Possible benefits versus certain costs

Possible benefits versus certain costs

We are not convinced by the arguments in favor of the Zoning for Housing initiative, on which the city of Alexandria has spent $100,000 for a public relations campaign, according to records obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests. 

As Mark Eaton states in his column on the facing page, it feels as if the city has scheduled “a meeting a day” with the public from now until Zoning for Housing is scheduled to come before City Council at the November 28 legislative meeting. Such engagement will certainly allow city leaders to say they “listened to the public” on this issue. 

But what, if anything, have they actually heard? More specifically, what resident concerns have been incorporated into the initiative? 

Is it being broken into smaller pieces, so that the proposal’s impact and unintended consequences can be deeply examined one-by-one? Are provisions for residents to appeal specific projects, beyond filing lawsuits, being added? Are any members of Council pausing to consider whether this initiative is actually going to make Alexandria a better place to live – for everyone? 

Also unconvincing are the macro arguments being made in favor of the initiative. It’s being justified as a way to increase affordable housing, to right racist zoning laws and because other localities have implemented it. 

Let’s examine those claims one by one: 

Will increasing Alexandria’s population by 50% actually lower housing costs? It’s true that a basic premise of economics holds that greater supply generally lowers the cost of an item, while greater demand increases cost. However, common sense makes clear that higher housing costs accompany more density. 

All one has to do is look at densely populated cities compared to those with less density and rural areas to see that across the board housing costs rise with added density. Not only will Zoning for Housing not lower housing prices in Alexandria, it will greatly accelerate the cost of living here. Zoning for Housing would indeed be equitable: it would increase the cost of housing for all. 

That doesn’t take into account the extraordinary price tag for building out Alexandria’s infrastructure to accommodate 80,000 more residents. It is residents who will pay for this, both in money and quality of life. 

The notion that racist zoning laws are still on the books in Alexandria is both silly and insulting. So we will respect the intelligence of the people claiming that racist wrongs will be righted by Zoning for Housing by assuming they mean that the effects of prior Jim Crow era laws persist. But home-buying or renting in the Alexandria of 2023 is a function of wealth, not race. 

Rather than delving into a dissertation about the causes of and solutions to income inequality, it’s again a matter of costs and benefits. The ethnic demographics of Del Ray might become somewhat more diverse if more historic bungalows are torn down to build duplexes and if Mt. Vernon Avenue becomes dotted with seven-story buildings. 

Loss of the Town of Potomac’s historic designation, along with overcrowding, a dearth of parking, increased flooding and a host of other ills is a really steep price to pay for an incremental uptick in diversity. The possible benefit is not worth the certain cost. 

The least convincing argument for Zoning for Housing is that “everyone is doing it.” Mayor Justin Wilson recently justified Zoning for Housing in an interview with the Times, saying “This is the same solution that is being offered in almost every [place] in America.” That statement is a significant exaggeration. And just as responsible parents don’t let their children have a curfew of 3 a.m. because “everyone” is doing the risky behavior du jour, neither should Alexandria implement a transformational change on the justification that it’s been done elsewhere. 

The only thing that matters is how this, or any, proposed initiative would impact Alexandria and Alexandrians. 

The trend of our current city leadership to ignore citizen voices is real and disturbing. For instance, with the also ill-advised Duke Street in Motion project, former longtime DASH Director Sandy Modell – Alexandria’s foremost expert on public transportation – laid out several objections and reasonable, vastly less destructive alternatives to DSIM. 

Lawyer Barbara Beach, a former Alexandria deputy city attorney, in an adjacent letter lays out many faults with the Zoning for Housing proposal – most significantly that it violates Alexandria’s City Charter. 

A large swath of Alexandrians vehemently oppose this initiative – and their opposition is becoming more sophisticated. Numerous, expensive lawsuits are certain to be filed by residents opposing this overall initiative and each specific project. 

While local Circuit Court judges in recent years have tended to side with the city in virtually every resident-filed lawsuit – a relationship that bears greater scrutiny – the cost to the city, and thus taxpayers, is going to be enormous if Zoning for Housing passes in anything close to its current form. 

Zoning for Housing is not going to accomplish its stated goals, and would be a financial disaster for the city. City Councilors need to have the courage to vote to defer and reconfigure, or simply defeat, this initiative.