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City Council priorities spark discussion over future of housing in Alexandria

(Updated 4/21/22) Alexandria’s City Council has finalized a list of priorities with some inclusions that could shape city policy in the coming years.

The city announced the adoption of the priorities yesterday (April 19), though their origin goes back to the Council retreat in January and the vote to approve them took place in March.

“Our new City Council will focus on these six community priority areas and accelerate our efforts,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson in the release. “Coalescing around these priorities has been an important initial step to ensure that our work makes a real and noticeable difference in the lives of Alexandrians.”

According to the release, the priorities are:

  • Recover from the COVID-19 Pandemic: Identify the policies, practices and resources needed to ensure a resilient and equitable recovery for all residents and businesses.
  • Provide Diverse Housing Opportunities: Reconsider our zoning model and explore other tools to better facilitate an Alexandria housing economy that provides the necessary range of price points, styles of housing and associated services to meet the needs of a thriving city.
  • Define Our Community Engagement Approach: Use both new and traditional outreach methods to ensure that engagement is efficient, effective and accessible to all stakeholders, creating a clear connection between community input and its effects on policy decision, infrastructure needs and financial considerations.
  • Support Youth and Families: Explore ways to expand academic, social and emotional services and physical support to all youth during out-of-school hours.
  • Foster Economic Development: Seek out and consider budgetary, land use, regulatory and other economic development tools to foster sustainable and equitable development, diversify revenue and allow greater investment in our infrastructure.
  • Develop a Compensation Philosophy: Establish a new compensation philosophy to ensure we are the preferred workplace of choice and that employees feel valued.

For some, the prospect of reconsidering zoning models to the benefit of affordable housing could mean a step toward the elimination of single-family zoning, something some localities like Minneapolis have enacted.

“I was pleased and surprised,” said Luca Gattoni-Celli, founder of a new group called YIMBYs of NoVA. “A number of our members recently attended the city presentation and virtual public meeting on the zoning density change. A few asked about systemic reform and zoning reform, particularly single-family zoning reform. The main person running that presentation was very clear: she considered those conversations out of the scope of discussion.”

Gattoni-Celli said in private conversations with members of the City Council, city leaders expressed an interest in moving towards reforming single-family zoning.

“Most people in our area don’t have a college degree, and those people deserve better,” Gattoni-Celli said. “They shouldn’t have to be begging for the city to build housing they can afford. The priorities reflect this, messages from campaigns reflect this, and the city needs to get out of the way and let housing be built. Of course, we need to invest in flooding infrastructure and schools, but this is a regulatory failure, not ‘oh my gosh it’s so hard to build housing.'”

Around 65% of adults within the City of Alexandria have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of Northern Virginia localities, only in Prince William do less than 50% of residents have college degrees.

Gattoni-Celli said much of the opposition to density and affordable housing that he’s seen comes from a misplaced fear.

“There’s a lot of the fear and confusion, a fear of change, I think that’s misplaced,” Gattoni-Celli said. “I live next to Southern Towers, it’s fine: no crime, no traffic, hardly any noise. It’s not a burden.”

Wilson said planned changes aren’t as sweeping as eliminating single-family housing wholesale, but that there are changes already made and on the way that could change what single-family zoning looks like.

“I think everyone gets caught up in different terminology,” Wilson said. “When people say they want to eliminate single-family zoning, they assume we’re coming to take your single-family homes. I live in a single-family home, I’m not planning on giving it up: I like my home. But what we are doing and will continue to do is look for tweaks for all zoning in the city to meet some of that housing demand.”

Wilson cited recent changes to the accessory dwelling unit policy as a recent change that impacted single-family zones. Wilson said other changes include a recently-approved co-living policy, looking at housing units in commercial zones, and changes to bonus height trade-offs.

“These are all part of an overall work program that we call zoning for housing,” Wilson said. “It’s looking at various tweaks to the zoning code that can assist us in addressing the housing demand that continues to come to this region. It’s part of our effort to meet the [Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments] commitments that we made.”

Even in Minneapolis, Wilson said what happened wasn’t that single-family homes were swept away, but that multi-family homes were allowed to be built in those zones. Wilson said the goal for Alexandria is to make tweaks that don’t negatively impact the quality of life but do advance housing affordability.

