Zoning for Housing advocates and critics take to the podium as zoning overhaul enters the home stretch

House display outside an Old Town business, staff photo by Vernon Miles

Few speakers at a six-hour City Council meeting last night seemed fully satisfied with the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative, but the public comment was divided between those who saw the proposal as a good first step and those who thought it threatened the city’s character.

While nearly all speakers at a six-hour public hearing last night said they supported affordable housing, opinions on the city’s Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative varied widely.

Zoning for Housing/Housing for All is a proposed overhaul of the city’s zoning code that would, among its changes, allow the construction of multiple units on lots currently zoned for single-family homes.

The plan got a frosty reception at a joint Planning Commission/City Council meeting by city leaders who didn’t think it was ambitious enough, particularly because the proposal doesn’t touch setback requirements and similar issues, meaning new homes built on single-family lots are likely to be no larger than current ones.

Some of that concern was reflected in the public comment yesterday, though housing advocates said they still expressed support for the project as a start.

“I would also like to see the city enact further reforms to the zoning code to allow for even more housing to be built, [but] this is a good start,” said Rosemont resident Joe Fray. “I am excited for new neighbors to move in, for old neighbors to be able to stay, and for our city to grow in ways that will enhance current residents’ lives.”

Fray said he hopes the change starts creating more dense, walkable neighborhoods around the city.

Jonathan Krall, a steering committee member with Grassroots Alexandria and a Del Ray resident, said he supported these “small reforms,” particularly after learning more about the history of segregation in Alexandria.

Others said they believed past concerns about segregation in Alexandria residential neighborhoods don’t reflect the reality of the city today. Fran Vogel, President of the Strawberry Hill Civic Association, described her neighborhood as “multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-generational.”

“People move to our neighborhood because it provides green space as well as a place to raise a family,” Vogel said. “There is nothing exclusionary and anyone can buy here. One can buy a smaller home that can be expanded to accommodate a growing family; it’s a matter of choice.”

Vogel said she’s particularly concerned about reductions in parking requirements in Zoning for Housing/Housing for All, saying it could exacerbate parking overflow problems in Strawberry Hill and other neighborhoods.

“It’s conceivable a fourplex could have anywhere from zero to twelve cars depending on the number of residents,” Vogel said. “Bringing more people into our small area will only exacerbate this issue.”

Tack Richardson, a lifelong Alexandrian and President of the North Ridge Citizens Association, said he was concerned about the impact Zoning for Housing/Housing for All could have on Alexandria neighborhoods.

“We believe increasing density can adversely impact the quality of life in neighborhoods such as North Ridge,” Richardson said. “We hope the City of Alexandria will listen to… North Ridge and our fellow civic associations.”

Though the issue of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All hasn’t been settled — the public discussion is scheduled to continue at a public hearing on Saturday, Nov. 18 with a vote on Tuesday, Nov. 28 — some housing advocates were already looking to next steps.

“I welcome the first steps on what must be a longer path,” said Anderson Vereyken. “The current proposals are a good step; however, more must be done.”

Vereyken addressed the city’s trade of floor area ratio and height in developments in exchange for requiring a percentage of bonus units to be dedicated to affordable housing.

“[This] is a crucial tool to extract affordable housing commitments,” Vereyken said. “First, the city must expand [this trade] to apply to more neighborhoods across the city, particularly those with close access to public transportation.”

Vereyken also the city should require higher ratios of affordable units, taking the current 1/3 of all bonus units built to be affordable up to 1/2 of all additional units built.

Once the dust has settled on the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All debate, one way or another, advocates and critics of the zoning change both generally agreed that more needs to be done to address other underlying issues behind the affordable housing crisis.

Suzie Carol, a Lincolnia Hills resident, said she has lived in Alexandria for 50 years, 13 of those as a renter, and that she’s sympathetic to concerns about affording housing in Alexandria but said she didn’t believe added density would move the needle.

“The proposal to rezone is troubling,” said Carol. “There are other ways to get to affordable housing. Affordable housing relies on proper jobs, proper salaries, and I don’t think anyone in this room can address that except possibly the Council members here.”