The saying, “All politics is local,” made popular by the iconic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, has been the conventional wisdom for decades. But is it a truism any longer? Not in Alexandria, or so it would seem.
A number of solutions put forth by city hall in recent years have their roots in national think tanks, the writings of urbanist authors – or urban planning experts from other cities. Yet, it’s not even clear that the national crises they speak of are serious challenges in this city, if they exist to any significant extent at all. And the solutions they espouse often sound good but are generally untested and unproven.
Take the housing debate happening in Alexandria, Arlington and some other cities across the U.S. The concept has been called “housing for equity,” “zoning for housing,” and the “missing middle.” It calls for much greater density to address affordable housing challenges due to historical racism. As our city officials are espousing, it also specifically includes the elimination of single-family home zoning.
At a city-sponsored “Housing Summit” in 2020, the keynote speaker was Andrea Brennan, the director of Community Planning and Economic Development in Minneapolis. She said that her city was in the process of eliminating single-family home zoning. In words frequently parroted now by our city officials, Brennan spoke of “exclusionary single-family home zoning,” “discriminatory housing covenants” and “allowing greater density to reduce housing costs.”
While Minneapolis had not eliminated SFH zoning at the time of Brennan’s speech, she declared the concept successful. This notwithstanding her statement that she and her colleagues had not yet determined how to measure the proposed policy’s success.
Nonetheless, Alexandria city officials latched onto these “innovative” ideas early, despite the many differences between Minneapolis and Alexandria. Most notably that Minneapolis has the greatest Black/white homeownership gap in the U.S. and is frequently ranked as one of the worst places for Black people to live in the U.S. The same cannot be said for Alexandria. Moreover, 70% of the land in Minneapolis is taken up by single-family homes, compared to just 29% in Alexandria.
Our city officials must not have checked with Brennan lately to see how the now-enacted policy is working in Minneapolis. During the first two years of the zoning change, Minneapolis added just 97 duplex/triplex units – units, not buildings – among its 75,000 single-family homes, according to an article by Justin Fox of Bloomberg. Fox’s conclusion: “If things continue at this pace, ending single-family zoning will have increased the city’s housing supply by just 1% by 2040. … So, the plan isn’t revolutionizing housing in Minneapolis … ”
Fox goes on to report that Minneapolis is having far greater success building multi-unit residential buildings along transit corridors, another concept that has not proven to reduce housing costs in high-demand cities. One can only conclude from Fox’s reporting that there must not be much economic incentive for developers to erect duplexes and triplexes in the SFH areas of Minneapolis.
We too are facing the end of single-family home zoning, but to what end? To add 1% to our housing stock without any significant impact on affordability? It seems like just another trendy national solution to address a seemingly exaggerated local crisis.
Perhaps it’s time for city officials to focus on our most pressing issues, several of which were caused by increased density. Issues like overcrowded schools, an anemic commercial tax base, stifling traffic congestion, increasing threats to our green space and the environment and ever-increasing tax burdens are harming Alexandrians.
Over-taxation has a major impact on housing affordability, but city officials don’t talk about that. It’s much easier to parrot national ideological statements than to solve real, local problems.
The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.