To the editor:
Mayor Justin Wilson and the city have been promoting a draft report on housing prepared by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Only eight of the 24 members of the COG participated in the report and only Alexandria is promoting it without qualification.
The COG complains that its affordable housing ambitions based upon mass density are hindered by “community pushback” from mythical residents whose goal is to “maintain their self-segregation.” The COG report describes the community as a “problem” and concludes that “mere policy changes may not be enough to dismantle opposition …”
COG appears to assume families buy a home, raise children and establish roots in a community for nefarious reasons only. Our experience with Alexandrians is the opposite: we are goodhearted people who embrace diversity and are concerned about affordability, both for others and ourselves. Unchecked density, further gentrification and insulting residents – COG’s apparent objective, unintended outcome and clear tactics, respectively – are not the answer.
COG attached an appendix to its report showing it engaged interest groups and officials, largely from outside city boundaries, but not the people their solutions would impact. The report claimed that Alexandria’s City Council held a public hearing to take input on the COG report on April 17, 2021. A review of the docket for that date shows nothing relating to the COG report.
Within the report, Alexandria’s leaders stated their top priority is to “prioritize public land for affordable housing,” which would include school sites and parks. None of the other seven regional governments are targeting its schools and parks to convert to more dense housing.
Many might have believed Wilson’s past claims that council was not planning to dismantle neighborhoods and co-locate housing on school or public park sites under his watch, but if he is serious about committing to the COG report we are back to “wait and see.”
Other regional governments, like Arlington, prioritized preventing the displacement of low- and moderate-income residents in the inevitable gentrification these hyper-density policies bring. Alexandria says nothing about displacement in the report, despite COG’s expressed concern about the “relatively low number of affordable units” approved in new Alexandria developments and the displacement threat of Amazon.
The COG report inaccurately states “Alexandria has a large amount of sin- gle family homes,” incorrectly citing as its source the city’s accessory dwelling unit webpage, which says nothing about the amount of single family homes. In fact, the Census Bureau found that only 15% of Alexandria’s housing units are detached, single-family homes. This is lower than virtually every other locality in the United States: the national level is 63%. Conversely, 51% of Alexandria’s overall housing units are found in multi-family buildings of 10 or more apartments: the national level is 14%.
The COG report also complains that “historic areas in the city make it difficult to build multifamily housing,” again citing the city’s ADU webpage, which says nothing about historic districts, as its source. It is true that Alexandria has a rich history and as a city we value that. COG clearly does not, and complains that our historic districts are an impediment to unchecked density.
Other revealing statements in the COG report include:
• “In Alexandria, there is a fairly low concentration of households with housing burdens when compared to other jurisdictions.” Unfortunately, this “low concentration” is trending in the wrong direction, likely due to gentrification and the over building of luxury housing.
• Alexandria is significantly above the rest of the region in access to low cost transit today, “with minimal disparities based on race, ethnicity, or poverty status.” That verifies there is no desire or need to spend up to $116 million for dedicated bus lanes on Duke Street.
• Alexandria’s rating on environmental health is poor, well below the region, stating that “access to environmentally healthy neighborhoods in Alexandria is relatively low for all racial, ethnic, and economic groups.” COG attributed this poor environmental health rating in Alexandria to “urban areas tend[ing] to have lower air quality.” More urbanization will only worsen our already bad environmental health.
• The COG report stated that “access to proficient schools is significantly lower than in the rest of the region for all racial and ethnic groups, with only negligible differences among racial groups.” COG said this is because “low performing schools are more likely to be in urban areas” and named Alexandria.
The COG report may contain nuggets of wisdom somewhere, but there’s much in it that’s flat out wrong. Despite these obvious flaws, Wilson has endorsed the report without qualification, and the city has been promoting it.
While city leaders may find the COG report useful as talking points to promote its urbanist agenda, those who are truly serious about pursuing affordability and diversity know future decision-making for Alexandria must be done by Alexandrians, not by a non-elected, regional entity.
The COG’s offensive language in this report – labeling those who view hyper-density as a threat to affordability and diversity as “segregationist” and hinting at strong-armed tactics to “dismantle opposition” – seems unlikely to address housing issues or lead to equitable outcomes.
We should follow the rest of the region and ignore the COG’s flawed, one-size- fits-all demands.
-Frank Putzu, Alexandria