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Affordable housing and school funding are top priorities at crowded Alexandria budget meeting

It was standing-room-only at a City Council budget hearing yesterday (Monday) and most of the speakers had one of two things on their mind: affordable housing and fully funding Alexandria City Public Schools.

The push for more funding to the city’s affordable housing programs came from a mix of housing nonprofit leaders and residents from neighborhoods like Arlandria/Chirilagua staring down the barrel at gentrification.

“We recognize that $12 million for the Housing Trust Fund isn’t enough to reach each affordable housing target,” said Jill Norcross, executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.

Norcross and others called for the city to fund the Community Lodgings redevelopment of Elbert Avenue Apartments and Wesley Housing’s ParcView II development for a total of 464 affordable housing, much of it considered ‘deeply affordable’ — ie for residents at around 40% of area median income or lower income levels.

At least half of those in City Council chambers were there with Tenants and Workers United (TWU), an organization that supports low-income communities of color, immigrants, low-wage workers and more.

“Our families are not part of the city’s growth,” said Ingris Moran, a lifelong resident of Alexandria and community organizer for TWU. “We do not see proactive tools that will stabilize our families and keep our families in the city.”

As the city prepares for redevelopment at the former Landmark site and Potomac Yard, Moran said residents in Arlandria and low-income communities fear displacement. Moran said TWU supports the city investing $10 million to create a voucher program for families earning less than 40% of AMI, investment into the expansion of the guaranteed income pilot, and funding for the aforementioned affordable housing projects.

“The City needs to make bold decisions to make good, sustainable investments,” Moran said. “The City Council supporting funding, creating and expanding these programs would be the City Council supporting working class families in the city.”

Carlos Rubio, an Arlandria resident, said wages have not kept pace with rent increases around Arlandria. Rubio asked the City Council to provide support through rent relief programs.

“Last year I had to leave my apartment where I was living for 20 years,” Rubio said. “I was okay leaving there, but then suddenly I received a rent increase that was way too high for me. It was more than a $400 increase. Now I live in another property, where it’s not that affordable but it is better.”

The other half of the public comment, on the other hand, primarily featured teachers and parents pushing for the City Council to fully fund the Alexandria City Public Schools’ $384.4 million combined budget request by the School Board. That budget has been a battleground for City Council and School Board leadership, with many on the Council expressing displeasure at a lack of long-term planning in the school budget and last-minute budget requests.

Mayor Justin Wilson told the School Board that fully funding that budget would require a six-cent tax rate increase, calling the proposal not viable.

Advocates from the ACPS community said, regardless of the enmity between the boards, the City Council should fully fund the ACPS budget.

“I recognize this city is facing a difficult year, however, without a strong public school system, we run the risk of negatively affecting the entire city,” said ACPS parent Catie Brownback. “As we continue to increase affordable housing options in this city, which we should do, we will also increase the enrollment in our public school system. With the rising cost of living, we can’t expect the budget to stay flat. Please help keep Alexandria a thriving city long-term by fully funding our schools.”

Bridget Shea Westfall, an ACPS parent and former School Board candidate, urged the City Council to fully fund the budget request.

“Who do we serve?” Westfall asked. “Are we here to prioritize the needs of public schools students… or are we here to serve other special interest groups? Full funding will increase school capacity, modernize facilities, and stabilize teacher workforce. Full funding is essential to attract and retain high-quality educators and provide high-quality education for our students.”

Testimony also came from ACPS educators.

“We’re a city attempting to correct the symbolic wrongs,” said Gabriel Elias, a teacher with Alexandria City High School’s International Academy. “We rename the streets and reform our zoning to address structural inequalities, but we cannot forget about the Titans. I’m talking about our young, vulnerable students filling our schools. Instead of finding security, they’re finding long-term subs.”

Elias said the city needs to put more funding into ACPS to encourage the school division to hire and retain educators and other administrators in the school system.

“I worry that we aren’t working together as leaders and we aren’t protecting the people who make a difference,” Elias. “We need the changemakers, the teachers, the social workers, the counselors. We need people to speak up for us. We need to prioritize education in this city.”

ACPS teacher David Paladin-Fernandez said he was disappointed with the tone of the recent joint work session between the City Council and the School Board.

“As a private citizen, I was disappointed in the dismay my city has shown to an 8% increase in ACPS budget when we spent the least percentage of our budget on public education, only 30% compared to 41 in Arlington and around 50% in Fairfax and Falls Church,” Paladin-Fernandez said. “As a property owner, disappointed with the lack of candor around raising taxes… As an ACPS educator, I’m disappointed by how out of touch my council is with me.”

While much of the commentary at the meeting was advocating for more funding to some causes, some called for the city to reassess its plan to increase support to the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, a public-private partnership funded in part by the city to grow and diversify the city’s economy.

“It’s distressing to me when the DASH bus service, an important service for those with the least among us, faces a cut, while the Economic Development Partnership is slated for a significant increase in funding,” said local resident Ferm Abrams. “I realize that the intended purpose of economic development is to grow revenues to support programs like that, but I’d like to take a minute to look closer.”

Abrams said the city should take another look at the benefits AEDP brings vs its cost.

“We have to ask questions like ‘has the AEDP used its funds to benefit the citizens of Alexandria or has it worked to benefit a handful of corporate interests?'” Abrams said. “Should we be using city dollars to fund the economic development office as a public-private partnership with little citizen oversight or would this better be conducted by city staff.”

Abrams said some of that concern came from AEDP expenditures on consultants and lobbying connected to the Potomac Yard arena project.

“As a citizen, a property owner, and a taxpayer, I and others would like to understand more fully the use of taxpayer funds to lobby for the arena,” Abrams said.

While most of the hearing was the City Council listening to the public, some on the City Council stepped in to defend AEDP.

“As many speakers are continuing to say, there is a need for additional funding,” said City Council member John Chapman. “What we’ve seen and what we focus on with our AEDP strategy is focusing on hitting that mark in terms of revenue into the city. I think we don’t do that with the status quo. Additional investment into our economic focus usually and has historically yielded additional revenue into the city. That’s why you see the increase into AEDP.”

City Council member Canek Aguirre pointed to the Patent and Trademark Office and the Landmark development as examples of the kinds of development that AEDP advocates for, noting that those developments in turn bring in more tax revenue to fund affordable housing and ACPS.

The Alexandria City Council is set to vote on a maximum tax rate at its meeting tonight (Tuesday).

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