What Alexandria’s demographic trends say about city’s future

What Alexandria’s demographic trends say about city’s future
The Department of Planning and Zoning's Jeff Farner and Karl Moritz. (Photo/Mark Eaton)

By Mark Eaton | mre.eaton@gmail.com

It’s no secret that the City of Alexandria is constantly evolving, nor that it will continue to evolve. But the ways in which this change comes about can be attributed to a variety of factors – one of which being the city’s demographic trends. According to experts, closely following these trends reveals quite a bit about what’s in store for the city’s future.

Karl Moritz, the city’s planning and zoning director, sees the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to understand the city’s demographic trends and what they foretell. He said that demographers “both hate and love inflection points” such as the pandemic. Inflection points interrupt long-term trends that usually validate forecasts and can also predict the future.

Moritz believes that the pandemic accelerated some trends, for example, the transition to virtual work, and interrupted others such as the year-to-year rise in Alexandria City Public Schools enrollment after the 2007-2008 recession that resulted in the school system becoming one third larger – growing to more than 15,000 students today.

Housing supply and affordability

Moritz sees Alexandria’s affordable housing crisis as the culmination of a decades-long perfect storm, stating that the pandemic exacerbated the issue.

“It’s been long term, but all of a sudden it’s even worse,” he said.

On the supply side, P&Z estimates that from 2000 to 2020 Alexandria lost 14,300 market-affordable units. On the demand side, a decline in federal funding, and growth in accommodation, food service, health care and construction jobs all contributed to the housing affordability crunch.

P&Z’s data shows that low to moderate income Alexandrians, or those with incomes up to $75,000, spend more than 30% of household incomes on housing, at the expense of healthcare, education and savings.

Moritz pointed to an increase in the city’s affordable housing pipeline, almost all of which is multi-family housing.

“It is important to us that … Alexandrians may find themselves unable to live here any longer, he said, adding that while macro-level data is useful, “the housing issue crystalizes at the household level.”

Moritz said the level of approved but unbuilt development is “well above our 10- year expectation,” which he views as a measure of whether the city is successfully enabling housing development.

City approvals do not automatically translate into more housing. Jeff Farner, P&Z’s deputy director for longterm and strategic planning, pointed to the multiple causes at work in housing development. Farner said that owners, lenders, contractors and building materials suppliers all play critical roles in increasing housing inventory.

“There is a lot of opportunity in our city to have growth,” he said. “Take a look at Eisenhower East – around a Metro station, prime location, and there are surface parking lots. There is a logical question: How is that possible?”

Virtual work and commercial real estate

According to Moritz, even before the pandemic began the city’s Class B and C office buildings had high vacancy rates- an issue that P&Z was actively studying. Early in the pandemic some Alexandria commercial landlords successfully converted offices to residences.

According to RENTCafe, which tracks adaptive reuse in urban areas, Alexandria was one of the top five cities that had the most office to apartment conversions in 2020 and 2021; the others were major metropolitan areas. Alexandria has also seen its first office-to-school conversion with Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School.

Moritz sees an important collateral effect of office-to-residential conversions: the retail mix around office buildings, mostly involving lunches for office workers, changes and broadens to meet the demands of residents when those buildings contain apartments and condominiums, many of which were work spaces for residents.

Changing patterns in street use

Another trend accelerated by the pandemic was a change in street use. A community consensus permitted reduced street parking to facilitate outdoor activities with lower pandemic-related risks, for example, outdoor dining, food delivery, take-out pickup and bike lanes. Moritz believes that lower King Street would ultimately have been closed to vehicular traffic but the timing of the closing was accelerated by the pandemic.

Farner said that the pandemic accelerated the effect of online shopping by those in the upper income strata.

“People realized that things that seemed foreign or incapable of being done before were done. People realized how much of that can happen,” he said.

Predicting school enrollment

Moritz and Farner closely follow ACPS enrollment trends, and where students come from. Moritz highlighted the importance of explaining to the world what was happening in 2008 when enrollment growth accelerated and a debate took place over whether the increases were transitory. At that time, school enrollment forecasting relied primarily on the cohort survival method which projected growth, or decline, in enrollment in a grade level over a period of years based on the ratio of students who were enrolled each of the previous years, the “survival rate.”

