents. According to a 2018 study by the Lincoln Institute, “Housing affordability deteriorates as city population, urban extent density, and regulatory restrictions in land supply increase.”

The question, now as before, is “What do we do?”

We are not a fan of the piecemeal approach the city has leaned on in recent years of granting huge density waivers to for-profit developers in exchange for a handful of affordable housing units. Not only are the units gained a proverbial drop in the bucket, but added density, in Alexandria’s case a “bonus” to developers for said trickle of affordable units, contributes to the housing squeeze, as the Lincoln Institute study found.

Large public housing projects began being built in the United States during the New Deal in the 1930s, while according to homesnow.org, the Housing Act of 1968:

“… encouraged white flight from the inner city by selling suburban properties to whites and inner-city properties to blacks, thus creating neighborhoods that were racially isolated from other neighborhoods. Public housing units were often built in predominantly poor and black areas, reinforcing racial and economic differences and stereotypes between neighborhoods.”

It’s fair to say that no one wants a return to policies that create poor, urban ghettos. And yet, unless larger projects are built or bought, we will make little real headway against affordable housing loss.

Cities around the country are trying creative approaches to the affordable housing conundrum, from issuing bonds to build affordable housing in Austin, Texas and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, according to salud-America.org, to cities buying existing properties in places as diverse as Dallas, Texas and Gary, Indiana, according to fastcompany.com. We think Alexandria’s ongoing partnership with Wesley Housing, an acclaimed nonprofit builder of affordable housing, is extremely constructive because the number of units gained in each project makes a significant dent in the affordable housing deficit.

Yes, neighbors and civic associations have raised legitimate concerns about the ParcView II project that City Council will consider at Saturday’s public hearing. This project would increase Alexandria’s affordable housing stock by a net 224 units, while refurbishing or expanding 149 current units. See the Times’, page 1 story, “E tu, ParcView?” for details.

Concerns about damage to existing nearby buildings from pile driving for the new structures, including a two-story underground garage, are legitimate and need to be investigated and closely monitored if this project is approved. There’s also not a clear, feasible solution for interim parking for current residents while the new structures are built on the existing surface parking lot.

Nonetheless, we hope City Council does approve this project on Saturday, for three primary reasons:

• First, it would measurably increase Alexandria’s supply of affordable housing.

• Second, the finished project appears to include adequate parking for the number of units, a key consideration in a part of town with limited access to public transportation.

• Third, the scaled approach to affordability within the building means that there will be socioeconomic and presumably ethnic diversity among residents, which should minimize the ghettoization generated by earlier large projects.

This is one development project that we fully endorse.