Part 2 ZONING SERIES
ALEXANDRIA, VA – The large lecture hall at the Holiday Inn down the street from Wegman’s in Carlyle began filling up well before the start time Tuesday evening August 29. Hundreds of Alexandria residents on both sides of this heated debate turned out for a three-hour information session, as they heard from housing experts on the plight of housing in the city of Alexandria.
Many more watched the panel session from home. The room was packed with several more people standing in the back. “We are here to educate, inform, and update you on the most recent data, and to hear from you,” began Nancy Wilson, assistant director, City Planning and Zoning.
Zoning for Housing/Housing for All is an ambitious goal to change zoning restrictions in the city to make housing more affordable and to address housing scarcity. The initiative includes multiple community meetings and surveys up until the vote in late November. But the plan is getting pushback from residents.
Alexandria Has a Housing Crisis
Guest speakers at last week’s forum laid it out in stark language. Alexandria has a housing crisis. There is not enough housing. There is not enough affordable housing. Many households are what the experts call housing-cost-burdened. Over 30 percent of their income is swallowed up by housing costs, leaving them precious little for other necessities such as food, clothing, and childcare.
“We recognize that we have an affordability crisis,” Mayor Justin Wilson told Zebra last week in a phone interview. “We are a community that for moderate earners is becoming largely out of reach. We don’t have enough supply, not enough housing available. Tenants are being hit with substantial rent increases. How do we address the supply shortage? How do we look at inequities in the city?”
It may seem as if a shiny new apartment building is going up everywhere you turn, rising like phoenixes towards the skies.. But it’s not nearly enough, experts told the overflow crowd at the Holiday Inn.
Citizens opposed to zoning reforms worry that Alexandria will start to look like Ballston and Clarendon in Arlington, losing its small-town charm and quaintness. One questioner was concerned about “towering new apartment and condo buildings” and wondered how the city will find the resources to accommodate all those new residents. Protestors opposed to what they call the city’s push for greater density gathered at a rally in Market Square the previous evening.
Roy Byrd, chairman of Coalition For A Livable Alexandria told reporters at that rally, “we are not policy makers. We are residents. And we have a right to know what it is our city is proposing, what our policy makers are doing and we deserve to know the details and we deserve to know the impacts.” The coalition stressed that it supports affordable housing overall but feels the plan is being rushed.
“That argument is disingenuous,” the mayor countered, pointing to a year-long process to engage with the community before a proposal comes out tonight. “We have two and a half months,” Wilson insisted, referring to additional community forums lined up for the fall.
“I want to see more affordable single-family homes,” Byrd maintained. “We are the densest city in the Commonwealth.”
Byrd is worried changing zoning ordinances to allow for more mixed-use buildings and multi-family homes could alter the historic character of the city and create density, infrastructure, and sewage problems.
But there’s no getting around our “housing-cost-burdened crisis,” city housing director Helen McIlvaine told the gathering last week. “People who are making $80,000 or less in our city are housing-cost-burdened. That means they are spending a lot more of their income on housing [versus] other things that are also very desirable. Childcare, education, healthcare, food — it’s really a struggle and people are making tradeoffs that we don’t want them to have to make just to keep a roof over their heads,” she said.
Anita Morrison of Partnerships for Economic Solutions tried to drive home that Alexandria’s high housing prices are squeezing out certain segments of the population.
“One of the things we found,” emphasized Morrison, “is what happens when you are looking at a tight housing market is the change in the city’s age mix. Some of this is happening just because of demographics and the baby boomers aging. Everybody ages! But the fastest growing age category in the city is people who are 65 – 74. And then also children under 20. But the numbers of folks 20 – 24 living in Alexandria have actually dropped. This cohort did not grow nearly as much as the rest of the population. In part that’s a reflection of not being able to get into the market to be able to afford to rent or to buy here.”
Bill Pugh lives in Alexandria and is senior policy fellow with Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Would you go so far as to say we have a housing crisis?,” Zebra asked Pugh in a phone interview two days after the community forum.
“Alexandria has a housing shortage like many jurisdictions,” said Pugh, “and it also has an affordability issue as well. Whether we call it a crisis or not, the data that was presented by the Urban Institute has clearly shown there’s not enough housing in the DC region on all income levels. And we see that in day-to-day examples. My kids attend ACPS schools and many of their teachers drive in from Prince William and Prince George’s counties because they can’t afford to live here.
Colleagues with two professional incomes can’t afford a starter home,” Pugh stated. “We feel the lack of housing options.”
Approximately 15,500 Alexandria renter households with incomes up to $75,000 are estimated to be housing-cost-burdened. Those earning below $50,000 experience housing cost burden most acutely (approximately 10,500 households).
In addition, approximately 3,500 Alexandria homeowner households with incomes up to $75,000 are estimated to be housing cost burdened (American Community Survey 2017-2021 5-Year Estimates).
What the City is Thinking Will Help
City officials are exploring nine different zoning ordinances, which include where multi-family homes are allowed and converting office buildings to residential properties. The recommendations also include changing height requirements so developers can add more affordable housing units and allowing more homes per lot in single-family zones.
Zebra caught up with Alexandria City Councilmember Sarah Bagley just before last week’s community forum got underway. Zebra asked her, “What about police, firefighters and teachers who serve the city but cannot afford to live here?”
“I like this question,” replied Bagley, “because who doesn’t support the idea of those valuable members of our society living closer? But it allows me to speak to what isn’t often spoken enough on this topic, that of climate change.
“This housing conversation has to consider the ways in which we build, the ways in which we live,” Bagley continued. “We simply have to create more energy efficient housing, we have to put people closer to where they work, closer to where they play so that they are cutting down on commutes, can use public transportation. Part of this process is recognizing the urgent crisis we face of climate change. Alexandria has a unique opportunity to create housing that does not also require long commutes.”
Pugh addressed concerns that density will change the historic and unique character of the city that drew its residents to this town in the first place.
“My wife and I have lived here for 15 years and in that time, the city has added 25,000 people, We find the city has maintained its distinctive character with some areas becoming even more vibrant.”
Krystyn Moon, professor of History and American Studies at University of Mary Washington discussed race-based discrimination and mortgages in Alexandria and the history of redlining in our city. Redlining has come to mean racial discrimination of any kind in housing where Black residents lived and were therefore deemed risky investments. The process contributed to the racial segregation that shaped the way America looks today.
The City will present formal proposals tonight, Tuesday, September 5 from 5-7 p.m. at City Hall Council Chambers on the second floor. The City Council and Planning Commission will hold a joint work session where they will receive draft recommendations on the City’s proposed Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiatives. Tonight’s meeting is open to the public; however, there will be no public comment session.
This meeting is open to the public; however, public testimony or comment will not be received.
Community members may watch the work session via the following:
• Register in advance for this webinar:
• Meeting ID: 994 1790 5496
• Passcode: 011675
• Dial in: ?301.715.8592?
Interpretation services will be provided for in person and Zoom attendees in Amharic, Arabic and Spanish.