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With Alexandria seeing more residential development conversions, city leaders discuss pushing for greater ‘voluntary’ contributions

1225 and 1229 King Street (image via Google Maps)

A redevelopment vote (item 6) that was meant to be part of the consent calendar — items generally approved without controversy — ended up taking up a large swath of a City Council meeting this Saturday and became the center of a discussion about how hard the city should push for “voluntary” affordable housing contributions.

The topic at hand was the conversion of the non-residential upper floors of 1225 King Street into 12 residential units. There was little contentious in the presented redevelopment plans, but it sparked a discussion of how the city should be handling affordable housing in the increasingly popular residential conversions.

The city has initiated an ambitious new zoning project that aims to bake more affordability into the city’s land use code from the ground up. But the conversion of 1225 King Street to a residential space is part of an increasing trend of office or retail space being turned into more valuable residential space.

A housing policy update from 2020/2021 set a “voluntary monetary contribution policy” for that sort of conversion at $1.61 per square foot, totaling $9,236 for the development.

Council member Alyia Gaskins used the topic of the conversion to highlight that the new Comprehensive Zoning for Housing and Housing for All Package, at least in its current state, will do little to adjust or change how affordable housing is factored into these types of conversions.

“One of the things I raised in my briefing with staff is we’re seeing an increasing number of these conversions,” Gaskins said. “As part of zoning for housing, we’re looking at the planning and economic and fiscal goals, but we’re not looking at affordable housing contributions. For me, I think this is a huge missed opportunity. I think the conversion process and the contribution policy are so interconnected.”

Gaskins said the discussion about contribution requirements and who received on-site units should be part of the discussion around conversions.

“I just really want to emphasize that we should be looking at these issues comprehensively,” Gaskins said.

But with its “voluntary contributions” that are requirements in all but name, Alexandria already flirts with the edges of what’s granted under the Dillon Rule. City Council member Amy Jackson said discussion of additional requirements can make some city leaders nervous about running afoul of state authority.

“It is voluntary, and I’m sure the city attorney is getting a little twitch going, because [what we’re saying is ‘how much can we ask for without asking for it,'” Jackson said. “We need those affordable housing units and we need the money if we’re not going to get the units. We want to be a welcome mat, but we don’t want to be tromped on every time.”

Jackson said Alexandria shouldn’t be afraid to use it’s authority to turn down conversions.

“Alexandria is always asked to the dance; Alexandria doesn’t have to say yes to every person who asks us to dance,” Jackson said. “We have to find a happy medium because I’m not happy.”

On the other hand, Mayor Justin Wilson said the city should make it easier to create seemingly market-rate affordable units like those being converted in the project — though actual prices for the units were not included in the reports.

“We’re talking about 17,400 square feet converting to 12 units,” Wilson wrote. “These are going to be market-rate affordable units because there’s no way they can charge luxury premium prices without considerable renovation of this building. We have a very small affordable housing contribution because of our policy… [but] let’s be careful about what we’re demanding out of projects like this.”

As the city wades through this process, City Council member John Chapman said the city should expect more out of the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee.

“The other group I’d love to pull into the conversation as we get started is the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee,” Chapman said. “I’ll be honest, they’ve been far too silent on some of these things. They’re supposed to be advising us of policy and we’re not seeing that. I’m honestly to the point where if they’re not able to give advice to the Council and the staff, we need to find some new people for that commission. Affordable housing is too important of an issue to be quiet.”

The City Council ultimately voted in favor of the building’s conversion.

Image via Google Maps

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