Dozens show support, opposition to incoming Zoning for Housing vote

Dozens show support, opposition to incoming Zoning for Housing vote
(File photo)

By Caitlyn Meisner |

In a nearly four-and-a-half hour public hearing Tuesday night at the City Council legislative meeting, dozens of residents spoke up either for or against the Zoning for Housing changes to be voted on November 28 by Council.

The night started off rather tame as the Council welcomed new city attorney, Cheran Cordell Ivery, after Joanna Anderson, who currently holds the position, announced her retirement effective at the end of the year. Ivery will begin her position on January 8 and is transitioning from her role as city attorney in Hampton. She received a unanimous vote from Council.

Council also voted unanimously to approve a resolution confirming the intention to fund the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 20, Local 3001. This agreement covers more than 200 employees across six departments in the city and this is the third collective bargaining agreement the city has made since 2021.

Then, around 7 p.m., the public hearing started after a brief staff presentation. Council chambers were packed with scheduled speakers and onlookers. The first speaker, Barbara Beach of South Royal Street, spoke in opposition to the proposed changes.

Beach’s testimony was the first of 75 speakers that were present – either in the chambers or via Zoom – and used their three minutes to tell Council how they feel about the proposed changes. While many more signed up to speak, several did not show when their name was called.

A major theme of the testimonies was either the zoning changes were too much – the changes were going too far in the wrong direction for the city, and specifically, in regard to single-family/unit zoning – or it was too little: Council needed to go beyond the proposed changes to fix the affordable housing crisis.

The opposition

Alexandrians who opposed the zoning changes unequivocally spoke about single-family/unit zones and the fear they felt about the city eliminating them to create mixed-residence type zones.

Carter Flemming, chair of the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations, spoke in opposition to what she called the “sweeping changes.” The federation proposed that Council postpone the initiative until after Alexandria’s local elections next year.

“Do you really believe that ending single-family zones and neighborhoods should ever be characterized as modest or small-scale?” Flemming asked Council.

Karen Johnson, a Del Ray resident, said she was unsure of how building large duplexes in single-family zones would address the affordable housing crisis.

“We see a blank check for developers,” Johnson said. “The city instead should commit to helping neighborhoods preserve affordable housing stock, which is being demolished and replaced by ‘McMansions’ on a daily basis.”

Brian Mistretta said single-family homeowners made the conscious choice to live in single-family zones, not mixed-residency zones.

“One of the reasons we chose Alexandria is because it wasn’t as overbuilt as Arlington was,” Mistretta said. “What developer will build a lower-cost unit out of the goodness of their heart?”

“The elimination of single-family zoning will not remedy the past evil of racial segregation in the city,” William Stone, a resident of Braddock Heights for nearly 45 years, said. “More than 50 years have passed since racial covenants and red-lining were outlawed. The proposed changes will not promote any significant economic diversity in our neighborhood.”

Mary Embry, a Jefferson Park resident, said progress means to protect current residents and the city from being destroyed.

“While it is admirable to want to help the area’s housing crisis, your generosity is blinding you from the harsh realities of what life would look like if all these ordinances were put into practice,” Embry said. “Reducing [the number of single-family homes] will further increase prices and make it even more difficult for potential homebuyers to reasonably own a home in Alexandria.”

“The housing will not be affordable – it will not be geared to a moderate income,” Judy Miller, a resident of Rosemont, said. “Wealth defines affordability, economics dictates this. The city is offering no protections to single-family homeowners.”

William Shen, treasurer of the Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, said the proposed changes will make the city more crowded and less livable for residents.

“Zoning for Housing … will set off a scramble by developers to buy properties to tear down and rebuild, which will run up the housing costs for everyone,” Shen said. “What Alexandria actually needs are relatively affordable opportunities for homeownership, especially for young families.”

Shen, on behalf of the CLA, asked for Council to extend the voting deadline beyond November 28, break the plan down and listen to residents. Mayor Justin Wilson asked Shen – someone who has a masters degree in urban planning – to provide potential solutions to the challenges he mentioned in his testimony.

Wilson and Shen sparred for a few moments, disagreeing on the nature of the question. Wilson asked for a proposal, but Shen said he did not have the time to come up with a plan that would eventually be opposed.

Other councilors – including Canek Aguirre, Kirk McPike and John T. Chapman – spoke after Shen’s testimony and attempted to fact check some of the claims made by Shen and previous residents.

The support

Many residents who spoke in favor of the proposed changes applauded Council for the constant communication and commitment to diversifying the housing market in Alexandria. But, many pushed Council to go even further in the future.

“Just like many of my neighbors, I share the concern of not wanting the character of the city to completely change,” Stephanie Elms of Del Ray said. “But I also recognize that the city is already changing and will continue to change whether [this] passes or not.”

Elms, a new resident of the city, said one of the many reasons she loves Alexandria is because of the mix of housing types.

“It is the diversity of the housing types that makes Del Ray and Alexandria so unique and different from other, more cookie cutter suburban neighborhoods in Northern Virginia,” Elms said. “Increasing the available housing options that can be built will provide the city with much-needed flexibility to manage the inevitable change as it comes.”

Joe Fray, a resident of the city for more than 10 years, said he’s excited for new neighbors to move in, old neighbors to stay and for the city to grow. Fray spoke against the civil and citizen associations, stating they do not represent the entirety of the population they claim to represent.

“More housing and more density will give us a more livable city,” Fray said. “The amount of fear mongering and deliberate misinformation … has been incredibly disappointing.”

Anderson Vereyken, a resident on Braddock Place, said he supports the proposed changes as a good start.

“We should pursue a future where young people and working class people have a path to homeownership in Alexandria,” Vereyken said. “The Alexandria of the 2030s and 2040s will see our decisions over the coming years as an inflection point: will that backwards gaze see a city striving to tackle the problems of its day, or we will be remembered as the ones who allowed stagnation and self-interest to make homeownership the haven of a privileged few?”

Alex Goyette, an Alexandria resident and lead of the YIMBYs of NoVA, said the organization supports the proposal before Council but encourages them to take the reforms further.

“There’s nothing wrong with living in a single-family house, but a city cannot be affordable when it’s setting aside a third of its land for the exclusive use of the most expensive type of housing,” Goyette said. “There’s nothing wrong with owning your home – I own mine; but a city cannot prioritize low-income residents while banning rental apartments in entire neighborhoods.”

Goyette continued, stating the city needs to take these first steps now.

“These reforms won’t solve our housing crisis; you’ll need to do more,” Goyette said. “I hope you’ll legalize apartments citywide and provide more funds for affordable housing and empower our renters with more rights to dignified homes.”

The hearing concluded around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday. A public hearing will be held Saturday and residents are encouraged by Council to sign up to speak. Council will take the proposals under consideration at the next legislative meeting on November 28.