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What’s the difference between Alexandria’s co-living policy and regular apartments?

Apartment kitchen, via Naomi Hébert/Unsplash

Alexandria is moving forward with a proposal to make it easier to build housing that allows several unrelated adults to share amenities. While that sounds an awful lot like “having roommates” — which is allowed, in case you’re renting an apartment in Alexandria and started to panic — city staff outlined some of the distinctions in the new policy at a Planning Commission meeting earlier this month.

According to a city report, a co-living unit is defined as:

A portion of a building containing six or fewer housing suites. The total occupancy within each unit is not to exceed a total of eight people. If a proposal includes more than two co-living units on the property it will require a full-hearing Special Use Permit (SUP).

Within the co-living units are individual suites rented out to tenants — one or more bedrooms that may or may not have bathrooms. An important distinction, though, is that these units cannot have kitchens and each bedroom is limited to a maximum of two people. Alexa Powell, an urban planner with the Department of Planning and Zoning, said “kitchen” is generally interpreted to mean including oven, stove or range. The various suites share a kitchen and living spaces.

Co-living units aren’t prohibited currently, but building a co-living development requires a special use permit (SUP). Powell said the new ordinance would allow developments with two co-living units — a total of six individual suites with two shared kitchens — to be built without the need for a full hearing. City documents on the change emphasized it would not touch single or two-family residential zoning.

The aim of making co-living development more viable is to increase the stock of market-rate affordable housing in the city. These are units privately owned or leased that are considered affordable without the guarantee of the government or a non-profit. Currently, city figures show that over 10,000 households in the city with incomes of $50,000 or less spend over 30% of their gross income on housing. In some parts of the city, like Arlandria, there are concerns that gentrifying forces like Amazon could snuff out the already insufficient supply of market-rate affordable housing.

There was concern, though, that the change is not ambitious enough to actually incentivize the building of co-living units.

“What is the likelihood that in a commercial, high-medium density, mixed-use multi-family zone there would be a project that has only two co-living units?” Planning Commission member Melissa McMahon asked. “[Those zones] tend to have large buildings.”

McMahon said the city would be more likely to see co-living units if those units can be mixed in with regular apartment buildings without needing a full hearing SUP.

“There might be a disconnect between what is actually a feasible project and what’s an attractive project in a commercial zone,” McMahon said. “The picture of what could be a co-living unit looks a heck of a lot like a regular apartment. It’s really just a couple apartments sharing a kitchen area… I think that we should be open to having a mixture of those in a residential context that could be higher density without having them require a full hearing SUP for it. I’m not seeing the obvious increase in any kind of community impact that would be shifting us from one to the other.”

Planning Commission chair Nathan Macek said he had additional concerns about a requirement that the co-living units be either owner-occupied or have a designated manager on-site.

“I tend to think that’s probably a little over-restrictive on this,” Macek said. “I think that’s the poison pill. If we put that in, we’re never going to see any of these built. I’d be very careful about putting that in. We do this all the time in Alexandria, where we get these proposals and we get these very permissive things, but we put one requirement in that makes it so impossible for anybody to carry it out. I think that’s really what something like this would do. I would caution us about including a requirement like this.”

The proposed co-living changes are scheduled to come back to the Planning Commission on Tuesday, Oct. 5, and to the City Council on Saturday, Oct. 16.

Via Naomi Hébert/Unsplash

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