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Alexandria City Council candidates focus on racial equity, affordable housing and flooding in DPC forum

Affordable housing took center stage on Tuesday night, as Alexandria’s mayoral and City Council candidates participated in a long candidates forum hosted by the Departmental Progressive Club (DPC).

During the forum, former Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg praised the Tuesday unveiling of the Lineage affordable apartment complex in Old Town earlier that day. Silberberg voted against a rezoning for the project on one of her first meetings as mayor in February 2016. That vote was unanimously rescinded days later.

“We got it done,” Silberberg said. “The neighbors embrace the building. It’s that they were concerned about the new building literally towering over their two-story historic homes. They just wanted some air. So, I’m really proud of working on that compromise, so that they embraced it and dropped their lawsuit, which would have cost us time and money.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said that the city has created almost 1,000 units of new affordable housing during his term, which is just half of what the city needs to produce by 2025 in order to meet regional housing goals set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He later tweeted another #electionsmatter post on a matter that then-Mayor Silberberg voted against and was passed.

Moderator Merrick Malone said that the pandemic has threatened the health and safety and financial security of businesses and residents alike.

“It has laid bare the real inequities faced by people of color who have been historically marginalized in the city of Alexandria,” Malone said. “In 2018, the city of Alexandria issued a statement of inclusiveness indicating a commitment to diversity and fostering an atmosphere of inclusiveness. Well, that is a noble statement. What are the tangible evidence that indicate that the city leadership is committed to racial equity?”

Silberberg penned the city’s statement on inclusiveness in 2016, and said that it led to the hiring of the city’s first racial equity officer, and that the city tripled the dedicated funding for the city’s affordable housing fund.

Wilson, however, said that there wasn’t enough action in the statement, and laid out a series of his own specific actions, including eliminating fares on the DASH bus system, decriminalizing “quality of life infractions” and eliminating escalating fines that “criminalize poverty for a lot of our residents.”

As for flooding, Council Candidate Sarah Bagley recommended creating social service programs to train residents on solving their own stormwater management issues. Bagley is the executive director of a non-profit organization that provides social services to affordable housing communities around the U.S.

“In one of my projects down in Atlanta, we had a stormwater runoff problem right at the base of our property in front of the leasing office,” she said. “They built the project themselves with their own hands… We solved our problem without spending any property money. It was a win on so many levels. And it’s that kind of creative thinking that I want to contribute, this idea that we can turn a real stormwater problem into a job training experience into a public private partnership.”

The city recently doubled its stormwater utility fee to contend with 90 stormwater capacity projects, many of which have been overlooked by previous city councils.

“We’re dealing with spots that flood and capacity issues for the whole system,” Council candidate Kirk McPike said. “And if we fix spots before we fix the capacity, we might just be shoving water back into the system where new flooding locations are going to be created… So that as we’re fixing the spot flooding, we are putting that water into a system that can actually handle it. I think we can also expect more of developers who are coming into our community not only that they make their properties that they are working on more absorptive of water, but they actually pay into the fund to help lower the cost to local tax payers.”

Councilman Canek Aguirre said that the city has taken direct action.

“I know for the community, it is a sense of hopelessness, because as soon as it starts raining, they just get all types of anxiety, right?” Aguirre said. “It is long overdo.”

Wilson said that the capital improvement budget has ballooned from 700 million to $2.2 billion because of coalitions he built on Council to invest in public infrastructure. He also said that the city needs to prioritize incoming federal funds for sewer investments and look at creative financing.

“But we have a long way to go,” Wilson said. “And it is true that we doubled the stormwater utility fee, and unfortunately that is just going to tackle a small portion of the 90 capacity projects that we have to address citywide.”

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