City Hill Watch with Bill Rossello: Coveting the land we live on

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City Hill Watch with Bill Rossello: Coveting the land we live on
Bill Rossello. (Courtesy photo)
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By Bill Rossello

Is it time to cry “nonsense” on the city’s “Zoning for Housing, Housing for All” initiative? The unwieldy name derives from two sets of underlying assertions. Let’s look at the “Housing for All” component first since its narrative is as outrageous as it is illogical.

At community meetings this spring, city officials have regularly stated that governments, bankers, realtors and landowners through the mid-20th century kept black people out of white neighborhoods using racially restrictive covenants and redlining. They surmise that vestiges of these historically racist practices still impact the ability of people of color to access certain neighborhoods and that segregation is resurging here as a result. Further, city officials assert that once they complete research on property deeds and the city zoning code enacted in 1992, they will prove their hypothesis.

Really?

Rather than a resurgence in segregation, there is much more evidence that certain neighborhoods are becoming less diverse due to overdevelopment, gentrification and resident displacement, not past injustice. Just ask longtime Del Ray or Parker-Gray residents, or the recently displaced Heritage apartment dwellers in Old Town.

Concerning neighborhood accessibility, a city-sponsored committee actually did review the city zoning ordinances in 1998, finding nothing untoward. The city now claims that it cannot find the report. However, committee member, longtime civic advocate and Alexandria Living Legend Jack Sullivan said this in his April 13 letter in the Alexandria Times:

“In the end, we found no racial bias or other substantive instances of unfairness to any group of Alexandria residents in the ordinances themselves.”

With respect to covenants, a local historian who has performed more research than anyone on 20th century black homeownership in Alexandria reported that no racial restrictions could be found for any single-family home constructed after the year 1962. While some older deeds may still have one, the city has not cited a single case where a covenant kept a black family from purchasing a home in recent decades.

As for redlining, longtime housing director then City Manager Vola Lawson said in a post-retirement interview that she and others eliminated the last vestiges of that practice here in the early 1970s. And two iconic local civil rights leaders, the late Melvin Miller and the late Ferdinand Day, purchased homes decades ago in what some city officials view today as an exclusionary neighborhood. City hall’s assertions about the current state of race and housing seem both anachronistic and opportunistic.

Then there’s the initiative’s “Zoning for Housing” component, which has its own faulty logic. The city asserts that there is a regional housing shortage that reduces affordability, and that Alexandria must lead the charge to address it. But a dramatic increase in housing requires land.

Alexandria’s 15 square miles represent just 0.6% of Northern Virginia’s total area. How does the city put a dent into the housing shortage when 99.4% of regional land is outside its control? The city also claims – simplistically – that housing prices are only a function of supply and demand, and overhauling zoning ordinances to increase supply will solve the problem. Yet, adding 11,300 rental apartment units since 2013 didn’t make housing more affordable.

So, what is this initiative really about?

City officials have admitted that they are pursuing more density and additional tax revenue, probably to address looming financial challenges. However, the consistently high tax bill increases of the past decade have proven that growth does not always pay for itself. Then there are the density-loving special interests. For them, “Zoning for Housing, Housing for All” is clearly a “green initiative” – i.e., it’s all about the money.

That’s why they covet the land we live on.

The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.

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