Analysis: A deep dive into residential zoning changes. Controversial initiative slated for City Council consideration this fall

Analysis: A deep dive into residential zoning changes. Controversial initiative slated for City Council consideration this fall
Edit: Mark Eton

By Mark Eton |

There may be no city process that potentially affects more Alexandrians than the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All that the City Council will deliberate this fall.

This initiative to revise the city’s zoning code and housing policies is intended to in- crease housing:

• Accessibility, with more choice of housing types;

• Affordability, resulting from expanded supply and price reduction, and

• Availability, with expanded types and locations of housing options.

The text of proposed changes to the zoning code, and other housing policy recommendations, are expected to be released in early September. This will be followed by additional community engagement meetings in September and October and public hearings in November, presumably with a vote by City Council to follow.

What’s under consideration

Zoning for Housing/Housing for All’s potential housing reforms are more extensive than the two topics that have attracted the most pub- lic comment: the proposal to permit increased building height and the impact of revised zoning on single family residence zones. The proposal would lower the threshold for increased building height to zones with height limits of more than 45 feet, from the current 50 feet, in return for additional affordable housing.

The proposal also includes potential revisions to the standards for office-to-residential conversions, analyses of industrial, residential multi-family and townhouse zones and a transit-oriented development analysis.

Housing presents difficult issues at every level of government. Housing policy often involves efforts to counter market – macroeconomic – forces with microeconomic tools, such as subsidies for developers or renters/home- buyers or public-private development projects.

Housing and education are public responsibilities that are never over: unlike infrastructure improvements, neither has a project completion date. Where issues involving education often have commonly agreed upon goals – student welfare and growth are generally shared essential goals – many people view housing issues almost entirely through the lens of their personal experiences and life- style preferences.

Impact of housing shortages

Housing and affordable housing shortages exist in Northern Virginia, not just in Alexandria. At a May 23 community meeting, Alexandria’s Director of Planning and Zoning Karl Moritz attributed the shortage to a dramatic slow- down in housing construction brought on by the pandemic. Moritz estimates that Alexandria needs to add about 2,200 housing units during the next 10 years to address the city’s share of the regional housing shortage of approximately 75,000 units over the same period. About 75% of Alexandria’s 2,200 units would need to be affordable to meet the city’s goals.

P&Z estimates that 15,000 Alexandria households with annual incomes up to $75,000 are housing cost-burdened, meaning they pay 30% or more of their income for housing costs. In the Arlandria and Beauregard neighborhoods these estimates rise to as much as 50 to 70%.

Community reactions

The public comments, and staff responses, to Zoning for Housing/Housing for All have been compiled in a chronological spreadsheet: 7ded755f89e04884bfc38fc391bda4b5.

The comments range from highly critical to very supportive of the initiative.

“This is just greed, cloaked in a thin pretense of social justice activism.”

“I’m a Del Ray homeowner and fully support the initiative. I saw the proposed zoning changes for Del Ray/Mt. Vernon Ave. and welcome the changes. It is a great neighbor- hood. I welcome more neighbors and support lowering our insane housing prices. We need more density and this is a sensible approach.”

Housing issues sometimes bring out the “If-you-are-for [or against]-X, then-your-character/values-must-be-Y” response. A city official noted that someone who favors retaining single-family zoning, or who is against density in excess of certain levels, may not be a racist or a closed- minded NIMBY troll and that

advocates for relaxing zoning restrictions are not automatically tools of developers.

How Housing for All relates to Zoning for Housing

Housing for All is the equity component of the city’s Zoning for Housing initiative. It is a reparations-themed effort to articulate the effects, or “vestiges” in the words of city officials, of past dis- criminatory housing policies and to identify how those effects can be addressed by housing reforms.

Housing for All may intensify the debate: to some res- idents, remedying the sins of the past makes current housing policy changes an absolute imperative while to others trying to address the effects of past injustices is an exercise of doubtful relevance.

Some of the vestiges of the past, such as racial restrictions in conveyancing documents, are repugnant but do not re- quire a zoning or housing pol- icy change. In 1948, in Shelley v. Kraemer the Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants were unenforceable be- cause they violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The well-documented use in Alexandria of residential real estate transaction documents with restrictive covenants into the early 1960’s can be explained as an intentional but futile effort to maintain past discriminatory practices or as the laziness of lawyers and title company employees who were slow to change their forms or as some of both.

