Alexandria, VA

In a rare joint meeting of top Alexandria and Arlington officials, the two communities laid the foundation for a closer collaboration on affordable housing.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson and the City Council met with the Arlington County Board last night (Tuesday) at Arlington’s Gunston Community Center after Wilson’s proposal to meet on a flotilla of lashed-together kayaks in Four Mile Run was shot down. There was very little set in stone at the meeting, but the gathering allowed both organizations to set priorities for policy goals as they prepare for Amazon’s HQ2, the new Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, and a new George Mason University School of Computing.

“The work around Potomac Yard is different and groundbreaking,” Wilson said. “If we’re not intentional and deliberate, things will just happen to us. We have a chance to get ahead of things. I’m hoping to set a course that our staff can get to work on all of these policy areas.”

“I’m very excited for this step,” Wilson continued. “This is the start of a journey for us and there are a lot of folks rooting for us.”

There was some early discussion of new governing bodies being established to facilitate collaborative efforts across local boundaries. Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey raised the possibility of establishing a community development corporation — a 501c3 with he described as being capable of a great deal of flexibility. The idea, however, was tabled for the time being.

“There are a few different concepts that have been tried elsewhere and have been put in place in our respective communities,” said Dorsey. “We can have a variety of governance models with a broad representation of stakeholders. There is an endless number of configurations we can use and get all the benefits of an independent nonprofit.”

For the most part, the two governing bodies mingled seamlessly — though frequent, joking barbs were traded back and forth, with Arlington at one point threatening to annex Del Ray. Both organizations shared almost identical concerns about the upcoming arrival of Amazon, particularly on the headquarters’ impact on local affordable housing.

Councilwoman Redella “Del” Pepper said many of Alexandria’s most vulnerable populations feel that the loss of affordable housing in the region is a foregone conclusion and some were starting to flee Alexandria before rising costs pushed them out.

“I’ve heard people saying that couldn’t sleep at night because it was pressing so much on them,” Pepper said. “We know that the commitment through the [Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments] is very helpful too, but I think this should be one of our top [priorities] for sure.”

“I’m hoping we’re looking at other jurisdictions that are at these crossroads, like San Francisco and Palo Alto, that find themselves with a lack of affordable housing and a lack of affordable living because everyone in those areas rents,” Councilwoman Amy Jackson agreed.

When asked to place stickers on a board next to their top priority, leaders from both jurisdictions almost unanimously marked affordable housing as their top priority. But there was also caution, particularly on the Alexandria side, that a promise of a thing being a priority does not make it so. Councilman Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein noted that “affordable housing” has been a stated priority for local governments for over a decade but was still a recurring problem.

“There needs to be a set definition for [affordable housing goals],” said Seifeldein. “And we need to see what the political will hinderance is, since everyone is committed to it but the problem still exists.”

“Metrics measure progress,” Councilman Canek Aguirre said. “We can make all the nice statements we want, but if we’re not measuring them [it’s moot]. When we’re talking about being implicit and explicit, it’s important to show that there’s some level of accountability.”

Wilson agreed, and said hopefully the collaboration between both governments can result in some pressure from each side to keep on track with the stated goals. Despite the lofty goals for collaboration, little was decided in what amounted to a lengthy icebreaker between the two governing bodies.

“I’ll be very underwhelmed if we get to the end of this and we’ve just done things we’ve done before better,” Wilson said. “The commitments we make here are largely voluntary in nature so we have to police ourselves and each other. Plus, we’re close so we know where each other lives.”

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