Coalition for a Livable Alexandria sues city over Zoning for Housing

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Coalition for a Livable Alexandria sues city over Zoning for Housing
City staff and advisors gathered at a March 2023 event to discuss the Zoning For Housing initiative. (Photo/City of Alexandria)
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By Wafir Salih | wsalih@alextimes.com

The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, a local advocacy group of city residents, filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court on January 17 in response to City Council’s November 2023 Zoning for Housing vote to repeal protections surrounding single-family zoning.

“Today is the first step in protecting the due process and property rights of all Alexandria residents against unlawful, discriminatory actions taken by the city of Alexandria in a misguided attempt to rewrite zoning regulations for housing,” CLA Chair Roy Byrd said in the press release following the announcement. “Zoning law is complex and esoteric. People often don’t understand their rights, and even if they do, they don’t have the financial means to exercise them against the city government. We are here to be their voice.”

Mayor Justin Wilson, in an email response to the Times, refrained from commenting on the lawsuit’s specifics due to its ongoing nature. Wilson did, however, express he was confident in the legality of the zoning changes and defended Council’s decision to adopt ZFH/Housing for All.

“I can say that the city is very confident of both the legal defensibility of City Council’s policy decision and the alignment of that policy to the values of our community,” Wilson wrote.

Ebony Fleming, director of communications for the city, shared a similar sentiment in a statement.

“The Zoning for Housing initiative was adopted in accordance with applicable law, and the city is prepared to vigorously defend the amendments in court,” Fleming said.

In a publicly available court filing, legal representatives for CLA state the new ordinances related to housing and zoning are unlawful and these changes would increase density, change the city’s character and have not been proven to enhance affordability or diversity.

“Brand new luxury higher-density housing at an affordable price is not even a dream, it is an outright delusion,” the lawsuit reads. “In other words, the purpose of the Zoning Amendments is not to broaden access to traditionally single-family neighborhoods and to create affordable housing reversing generational impacts, but to simply create more housing – not affordable housing and not homeowners – by sacrificing the single-family home in Alexandria. This is unreasonable.”

YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, which stands for “yes in my backyard,” released a statement defending the city passing ZFH/Housing For All and said CLA’s lawsuit is “anti-housing.”

“City Council did the right thing for Alexandria by unanimously passing Zoning for Housing after years of careful study and public engagement. City staff conducted extensive research assessing the reforms’ impacts to ensure they would benefit our city,” Phoebe Coy, an Alexandria lead for the organization, said in the statement. “Our region has not built enough homes for everyone who works and attends school here, and Zoning for Housing is an important step toward legalizing the housing we desperately need.”

Both Byrd and Coy declined requests from the Times to comment on the lawsuit.

The ZFH/HFA initiative was adopted on Nov. 28, 2023, in a unanimous Council vote. The meeting went into the wee hours of the night, with residents on both sides of the debate waiting with bated breath for the result. Council heard arguments from city staff about how the new ordinances would expand housing, provide access to more affordable options and tackle equity concerns.

Discussions surrounding single-family zoning have taken the nation by storm in rrecent years. In 2019, Minneapolis was the first major city in the country to eliminate single-family zoning when their City Council adopted the Minneapolis 2040 plan. Places like Oregon, California and city neighbor Arlington followed suit with similar missing-middle plans.

In a unanimous vote last spring, the Arlington County Board effectively ended single-family zoning. Soon after, 10 Arlington residents filed a lawsuit against the county over the zoning changes. Arlington County judges recused themselves from presiding over the case. Judge David Schell, a former Fairfax County judge, was appointed and ruled in the fall that the residents had standing. The five-day trial is scheduled for July 8.

Alexandria Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, referencing the Arlington lawsuit, explained why she motioned to defer the single-family zoning aspect of the master plan.

“I motioned to defer the [single-family housing] item on the dais, which was defeated in a 5-2 vote. I heard the residents and I acted on it,” Jackson wrote in an email statement to the Times. “It is unfortunate that my colleagues did not have the same perspective and consideration. I even iterated that the Arlington case would be a good gauge to see how the legal aspect in a court of law would be tested and tried. Now we have seen that the Arlington case will be heard and that gives our residents the credibility necessary to make a case against this in Alexandria. I cannot fault them when I was trying to defer that piece of it myself. Time was on our side, but here we are.”

Jackson did, however, defend the office-to-residential conversions which were included in the overall ZFH plan. That part of the initiative would allow the city to monitor past and current conversions and decide in the future how helpful they are when it comes to addressing housing.

“As for other tools for ZFH/HFA that were in the package, such as the office-to-residential conversions that I have been promoting from the dais since the pandemic in 2020, those tools are needed coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic as we continue to find ways to increase the balance of empty commercial space and need for housing stock – especially needed at deeply affordable pricing,” Jackson wrote.

As it currently stands, the question of whether Alexandria Circuit Court judges will choose to recuse themselves, like their Arlington counterparts, remains unknown.

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