Macro-vestiges – the com- position of the city’s neighborhoods – are potentially changeable but the changes may take decades. Some of Alexandria’s past major redevelopment efforts, such as the redevelopment of the Chinquapin Park and adjacent Alexandria City High School property and the relocation of families from Fort Ward – are now recognized as disproportionately impacting communities of color.

Emerging themes

1) Adding affordable housing is worth the effort.

The consensus of City Council and the Planning Commission is that increasing the supply of affordable housing is

essential to maintain a diverse Alexandria. Affordable housing advocates argue that it is critical that public employees who protect the community and teach its children have an opportunity to live in it. A forward-looking vision of afford- able housing as wise policy and a civic benefit seems to be the most compelling argument for increasing the supply of afford- able housing.

2) Preserve historic development patterns.

Alexandria has an existing stock of affordable, or at least more affordable, housing. Ironically, some of the historic development patterns that provided affordable housing, for example, the apartments and row houses along Commonwealth Avenue, are housing types that would be precluded under today’s zoning code.

The city’s challenge is how to stimulate the construction of similar affordable housing types without triggering the redevelopment of those that exist. For example, the redevelopment of the Lacy Court apartments, which date from the 1950s, on West Nelson Avenue into luxury townhouses would reduce the number of affordable housing units.

3) Alexandria is not Arlington.

Arlington County’s robust debate over the “missing middle” or “upzoning” took place in a county in which 70% of the housing is single-family dwellings. Alexandria has far less area zoned exclusively for single-family detached dwellings, 34%, than the county to our north.

Additionally, some of Alexandria’s single-family neighborhoods actually contain a greater mix of housing units than is commonly assumed. For example, Rosemont is 59% single family dwellings, with 1,115 units; 28% duplex or townhouse, with 525 units; and 12% multifamily, with 227 units.

Arlington’s discussion ultimately came down to fine distinctions, for example, whether six units or eight units would be permitted on sites that would otherwise have been used for single-family dwellings. The effects of changes to housing policies in Alexandria may also be gradual.

4) ADUs are a small step to more affordable housing. In January 2021, the City

Council approved an Accessory Dwelling Unit plan. ADUs are detached, think “granny flat,” or internal, such as an “English basement,” separate entry mini-residences on the site of an existing single- family home.

The addresses of the city’s 43 approved ADUs can be seen at ae234610e17143eb8731e0ad 9a6c4c4c.

City officials argue that even if many of these units are “granny flats” initially built for the convenience of the owners of the main or host properties they are likely to become affordable housing units at some point in the future.

5) Use may be more impactful than size.

The construction of the largest possible residence or residences permitted by the lot area is an economics-driven phenomenon that will probably continue.

For example, a very large project, which was discussed at the June 26 joint City Council/ Planning Commission meet- ing on Zoning for Housing/ Housing for All, is under construction at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and East Uhler Avenue.

Thus, how residential buildings are configured and used may be more essential to the city’s housing future than building size.

6) There is no one route to more affordable housing.

City officials respond to inquiries about how many affordable housing units will be created by Zoning for Housing/Housing for All by saying that the answer depends on the “tools,” or approaches, that will be implemented.

Housing Alexandria, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, has announced plans for what would be the city’s largest affordable housing project. Sansé and Naja is a planned 474-unit affordable housing development at the intersection of Mount Vernon Avenue and West Glebe Roads. The project includes 36,000 square feet of commercial space and a two-level underground garage. All units would be for households making up to 80% of the Area Median Income and 105 units would be “deeply affordable” for residents making 40% of the AMI.

7) The effects of zoning changes will be scattered.

At the City Council-Planning Commission meeting on Zoning for Housing/Housing for All there was no discussion of outlawing, or precluding, the construction of detached single family homes.

Councilors and Planning Commission members said that existing zoning standards – square footage, height and floor area ratio standards – may preclude expanding the number of units in what would otherwise be a single family dwelling. P&Z, with the assistance of consultants, is examining the number of units that could be built on a typical single family lot.

There are no substantial tracts of open land in Alexandria that await development. The city’s future residential development will consist of infill projects or redevelopment projects with substantial commercial aspects – like West End Alexandria and the GenOn power plant site – that have townhouse or multi-family residential components.

Alexandria’s density and expensive land present constraints and drivers. If the single family zones are changed to permit the construction of additional units such as duplex homes, these infill projects are likely to be as scattered as ADUs.

In the end, Alexandria’s homeowners and neighbor- hoods will determine the ex- tent that additional affordable housing becomes available in the city’s established single family residential areas.