By Nathan Macek
I’d like to take you on a walk around my block. In the unit block of East Walnut Street, near Grape & Bean in Rosemont, you will find a mixture of single-family homes as well as duplexes, townhouses and garden apartments. Most are owner-occupied, but there’s a decent share of rentals as well. Our block is Exhibit A of how a mix of housing types can complement each other to create a great neighborhood that’s walkable and accessible to schools, parks, transit and shopping, which the city’s current “Zoning for Housing” proposal will advance.
On a few lots, our block also illustrates the absurdity of our current zoning ordinance. Several houses have been torn down in recent years and replaced with new, larger homes that only house one family. Within that same building envelope, we have the infrastructure to support more than one family, given two Metro stations within walking distance, an elementary school with 100 fewer students than before the pandemic and other community services within easy reach.
The Zoning for Housing proposals will help make Alexandria more livable by creating greater housing opportunities in the city. Historically, our zoning ordinance has been used to exclude residential access to neighborhoods by Blacks and other people of color as well as low-income families. As a city, we demonstrate better character when we undo the segregation that our zoning ordinance facilitates by allowing a greater mix of housing types.
Zoning for Housing would free landowners in the city’s single-family zones – which represent one-third of the city’s land area – to contribute to a comprehensive housing solution. Yet even with proposed policies that would allow up to four residential units per parcel, given the high cost of land here, the estimated rate of change will be slow. The city projects 178 new units in single-family zones during a 10-year period, roughly consistent with the rate of accessory dwelling unit construction over the past two years. We can remove regulatory barriers to enable more housing without fear that new policies will eliminate our existing neighborhoods.
Other proposed changes would affect multifamily, mixed-use and industrial zones. Collectively, these steps are estimated to produce more than 2,800 units over a 10-year period and are an incremental addition to more than 10,000 new housing units the city’s existing small area plans allow.
If we want to improve our schools and public services and decrease turnover by our teachers, police officers, bus drivers and other city workers, we need to provide more housing for middle-income earners. Zoning for Housing will help.
Will my children, who are now in elementary school, be able to afford housing in Alexandria when they are adults, 10 to 15 years from now? Will people who have historically been denied home ownership and rental opportunities be afforded a better chance? Can we increase our housing supply to support more middle-income families? Will we as a community look out for the collective best interests of all of us? Yes – if we broaden housing options by adopting the Zoning for Housing proposals. It’s an important first step our community can’t afford not to take.
The writer is chair of the Alexandria Planning Commission.