Moritz and ACPS dug deeper, looking at the specifics of each building – its age, height, capacity, style, affordability – in order to determine what was predictive.

“The more affordable housing is, the more likely you will get some families,” Moritz said. “It is actually the top end – single family homes of whatever value – and the bottom end, garden apartments” that are primary engines of school enrollment for ACPS. Older apartment complexes, which consist of those more than 30 years old, tend to generate more children than newer ones.

Moritz said that “every couple of years we look at where all of the kids are and we look to see whether there is any change in the trends” of where ACPS students come from. He said that about every two years the city matches the addresses of all ACPS students to buildings to determine student generation rates.

“It’s important for all kinds of reasons – the kids’ education [and] capacity planning,” Moritz said. “Our office is very much involved with the school system in collaborating on infrastructure planning.”

P&Z is working with ACPS, he said, to determine how much capacity can be added to existing schools and where new schools are necessary and that three or four potential new school sites have been identified, such as one at North Potomac Yard and another near South Pickett and Van Dorn in the West End, and a third being explored in Eisenhower East. These sites are part of Small Area Plans that have recommendations for school sites. P&Z and ACPS will report to City Council and the School Board this fall about school capacity options.

Home to Gen X

According to Mortiz, Alexandria’s reputation as a haven for Gen Xers is deserved.

“It continues to be true that jurisdictions like Alexandria have kids grow up here … and they go off into the world but a lot of people come to Alexandria or the Washington region to get a job,” he said. “A lot of people arrive in that 21, 22, 23-year-old range. This is a region that has an influx of people of that age group and Alexandria gets our share.”

Equity and diversity

Moritz and Farner identified the city’s three “islands of disadvantage” – Arlandria, Landmark/Van Dorn and Beauregard – where communities struggling with poverty and inequity are adjacent to affluence and mobility. For example, in a census tract separated by West Glebe Road the median household income was $166,000 – across the street the median household income was $49,370. White median household income, $122,401, is more than double that of Hispanic, $60,637, or Black households, $58,821. Similar disparities exist in the percentages of populations in poverty and in the attainment of college degrees.

“A futurecast: more and more of our local decision-making is going to be saying, “Who does this impact and is it going to reduce the disparities or is it going to increase disparities?” Moritz said. “People are more conscious now that the disparities are not something that will go away unless we are intentional about it.”

Telework is here to stay

Moritz and Farner believe that the pandemic exacerbated social and economic disparities between, for example, teleworkers and people required to report to a fixed work location, like restaurant workers. P&Z’s data shows that about 91% of the current teleworkers in metropolitan Washington would like to telework full time or a few days a week. The growth of telework suggests that transportation demand to downtown areas will decrease and that economic development in areas where teleworkers live will increase.

Climate change and competitiveness

Moritz is convinced that climate change will greatly drive decision-making in the future. A visible example is the electrification of the city’s vehicle fleet. In September 2021, City Council established an Energy and Climate Change Task Force to study issues such as community greenhouse gas emissions, Alexandria’s climate vulnerabilities, including public health and economics, and evaluate ways to adapt to climate change. In addition, the task force will identify actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the community.

“[P&Z’s job is] to help make sure that Alexandria is still a place that people love to be, not just that they feel good while they are here, but that they can find a place to live and get their daily activities accomplished without too much stress,” Moritz said. “We are at a point where people are evaluating where they want live and they have a lot of boxes they are ticking off.”

Farner points out that affordable housing is a key element of both equity and competitiveness.

“If we are going to attract people, keep people, housing needs to be affordable so that talented young people can afford to live in the city,” he said.

Longtime resident David Speck, who grew up on the east side of Quaker Lane, highlighted that every planning decision made for development comes with consequences and that “every single square foot that is built on is one less square foot for open space.” This, he said, feeds into Alexandria’s perennial dilemma of how to evolve while simultaneously retaining a sense of community.

“In my opinion the city has done a pretty good balancing act … and if we continue to conduct solid, professional planning maybe, just maybe, we will continue to prosper and grow and meet the needs of our community,” Speck said.