By Caitlyn Meisner | email@example.com
Alexandria City Council held a town hall meeting Sunday afternoon during which they discussed homelessness, their views on ward systems, escalating violence, housing infrastructure and zoning.
In the two-hour meeting, Council members, Mayor Justin Wilson and Vice Mayor Amy Jackson took questions via flashcards from the 40 or so residents in attendance. City staff passed out these cards and pens upon entrance to the Del Pepper Community Center, where the meeting was held.
Wilson kicked off the meeting by joking with attendees about the Washington Commanders game happening simultaneously against the Buffalo Bills.
“We understand that we had competition for this time,” Wilson laughed. “You’ll still have plenty of time to watch the second half of the game and they’ll have a three touchdown lead by then.”
The first question tossed to the Council members was about passing a resolution on money in politics. Councilor Canek Aguirre said he was conflicted because he is a politician of color.
“It’s a little bit more difficult … already starting off with one hand behind your back,” Aguirre said. “I wish everybody would play by the rules, but that’s not the reality we’re living in.”
He said he was open to discussing it with the council, while Jackson said they need to keep their “eye on the prize” with state elections coming up.
Multiple questions came in regarding homelessness in Alexandria and the council’s efforts to reduce homelessness and/or build a new shelter. Councilor Alyia Gaskins fielded the first of the questions.
Gaskins said the city’s task force focused on preventing and ending homelessness is starting a deeper dive into the data about the root causes of this. She said this attempt to understand the reasons is a way to better support these populations in eradicating this issue in Alexandria.
Gaskins also said the city is not looking to build a new shelter, but assist existing shelters in providing resources for every type of person in need, whether they are a single parent, family unit or single person.
Aguirre added the homelessness issue is a widespread problem across the country and Council wants to expand current shelters to accommodate more people.
“The expansion of rooms is … not really dealing with the root case of the issue,” Aguirre said. “We need to also be looking at resources to transition folks right because as soon as they hit the benefit cliff, all of a sudden they might be losing (benefits).”
Jackson said it’s important to make housing more affordable to those populations. She said converting commercial to residential spaces and continuing to support food drives.
“We’re back to pandemic levels of food insecurity in this city,” Jackson said. “These are the people that need to make choices between putting food on the table for their families as well as paying their rent or mortgages.”
The conversation then moved to diverse representation, then to the potential for a ward system. Everyone on the council responded to this question. Jackson spoke first against the ward system.
“I like to know all the puzzle pieces and I would be concerned to have different people trying to vie for funding,” Jackson said. “You have really big areas like Del Ray going against a really small area in the West End and maybe that small area isn’t represented as well in terms of advocacy … or the number of people that are engaged.”
“Wards, I think, tend to foster competition and division between parts of our city,” Councilor Kirk McPike said. “A lot of the challenges that we face need to be a whole city effort. … We don’t want one part of the city or another bearing more of the weight because their representative isn’t as effective. Under this current system, we all care about everyone and can take a broad view on issues.”
Councilor John Chapman spoke next and said Washington, D.C.’s structure of advisory neighborhood commissioners is a better system rather than moving toward wards.
“These are volunteers that are at the hyper-local level,” Chapman said. “If we introduce something like that so neighborhoods have somebody that they could point to for their neighborhood representation, I think that might … solve some of the issues.”
Councilor Sarah Bagley also spoke against the ward system, followed by Gaskins. The conversation then moved to a discussion about crime and escalating violence on South Reynolds Street, as well as improved communications from the Alexandria Police Department, which the Times has reported on previously.
Wilson read multiple questions regarding an uptick in violence in the city. Council largely told residents to be cognizant of their surroundings, report everything to APD and lock all doors. Councilors said they were trying to invest more into the communications department to better notify the community. A deeper discussion on this topic took place at Tuesday’s legislative meeting.
“We are in the midst of investing further in our communications department [such as] adding roles at the APD and with the city,” Bagley said. “It is our intention to provide transparent information as promptly as possible.”
The last big topic of conversation at the meeting was about housing in the city. Council spent almost an hour of the two-hour meeting discussing housing. Several questions centered around unsavory landlord practices, rent increases, displacement and low-income housing plans.
“The housing market in Alexandria is, like in many places throughout the nation and in this region, in a crisis,” McPike said. “That crisis falls heaviest on those who have the least in our city.”
The Zoning for Housing initiative was also mentioned; McPike said these proposals intend to improve the health of the housing market to “diversify the offerings” available to incoming residents. McPike also said better code enforcement and improving older buildings are among priorities.
There were also questions on the topic of renaming Confederate street names after other important community figures. Council said they have plans for two or three streets at this point, but welcome suggestions for streets that need renaming and potential new names.
The next meeting will be Thursday at 6 p.m. It is a hybrid meeting to discuss Zoning for Housing further. The meeting is on Zoom and in person at the William Ramsay Recreation Multipurpose Room on 5650 Sanger Ave. In person and virtual interpretation services are available.