Your Views: Density isn’t about affordability

Your Views: Density isn’t about affordability
(Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

To the editor:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” Albert Einstein allegedly said. Regardless of the author, it’s worth pondering before buying into the latest affordable housing policy remedy espoused by urban planners: If you increase density or, more precisely, eliminate zoning restrictions inhibiting developers from increasing density, there will be more affordable housing.

Where is the evidence, the proof that this has worked in the past? New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle consistently place in the top 10 for both highest density and least affordable housing markets. A variety of tools currently in vogue with Alexandria officials, like co-living, accessory dwelling units and elimination of zoning restrictions have little or no impact on housing affordability.

So, what’s different? Are Alexandria’s officials simply smarter?

Before you can solve a problem, you need to define the problem you are really trying to solve, then select the best available tool. I would submit increasing density is not primarily about creating affordable housing. If that were the case, the Carlyle/Eisenhower corridor, Landmark/ Vandorn, Braddock Metro, Potomac Yards and the Old Town Waterfront, all subjected to increased density, should have some of the most affordable housing stock in the city.

Yet they rank among the least affordable areas in the city even if measured by a 30% AMI threshold. How is this possible? How will initiatives like “bonus height density” get different results, even if the city cajoles developers to include some affordable units?

The truth is this is not primarily about affordable housing. It’s about solving a finance problem, specifically, profitability and tax revenue. Are you really surprised?

Developers and local governments are not strange bed- fellows – they have mutual financial interests. Increased density equates to increased profitability for developers and increased tax revenue for local governments.

It’s simple economics: a parcel that is restricted by zoning to one single-family home regardless of price point will not generate as much profit or revenue as multiple vertical units even at a slightly lower per unit price point. The measurements most often used are revenue per acre or revenue per parcel – increasing density at the parcel level yields the greatest return.

Unfortunately, zoning changes immediately increase the value of property. Need proof? Look at San Francisco or New York City. When property values soar, it squeezes developer profitability. If an affordable unit requirement is added, more margin is squeezed out. This is why we see developers seek, and cities often grant, density variances such as Alexandria’s soon-to-be-enshrined bonus density zoning amendment. It’s simply more profitable and the quid pro quo for the city is an increase in tax revenue. Affordable housing is not the primary goal.

Alexandria’s debt, aging infrastructure, deferred maintenance and capital improvement expenditures, public services and man- power stresses require significant new sources of revenue. Geographically constricted to 15 square miles, coupled with the inability to attract large businesses like neighboring Arlington, Fairfax County and Falls Church do, there really is only one other source for the kind of revenue the city needs to meet obligations and remain viable into the future: increase density.

The push to increase density for the sake of increasing revenue is never publicly popular. Other cities with similar land constraints experienced similar resistance from established single family neighborhoods, citing issues like inadequate infrastructure and too much traffic. The validity of these concerns is often irrefutable.

However, the financial lure too frequently outweighs the negatives, which are framed as “minor or short term inconveniences.” Rationalizations include using some of the gained tax revenue to mitigate many of the concerns. A cottage pro-development industry has emerged to help cities develop strategies for overcoming public opposition. The first strategy is to avoid discussing the financial incentives.

Strategies should focus on the need to accommodate population growth, attract business, ensure a vibrant and diverse labor market and increase affordable housing stock. Using progressive, forward-looking messaging labels opponents as short-sighted, resistant to change, out of touch, or worse, and keeps the primary financial objective out of the conversation or relegated to the margins.

Our public officials are neither insane nor guilty of expecting different results. They know exactly what to expect and are banking on it.

-Roy Byrd, Alexandria