A heated debate: Zoning for Housing discussions intensify as November vote approaches

A heated debate: Zoning for Housing discussions intensify as November vote approaches
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

The city’s “Zoning for Housing/Housing for All” is approaching a final vote next month, which is sparking intense debates in support and dissent of the initiative. This heated discussion accelerated after drafts of revised text amendments were released in early October. 

The city recommended changes to the zoning ordinance on September 5 with a vote to come in late November by City Council. Recommendations, published on October 6, include changes to historic development patterns: identify neighborhoods where more units within the same footprint could be built, expand housing opportunities in single-family zones, potentially increase the number of households per lot in these zones, expand transit-oriented development, transition industrial zones for residential development, coordinate development districts and increase residential multi-family zones, office-to-residential conversions and townhouse zoning. 

This initiative is meant to rewrite city zoning laws to allow for more units to be placed in various neighborhoods across the city, according to information released by the city and zoning staff. The initiative is meeting with stiff resistance, however, from residents who say the sharp increase in density will destroy Alexandria’s livability and quality of life. 

Roy Byrd, chair of the Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, a grassroots organization of residents, is one of these voices in the debate. 

“When we looked at the Zoning for Housing initiative, we saw that what the city was providing to residents was really more marketing,” Byrd said. “We saw the need for alternative viewpoints to be heard as well.” 

Byrd said the organization’s goal is to slow down the initiative, as he believes the city is moving far too fast for residents to understand the implications of the text amendments and new rules. 

“The public is just expected to plow through this on their own,” Byrd said. “For lay persons, it’s even more complex [but] City Council has access to city lawyers … to help them understand the nuances.” 

For Mayor Justin Wilson, this initiative is somewhat of a no-brainer as the city is consistently in high demand. 

“People are going to want to live here and as long [as that happens], if we are not building the amount of housing supply to meet that demand, costs are going to go up,” Wilson said. “As it gets more and more expensive, that changes the … diversity of our community.” 

Wilson said this was a values question for residents and the city. 

“There are many communities who have chosen a different approach who have said that, ‘Listen, if you can afford here, great. If you can’t, that’s fine. There are other places to live,’” Wilson said. “I don’t think that’s in alignment with the values of Alexandria.” 

What is the goal? 

CLA and Wilson seem to disagree on the ultimate goal of this initiative. In a CLA community forum presentation, it states the “city aspires to add more than 80,000 more people,” to the population, despite Alexandria being one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S. 

Byrd, in an interview with the Times, questioned the true problem the city is trying to solve. 

“At the beginning, the problem [we thought] they were trying to solve was the affordability issue,” Byrd said. “That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.” 

Wilson said the goal is not to expand, but ensure the housing supply keeps up with the rapid increase in the population. 

“This area … this region is going to grow whether we do anything or not,” Wilson said. “The question is: do we want to ensure that we have a place for people in our community and do we want to ensure that Alexandria remains an accessible community?” 

Wilson said the ultimate goal is to make sure the city is accessible and available for those who wish to live here and not about making the city bigger. 

In response to this claim, Byrd said this does not make sense as there is not a large homeless population in Alexandria. In 2021, the city reported that there were 106 homeless people accounted for in the city, which included some families. 

“There’s a high cost of living in Alexandria, but the mayor and Council should be working harder at creating the kinds of jobs [and] economic development that will make it more affordable for people to work and live in Alexandria,” Byrd said. 

Wilson said there is a high cost of living in the city and it will only increase as the years pass. He said next year, a two-bedroom apartment rental will reach $2,100, meaning people must make $90,000 a year to live in those units. 

“That closes the door on being a part of Alexandria for a lot of people, and the diversity that this community has relied on as a core value … is changing,” Wilson said. 

The tax on current residents 

The city’s tax base is mainly based on property taxes acquired by taxing owners of homes and other residential dwellings based on the value of their property. Byrd said property taxes will increase as more assessments are conducted. 

Byrd suggested the city should focus on economic development to bring big businesses in to alleviate the tax burden on residents. 

Wilson said established residents often do leave because rent or the cost of a single-family home has skyrocketed in a short period of time. 

“Providing additional housing supply is never going to push anyone out of the city,” Wilson said. “If anything, it’s going to help provide options for people to remain in the city. If people don’t have enough food and you provide more food, that doesn’t make more people hungry.” 

The bottom line 

Byrd said the CLA is ultimately concerned about the quality of life being harmed with this initiative, as many things in the city may change as a result. 

“At the end of the day, if this is rushed through and passes in November, then what we’re going to see is life’s going to get a lot harder here,” Byrd said. “We’re going to see more expensive apartments added, but not a lot of affordable housing. We’re going to see more gentrification. We’re going to see increased housing costs because of tax assessments as land values go up and the city assessors take advantage of that to increase their tax revenue.” 

Property taxes are influenced by the location, size, age and usage of the dwelling. 

For Wilson, the bottom line is to create more opportunities for current and future Alexandrians. He said Zoning for Housing is not groundbreaking policy, but rather a reflection of an ongoing debate happening in urban areas across the nation. 

“This is the same solution that is being offered in almost every palace in America because it’s something the last two governors have advanced and it’s something the last three presidents have advanced,” Wilson said. “This is not some kind of magical thing that we came up with in Alexandria. This is mainstream housing reform designed to address affordability challenges.”