ALEXANDRIA, VA – A controversy over zoning and density is brewing in the city of Alexandria. City leaders are trying to address the serious housing shortage, and affordable housing by rolling out a series of community forums this fall to discuss the Zoning for Housing initiative. The first planning session was held Tuesday night August 29. But a newly formed Alexandria organization is pushing back on those measures. The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria kicked off its mission with a rally at Market Square in Old Town Monday night.
Over 125 people turned out to listen and express their discontent. Roy Bryd is chairman of the coalition. “We were formed as a result of residents in Alexandria, many of you are here, who have expressed concerns that all voices are listened to, not just heard but listened to, and that all residents have an opportunity to weigh in on the formulation of policy decisions and are able to engage in substantive dialogue, substantive debate on the issues.”
Byrd continued, “I want to say out of the gate we really really do want to be inclusive! We consider ourselves inclusive, we’re bringing in everyone, we don’t care what side of the issue you’re necessarily on, if you’re civil and you listen, we all move together in the same direction to make Alexandria not only livable but at a standard of quality of life that we can all be proud of, that we grow as a community, in a sensible sustainable way and that we don’t have winners and losers.”
According to the city’s website, “Zoning for Housing is a comprehensive proposal of zoning reforms with the goal of expanding housing production and affordability and addressing past and current barriers to equitable housing access.
The City is continuing its Zoning for Housing work begun in 2020 by exploring additional solutions to these long-standing challenges through proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinance.”
In advance of the newly formed coalition rally Monday night, Mayor Justin Wilson drove around the city Sunday, his daughter in tow, documenting multi-family housing built around Alexandria, some of which could not be erected today under the current zoning regulations.
In an interview Tuesday morning following the rally, the mayor talked about his drive around town to Zebra Press. “In general, the intent of the drive Sunday is that there’s been discussion concerning incompatibility with multi-family housing in single family neighborhoods. Anyone who’s lived in our community for a while knows this is crazy. We’ve had multi-housing for generations. My goal was to document multi-housing families in direct proximity to single family housing.”
The mayor continued, “There is pushback that somehow this is a foreign concept and would be a radical change.”
But Will Shen is worried. He is treasurer for the Coalition, is a homeowner, and has lived in Alexandria for ten years. Shen’s background is in housing development and policy and he currently works on affordable housing measures.
“In my professional experience, Zoning for Housing is going to make Alexandria significantly less livable for its existing residents,” he warned the gathered audience. “Whether you are a renter or a homeowner, expect your quality of life, if this plan goes forward in November, to get steadily worse. Zoning for Housing intends to bring tens of thousands of additional people into Alexandria. Yet it includes no plans for additional infrastructure to support these people. No additional schools, city services, sewer, water, or power. No additional police or fire. No parks, roads and certainly no parking.
Presumably these things will all be taken care of at some point in the future, if at all,” Shen posited. “But certainly at your expense. So many people, using our already inadequate infrastructure, nearly everything you do in Alexandria will cost more and take longer. But all that assumes that you’ll still be living in Alexandria in a couple of years.”
Alexandria Councilwoman Aliyah Gaskins reflected on Zoning for Housing after the rally. In an interview, she told Zebra Press, “Let’s talk about the why. At the end of the day, when I think of Zoning for Housing, we live in a city that people love. I love it. I chose to be here, you chose to be here, many of us have moved here because we want to raise a family here. Thinking about Zoning for Housing is an opportunity to think about how we create more opportunities for people to live here and to stay here and to experience this amazing place that we are all fortunate to call home.”
Gaskins refuted claims that the city lacks the infrastructure for additional housing. “Some people don’t realize we are actually looking at this in a very comprehensive way. There’s no way we’re talking about housing without talking about infrastructure. There’s no way we’re talking about new developments without talking about roads, sidewalks, schools. Just because you don’t hear it in every conversation, does not mean that it’s not being thoughtfully considered. What do developers need to do in partnership with us to produce those very things?”
Gaskins added that it breaks her heart when police officers, firefighters, and teachers, who serve the city so nobly, cannot afford to live in the very city they serve and protect.
Mayor Wilson also countered the charge that added density would make the city less affordable, not more.
“First of all, there’s a values argument here. We have a housing shortage. The economic argument is that when you create supply, you moderate prices. That’s reality. There’s literally no study that shows otherwise. If you lack supply, you can’t moderate lower prices.”
Several elected officials attended the Coalition rally Monday night. Among the crowd were Council members Alyia Gaskins, John Chapman, and Vice Mayor Amy Jackson. Also in attendance were former city Mayor Allison Silberberg and former Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland.
“This is not about fighting,” Coalition Chair Roy Bryd stressed. “Since this is the 50th anniversary of hip hop,” he quipped, “this is not about fighting the power. “
Nate Hurto is co-founder of Save Del Ray. Talking to Zebra before he took to the stage, Hurto expressed his doubts and concerns. “We think it could really speed and incentivize tear downs of market rate affordable housing that exists already, the historic core, all the provisions we need to have studies for what’s going to happen with things like storm water management, sewage, parking, impact to the schools. How do these changes really affect the overall quality of life. I think glossing those over puts an undue burden on residents.”
Roy Bryd emphasized the coalition is for more expanded affordable housing. “We are for affordable housing for everyone and we’re also for affordable housing that allows people to matriculate from one type of housing to another. So not just apartments, not just condos, not just townhouses but for those who like the lifestyle or want to one day move into a single-family home, they can do that too. Affordable for everyone. That should be the goal.”
The Zoning for Housing proposal is set to be released by city staff next month before a November vote.
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