By Mark Eaton
There are important takeaways from the Zoning for Housing debate that should not be lost in the collective exhale of relief, or disappointment, after City Council’s unanimous November 2023 vote to adopt ZFH. Our tendency is to move on to the next topic, for example, the proposed Potomac Yard sports and entertainment complex, but ZFH deserves reflection.
At times, ZFH involved people intensely talking past each other. An anti-ZFH argument was the city’s small area plans collectively authorize a maximum of 40,000 additional housing units, which translates to a population increase of 80,000 residents, or about half again today’s population of 158,000. ZFH critics said this will create unsustainable pressure on infrastructure and lead to an unlivable city.
Advocates for ZFH and city officials countered that infrastructure improvement planning was part of the small area plan process, that ZFH creates a modest number of “net new units” or housing units in addition to those previously approved and the maximum number of units authorized in the small area plans will never be built.
Both ways of thinking cannot be correct. If the sum of the housing units authorized in the small area plans represents more than the whole of what would or could be built, there should be an understandable public written explanation of why that is so.
Much of the ZFH controversy involved predictions or apprehensions about additional housing and the quality of life in the single-family zones. Many people reacted by envisioning changes to their neighborhoods. Those interested in a deep data dive should read the consultant’s economic report that formed the basis for the Planning & Zoning Department’s projections of ZFH-generated housing units.
The report identifies the property price points at which duplex and fourplex projects are economically feasible. It estimates a possible redevelopment of 5% of properties in the single-family zones and can be found on the ZFH section of the city’s website, but it takes digging to find it.
The housing debate, which included residents saying that they were unaware of the proposed changes until late in the process, showed that firehose-style information delivery of putting everything of possible relevance on the city’s website has its limitations. An old-fashioned citywide mailing in July describing ZFH’s essential recommendations would have been a useful alert that something important was coming.
Some argued that ZFH should have been delayed because there was insufficient time to review the draft text amendments to the zoning code. I practiced law for more than 30 years and am no more prepared to review zoning code amendments than I am to read a novel in Norwegian.
However, there is a community interest in knowing that the text amendments accurately align with what Council approved.
The text amendments were reviewed by the City Attorney’s office, but a review of the changes by outside experts – for example, an Alexandria Bar Association committee – would ensure that what was passed is accurately reflected in the zoning code without ambiguities or inconsistencies.
The ZFH debate seemed to overlook the guardrails in place if things go seriously wrong. ZFH’s adoption need not trigger an unguided and uncorrectable crash dive into civic catastrophe. If P&Z’s projections materially understated the actual pace of development – imagine developers and lawyers with redevelopment applications lined up single file from City Hall to the Potomac River – the city has legislative and administrative responses such as further zoning amendments.
When Council adopted ZFH, Councilor Alyia Gaskins suggested a public “dashboard” to monitor ZFH’s effects. Shortly after that, P&Z Director Karl Moritz said, “We will get to work on that.”
Eventually, ZFH may be viewed as the first step in the difficult process of establishing a new direction in Alexandria’s housing policy with changes that were important, but not broadly transformative. If so, ZFH was worth the effort.
Finally, Housing for All seemed to recede as a topic during the intense debate. Even so, Housing for All was a reminder that we should never forget the past, nor should we be constrained by it.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@ gmail.com and free subscriptions to his newsletter are available at https:// aboutalexandria.substack.com/.