ARISE calls for more money, affordable housing in budget talk

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ARISE calls for more money, affordable housing in budget talk
The group that showed up to call for more money for the ARISE program had many signs. (Photo/Caitlyn Meisner)
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

City Council’s public hearing on Saturday was full of action, as a packed Council chambers had attendees pushing for additional funds for ARISE, which was a docketed agenda item, while a large contingent also spoke during the public comment period asking Council to pass an Israel-Hamas cease-fire resolution. Councilors also engaged in a long discussion about the Vulcan site redevelopment proposal.

Council chambers were so full as the meeting started at 9:30 a.m. that many speakers and onlookers had to go into the dedicated overflow room. Dozens of Alexandrians showed up to call for additional money for the Alexandria Recurring Income for Success and Equity, or ARISE, program. It’s a guaranteed income pilot study that provides a $500 monthly payment to 170 randomly selected participants for two years.

The budget addition is sponsored by Councilors Sarah Bagley and Canek Aguirre to provide an additional $550,000 to the fiscal year 2025 budget. It is co-sponsored by Councilors Alyia Gaskins and R. Kirk McPike.

In the proposal, it states these funds would be to “create a contingency … to work on the best application of funding to bridge the completion of the pilot and the [fiscal year 2026] budget.”

Many school-aged children, parents and senior citizens showed up at the hearing with signs as well, occupying much of the back of the chamber. Signs were held as speakers shared their testimony, varying from “Include us in the budget!” to “Protect our low income community!”

“[My mother] has no day off, all to be able to pay the high cost of rent and to provide what is necessary for us,” a 14-year-old Alexandria City High School International Academy student, said. “… My wish is that you support us because there’s not enough housing for families like mine. We need programs like ARISE and housing vouchers to have a better quality of life.”

Representatives from Tenants and Workers United and African Communities Together spoke in support of the additional ARISE funds and affordable housing.

“While we appreciate the good intention of Council members proposing [the addition] … this is a great disappointment because our working-class families may only get the bare minimum as we see no commitment to expand to more families for future years,” Ingris Moran, lead organizer of TWU, said. “We hope you can take action now.”

Wilson said, in an interview with the Times, that housing creation and affordability is an important challenge, and the city has been working to increase resources and housing supply.

“During the last several budgets, we have increased resources every single year, and I imagine that this year – while we’re not done yet – I think we will again increase the amount of resources that we have committed to the creation of affordable housing,” he said.

Council also engaged in a discussion about the Vulcan site redevelopment following a staff presentation that recommended approval with conditions. The Planning Commission also approved the project unanimously.

At 701 South Van Dorn St. and 698 Burnside Place, there are several proposals for the area, including, but not limited to, amendments to the Eisenhower West Small Area Plan, a text amendment to include hotel and townhouses and a change the zoning map to a make the area a coordinated development district.

The applicant, Lennar Corporation and Potomac Land Group II, LLC, propose to redevelop the expansive 773,892 square foot lot into a new neighborhood with three new public streets, one private street, six private alleys and a new public park. The applicant also proposed building 31 townhomes, 88 stacked townhouses, six midrise buildings – that the apartment classified as condo flats – and a 256-room short- and long-stay hotel with ground-floor retail.

Councilor Canek Aguirre pointed out that this site would be an “island” without any affordable housing; the applicant vowed to voluntarily contribute a little more than $3.5 million to the Housing Trust Fund, but no affordable units will be available on-site.

“The first speaker for this said that this is going to be a lot of opportunity. There will be. But my question is, opportunity for whom?” Aguirre said. “While on Council, we have put affordable housing everywhere, all across the city. What I’m seeing with this project is essentially an island.”

He acknowledged the $3.5 million was a lot of money, but asked the applicant and staff how far this money will go. Kenny Turscak, a housing analyst for the city, said there were possibly seven to 10 units that could be bought for affordability, but clarified these were rough estimates.

“Everybody knows that in this city, we are tight for land. And when we have the opportunity to actually utilize our land, and when we know there’s a housing crisis going on … but where is housing most needed? It’s most needed at 40% and below of the area median income,” Aguirre said. “I don’t see how we can say this is OK though. Again, who is this opportunity for?”

Ultimately, Council voted on the proposal and it was approved 5-1 with Aguirre being the only dissenting vote. Councilor John Taylor Chapman was absent from the chamber at this point and did not vote on the redevelopment.

More people spoke at the end of the meeting, several of which were calling for an Israel-Hamas cease-fire resolution. One speaker even engaged in a slight back-and-forth with Mayor Justin Wilson. Tristan Varma began his virtual testimony asking Council a question.

“Do you agree with the following statement? ‘The people of Palestine are people.’ If you could please raise your hand if you agree,” Varma said.

Members of the organization, Alexandria for Palestinian Human Rights, were in attendance holding signs and raised their hands, agreeing with Varma’s statement. Those supporting the organization were some of the only in-person onlookers that remained in the chambers holding “CEASE FIRE” and “CEASE FIRE NOW” signs.

Wilson responded, stating the public hearing period is just that: those on the dais do not engage in a question and answer session with speakers.

Varma pushed back on Council as several in the crowd raised their hands, but those on Council did not respond. He said if they disagreed with his original statement, they may keep their hand down.

“OK, I understand. So, just for the record, this will be remembered for the rest of human history that on April 13, 2024 [all on Council] refused to agree that the people of Palestine are people,” Varma said. “ … I feel absolutely confident that if you can’t agree [with the statement], you don’t deserve a political career.

“And I hate to say this, but I will do everything within my legal rights to make sure that you don’t. Don’t be so certain that I won’t succeed, because the people of Palestine are people whether you’re willing to engage with that question or not,” he added, finishing his statement to many snaps of approval from those in the crowd.

This exchange was posted to social media by the organization and has received, according to APHR member, Katie O’Connell, more than 50,000 views on Instagram. And this post has received more engagement from those who don’t follow the account too; @alx4palestine has just over 2,300 followers, but the post has more than 4,200 likes and 189 comments.

In an interview with the Times, Wilson said Council needs to “stay in our lane.”

“This is not appropriate for the City Council to weigh in on this; [it’s] not something we have expertise on or professional staff to advise ourselves on,” Wilson said. “I think we all have very personal views about what’s going on in the Middle East … that being said, I just don’t feel like this is an appropriate thing for the Council to weigh in on.”

Alexandrians and regional residents alike have been calling on City Council for months to demand a cease-fire. Over 100 localities across the country – Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Providence and Seattle are just a few of the major cities – have passed resolutions following the Oct. 7, 2023, attack, including Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, which passed as recently as April 1.

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