For others, like members of the Facebook group Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria, there was concern at what future zoning changes could look like.

“That priority is really about increasing density to be able to cover future expenditures,” said former City Council candidate Bill Rossello. “This council knows that very big financial challenges are coming. They seem to believe that adding residential taxpayers will address it.”

Rossello said part of his frustration is that taxes continue to increase despite increases in density.

“Despite significant population growth over the last decade, taxes still grew at a much higher rate than the combined effects of population and inflation,” Rossello said. “Their approach to density is not going to address the great financial challenges and is likely to have a very negative impact on our quality of life.”

Others said that the city needed to prioritize fixing infrastructure to be able to handle the burdens of additional density.

“First, you don’t add demand without first resolving serious current infrastructure issues and having a development plan for required new infrastructure to support added density before that density is built. Think schools, stormwater, roads, etc,” said Tom Skiba. “Second, you don’t create new zoning and housing by intentionally destroying the current zoning and the associated value of existing owners/residents.”

Several members of the group said they weren’t against new affordable housing or growth, but objected to the way that growth had manifested over recent years, citing opposition to projects like The Heritage and ongoing arguments over new mixed-use development in Del Ray.

“I am for growth, but not this kind and rate,” said Amy Christine Hillis. “Growth in housing of any sort should not occur without the existing infrastructure (schools, water, parking, roads, transit) to support it. We do not have those things in place and Council would agree.”

Hillis said she’s feeling ‘squeezed out’ by new policies.

“I’ve paid taxes here, including housing and property tax on my car, since 2004,” Hillis said. “So why am I being squeezed out of my car for routine tasks such as kids soccer practice, taking my dog to the vet, grocery shopping, meeting friends in Fairfax County, or shopping for my gardening hobby, which, by the way, benefits and beautifies our community?”

Members of the group have been active in pushing back against changes to single-family zoning, like the clash over loosening restrictions on accessory dwelling units.

“The Mayor and City Council are moving the proposal described below to increase housing and density in Alexandria,” said J. Glenn Eugster. “At least part of this is targeting single-family residential areas like those in and around Seminary Hill. Many believe that this will help with opportunities for affordable housing. However, speakers from afar who helped launch this idea in Alexandria believe that ‘single-family residential areas are racist’. If this is approved it will adversely impact parking, road-congestion, stormwater runoff, schools and other public services.”

Wilson argued that there is a racial equity piece to changes in zoning.

“The other thing that’s important to note, and I try to talk about this as well: there is a racial equity piece of this as well. A lot of our zoning tools in place today were put in place to achieve some pretty horrible ends. They serve to reinforce racial segregation and housing access. That is absolutely true in Alexandria. It is not an accident that today if you took a look at an Alexandria zoning map and a map that maps racial demographics of our city, those maps nearly match. That’s not an accident, and people don’t like when I point that out, but there is a lot of commonality between those maps,” he said.

While some concerns were expressed about the city increasing the tax rate even as the population continues to go up, Wilson said regional examples point to higher density allowing for lower tax rates.

“Between 2018 and 2022, $2.16 billion of new development has been added to tax rolls in Alexandria,” Wilson said. “At the current tax rate, those properties will generate $24 million annually. That’s the equivalent of 5 cents on the current real estate tax rate. To provide exact same levels of services today, if we did not have growth, our tax rate that is $1.11 would be $1.16. That’s just real estate tax, that doesn’t speak to other real estate tax revenue. The hardest thing to explain is something would be ‘worse if not for…’ because how do you show an alternative that did not come to pass? But we can show real numbers by looking at assessed values.”

Wilson said that Arlington, in comparison, has been able to keep its real estate tax rate as low as it is because of the high levels of density in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

“That’s mostly commercial but a lot of residential, which enables them to have the lowest real estate tax rate,” Wilson said. “It’s no surprise that over the last couple of years, look at growth in Loudon and Prince William: what’s happening? They’re able to dial down the real estate tax rate.”

Wilson said that the city is currently part of a regional effort to look at fair housing policy and assessing tools to achieve Federal Fair Housing Act goals. Wilson said a report on those efforts should be available this fall.

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