JUST IN: Alexandria City Council ends single-family-only-zoning

Single-family-only zoning is no more in Alexandria.

Alexandria’s City Council voted unanimously at around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 29, to approve the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative.

The plan includes zoning changes that aim to encourage the development of more housing units. Notable changes include allowing residential uses in industrial zones and reducing parking requirements, but the big headline-getter and conversation-starter was the elimination of exclusively single-family housing zones.

The City Council vote came after three months of public discourse on the plans, including two lengthy public comment sessions that included calls for affordable housing for “deserving Blacks” and the spanking of public officials.

When the plan debuted at a City Council/Planning Commission meeting earlier this year, several city leaders expressed disappointment at the underwhelming change to single-family zoning. Notably, the zoning change doesn’t affect requirements like setbacks and density for those units.

But the single-family zoning change set off a significant public discourse, as a similar proposal did in Arlington nearly a year ago.

Opponents of the plan, including a group called The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, said the change will create more density and negatively affect the quality of life for residents while doing very little to create affordable housing. One opponent described the plan to this reporter in an elevator on the way to the meeting as a “Trojan horse,” disguising a giveaway to developers as progressive policy.

But supporters of the policy proposals say adding new residential units around the city will help add much-needed residential units to the city’s stock of housing, eventually decreasing the demand that’s been at least partially responsible for driving up prices.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson suggested splitting the single-family zoning section off from the rest of the initiative. Jackson said that many residents didn’t receive adequate warning from the city about the zoning change and said a mailer should have been sent out. But while some others on the City Council acknowledged criticism that a mailer should have been sent out to residents, the suggestion to defer the single-family zoning piece of the initiative didn’t gain traction with others on the Council.

Most of the City Council spoke firmly in favor of Zoning for Housing.

“The question we’re facing as a Council, and as a city, is whether we’re willing to commit the effort and resources to make Alexandria an inclusive city — one where low and middle-income families and seniors aren’t driven out by skyrocketing housing costs — or if we will continue down a path of exclusivity, where only those among us who have the most are able to remain,” said Council member Kirk McPike. “My values, driven by my own life experience and my faith, demand the former.”

“I don’t think of it as density for density’s sake,” said Council member Alyia Gaskins. “I’m proud and happy with where we’re ending tonight. I’m going to vote for this. I don’t think it’s doom and gloom, I think the research and the data are things we can manage and support.”

Council member Sarah Bagley said the Zoning for Housing initiative also ties in with some of the city’s climate change goals with an emphasis on transit-oriented development.

“The more we can embrace Alexandrians in ways our infrastructure can support, that we can infill, that we can create housing near transit,” Bagley said, “[the more we] build a better future for people who are going to live to see 2053 and 2073.”

The conversation on the dais was sometimes as much about some of the public debate around Zoning for Housing as it was about the initiative itself. The Alexandria Times reported conversations between advocates for Zoning for Housing and members of City Council, though Council members characterized those meetings as standard for any public discussion.

“I’ve been frustrated with the rhetoric and how this has been discussed in our community,” said Council member Canek Aguirre. “Nobody up here is having meetings with Satan or his disciples. We’ve been having meetings… with residents and groups that represent residents.”

Aguirre said he was approached for meetings by advocates for Zoning for Housing and would have met with opponents if they’d asked to meet.

“I’m disturbed by a local paper saying there are secret meetings: it’s called a constituent meeting,” Aguirre said. “I’ll meet with anyone that asks for a meeting. You know who didn’t ask me for a meeting? The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria.”

Some members of the Council had qualms about Zoning for Housing but still ultimately voted in favor of the initiative. Council member John Chapman said there are positive aspects of Zoning for Housing, though he had little faith in the market providing affordable housing without other incentives.

“I’ve seen the market destroy my generation,” Chapman said. “People are not able to stay here and live here. We’ve lost 90% of market rate affordability in the city over the last couple of decades. The market has not been kind to Alexandria’s middle and working class. The challenge is getting me to be excited about the little tiptoe step into the market when I know that what we’re trying to obtain in single-family homes isn’t attainable.”

While Jackson said she still believed the city should have postponed the vote, she said she supported the initiative.

“As much as I did want to defer the single-family housing part, for the rest of this, it shows that Alexandrians want progress,” Jackson said. “We want to be able to help people wherever we can.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said that Zoning for Housing won’t fix the city’s housing problems, but it’s a start.

“Never going to be able to spend enough dollars up here to really impact this, but our zoning authority is a powerful tool that gives us the ability to shape the supply,” Wilson said. “The [initiatives are] modest, but I believe they’re good.”

As city leaders started to turn their attention to a potential future Phase 2 of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All, which could see more ambitious reforms regarding density and allowances on the former single-family home parcels, Wilson said it was important to give the issue, along with the public and city leadership, a breather.

According to Wilson:

Let’s pause, take our breaths, let’s see how some of these changes are taken, and then let’s discuss whether and what we would possibly do next.

There are other things I want us to look at too that touch housing in other ways. Some of these things in Phase 2 recommendations that we heard from people who opposed this effort — like looking at neighborhood conservation districts to protect historic properties.

There are going to be possibly things here we’re going to want to have a conversation about, but I think everyone needs to take a breath and see what’s next here.