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Zoning debate in Alexandria includes calls for spanking public officials and housing for ‘deserving Blacks’

Anti-Zoning for Housing sign in Alexandria (staff photo by James Cullum)

(Updated 11/26) In true Alexandria fashion, a contentious debate over city zoning policy led to some unorthodox and occasionally offensive arguments, from calls for public officials to be spanked to an argument that affordable housing should go to “deserving blacks.”

Almost all of the five-hour public comment period, a follow-up to a six-hour public comment session from last week, was a civil — if heated — discussion over the merits of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All.

The goal of Zoning for Housing is to reshape city ordinances to create additional housing, one of the most notable changes being the elimination of single-family zoning.

Supporters of the zoning change say an increase in units could plateau, if not decrease, housing costs in the area, while critics say the change is too much, too soon, and could have a detrimental impact on the quality of life for city residents.

“Alexandria is already one of the densest housing cities in the United States, comparable with New York City and Philadelphia,” said Frank Putzu, vice president of the Seminary Hill Association, “with one of the lowest rates of home ownership, lowest share of single-family home units, and the highest share of multi-unit buildings according to the census bureau and city financial reports.”

Putzu said the thrust of arguments against Zoning for Housing is that the zoning changes won’t substantially impact housing costs, but will be detrimental to city residents. Putzu said city reports found development under the proposal would replace currently affordable starter homes with costly duplexes.

“The supply side theory that building more luxury, multi-unit buildings will eventually trickle down to middle and lower income has not worked,” Putzu said. “The proposed policies will make home ownership more difficult and inflate the value of homes.”

Real Estate Agent Ann Shack said city officials deserved to be spanked for their role in Zoning for Housing.

“You deserve to be spanked,” Shack said, “and the Planning Commission too. We care a great deal about this city and we thought you did too when we elected you… Why do you want to change and destroy the historic district by removing the requirements so the tourism and tax revenue will disappear? Don’t allow this to happen. Postpone this voting.”

One store for selling accessories to that end on King Street closed back in 2019, though Lotus Blooms at 1017 King Street remains open and has similar implements.

Meanwhile, advocates for the zoning change said the reforms would help create new housing for a city that has struggled to keep up with the housing demand.

“Affordable housing and the broader issue of housing affordability are issues metropolitan areas are struggling with around this country and around the world,” said former City Council member Tim Lovain. “I admire the proposal before you for its breadth and depth… it uses every tool in the toolbox and goes to look for more to see what works.”

Some advocates said housing costs in Alexandria are inextricably tied to systemic racism in the city’s history.

“This year marked exclusionary zoning’s 101st birthday,” said Loren DePina. “Exclusionary zoning and jails are the direct result of abolishing slavery. It’s a new way to keep us ‘over there’ and them ‘over here.'”

DePina said exclusionary zoning segregates schools, communities and more. DePina noted that the average rent in Alexandria $2,034 for an efficiency or one-bedroom, which is unaffordable for most working-class Alexandrians.

“Alexandria is more segregated today than it was 50 years ago,” DePina said. “You have to build homes that are accessible to people.”

Others, however, took the discussion of race and housing in directions that caused discomfort on the dais. One real estate agent said he supported affordable housing, especially for “deserving Blacks.”

Jud Burke, a local real estate agent, said:

I’m opposed to passing all of the programs at this time. I support the idea of affordable living, especially for deserving Blacks. I would hope that such programs are complemented by efforts to help them to work their way out of such housing and be full participants in the economy. There’s enormous goodwill throughout the country for such efforts that was unleashed in the last couple of years. My concern is that you may misjudge it or misuse it.

Burke’s comment drew some pushback from City Council member John Chapman, who asked Burke what qualified as “a deserving Black?”

“We’ve been talking about the Blacks all my life who have been pushed, or not allowed, to participate in our economy and normal life in the way they are freely able to today,” Burke said, “but there are an awful lot that aren’t grabbing hold of it. We want to encourage them to do so and make sure they know we want them there and enable them to seize the opportunity.”

The comments drew a rebuke from city leaders at the end of the City Council meeting.

According to Mayor Justin Wilson:

With maybe a couple exceptions, everyone was very respectful of everyone’s opinions and opportunities to say their peace, and I really appreciate all of that.

There was a comment earlier that was downright offensive, it has no place in that chamber, and I repudiate that comment and the sentiments behind it. We don’t make decisions based on what minority groups are more deserving and what makes them more deserving.. that’s not the way we make decisions in this chamber or on this dais.

That’s an offensive comment and has no place in this debate. I was saddened to hear it.

Chapman told ALXnow that, beyond just the concerns about the “deserving Blacks” comment, he thought there was a misunderstanding among both opponents and advocates for Zoning for Housing that the program was about supplying specifically affordable housing.

“The idea that this is a giveaway program to the needy is not what this is,” Chapman said. “This is a zoning change, a policy change, for everyone and for the free market to try to help with housing production. That’s what this is… it’s not targeted at making housing directly affordable, but hopefully, with the production of housing, you slow down rising costs and plateau things.”

A side debate spun out of the Zoning for Housing discussion over the last week, regarding whether the voice of longtime city residents should carry more weight than newcomers.

Bill Rossello, a former City Council candidate and President of the Seminary Hill Association, has been critical of Alexandria leadership in the past. Last week, Rossello wrote in the Alexandria Times that the city is rushing through the Zoning for Housing process and that longtime residents are being ignored.

According to Rossello:

For many longtime residents, it seems like the city is rushing for the sake of rushing. But this difference in perspective reveals something else: an apparent contempt for longtime residents.

Witness the comments made at the recent Planning Commission public hearing. Of the speakers favoring the proposals, nine represented special interests and a number of others are young adult newcomers to the city. None spoke of their long experience in the city, but rather to their activist causes, or selfishly to what they want from the city. As if the rest of us owe them something.

At the public hearing, many speakers opposed to the changes cited years or decades of residence in Alexandria, some noting that they were multi-generation Alexandrians. Rossello said the City Council members no longer seemed to listen to them.

Seemingly discounted in both Council responses and the Planning Commission hearing is the voice of the longtime resident. Years ago, I noticed that most public hearing speakers introduced themselves with their name and the number of years they had lived here. It seemed like an odd custom, but it mattered to city officials.

Officials then – and really up to about five years ago – knew that longtime residents were truly committed to this city. When they stated their “number,” they were essentially saying, “I’ve lived here a long time, so I’m all in. I care deeply, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Officials knew what they would hear next: a perspective on the issue that few if any newcomers could offer.

Still today, the longtime resident can be counted on to bring that wisdom and insight. Contrast the comments of the cause-driven advocates to what most of the longtime residents had to say.

The comments drew some backlash from Wilson on social media.

Some of that carried over to the public discussion at City Hall on Saturday.

“This debate has brought out some ugly sentiments around ownership and who gets to make decisions about our future,” said Alexandria resident Becky Hammer. “I’ve been disheartened to hear prominent voices in the pages of the Alexandria Times denigrate residents newer to the city than they are. Alexandria doesn’t belong to any one person or group. If you live here, your voice counts.”

Rossello spoke at the public hearing and said the vote on Zoning for Housing should be delayed until after the 2024 City Council elections, something he said the Seminary Hill Association board voted unanimously in favor of.

“We stand with the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations in opposition to Zoning for Housing proposals as currently drafted and bundled,” Rossello said. “About 60% of Seminary Hill units are single-family. For those residents, we are concerned that homes next door will be leveled and small apartment buildings constructed, taking away the choice they made to live in a single-family neighborhood.”

The final vote on Zoning for Housing is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 28.

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