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‘Zoning for Housing’ heats up Alexandria City Council debate in Del Ray

The Del Ray Business Association’s City Council candidate debate at Piece Out Del Ray, May 13, 2024 (Courtesy photo)

Sparks flew during Monday night’s City Council Democrat candidate debate in Del Ray.

While surrounded by nine of his opponents, candidate Jonathan Huskey said that City Council members should be voted out of office for their support of the citywide Zoning for Housing/Housing for All overhaul that eliminated single family zoning and allows developers to build homes with up to four units on any property.

Ten candidates participated in the debate, which was hosted by the Del Ray Business Association at Piece Out (2419 Mount Vernon Avenue) and moderated by ALXnow.

“I think the Zoning for Housing policy and what shook out is an example as to why this Council, some of y’all gotta go,” Huskey said. “Because the way you acted, the way you dismissed people about their houses, where they live, was not fair. It was unfair. And for what — 150-to-180 units across the city? That is not worth the provocation that this policy caused.”

The reform package was unanimously approved last year by City Council also includes expansion of transit-oriented development, reducing parking requirements for single-family homes and analyzing office-to-residential conversions. The effort is meant to increase affordable housing options, as well as eliminate segregationist zoning practices of the past.

City Council Member Canek Aguirre said that he was insulted by Huskey’s comments.

“It is insulting to say that we are not listening that we’re not trying to listen, and we would not be dismissive in any way,” Aguirre said. “We weren’t.”

Aguirre said that the true insult was when he and other non-white candidates participating in the debate couldn’t quality for loans in certain neighborhoods due to historically racist zoning laws.

“This was a three-to-four year process,” he said. “And we made it a point to bring up the history of redlining, of covenants in homes and contracts.”

The zoning initiatives also spurred the creation of the Save Del Ray movement, which protested to get a bonus height amendment removed from the zoning package. The amendment would have allowed developers to build an additional two stories on properties if they included affordable housing, prompting residents to protest that it would destroy the neighborhood character of Del Ray.

City Council Member Sarah Bagley said that the issue is personal for her, and that she would not otherwise be able to find a home for between $250,000 and $600,000.

“That is what Zoning for Housing creates,” Bagley said. “This is absolutely personal and it’s absolutely real for anybody who’s earning above the AMI (area median income), but not $300,000, but doesn’t have intergenerational family wealth to buy a home above $700,000. If my four plex in your neighborhood erodes your quality of life, we should have a longer conversation together, because my four plex enhances our city in my neighborhood.”

City Council Member John Taylor Chapman said that the city needs to reevaluate zoning changes in historic districts.

“We have historic districts, but we have new owners coming to the historic district that want to do new things with their property,” Chapman said. “How do we keep our historic district but allow them to do new things with their property? Those are some of the conversations that we really didn’t get a chance to talk about with Zoning for Housing, and how we moved the ball forward.”

City Council Member Kirk McPike is an enthusiastic supporter of the zoning reforms.

“Zoning for Housing projected to create over 8,000 housing units over the course of a couple of decades, 5,000 of which are going to be committed affordable units in the RMF zones, in the office-to-residential conversions,” he said.

A case against Zoning for Housing filed by a group of residents was recently dismissed in the Alexandria Circuit Court, which ruled that Council acted within its authority to make the changes.

Huskey said that most of the overhaul was positive, except for the elimination of single family zoning.

“The problem was that they’re going to eliminate single family zones with no affordability attached,” he said. “You’re just gonna see higher price points and more profits for developers, and that’ll be it. So, we’ve got to do a better job of listening to people in the city.”

Huskey lives in Del Ray, and said that City Council’s approach to land use is too domineering. He was a vocal member of the Coalition to Stop the Potomac Yard Arena and entered the race because of the way it was presented to the public. The failed proposal would have moved the Washington Wizards and Capitals to a new $2 billion entertainment district and facility next to the Potomac Yard Metro Station, but it died in the Virginia State Senate. The plan was revealed to the public in a  surprise announcement in December, and the city embarked on a three-month public relations campaign before backing out when the deal failed to be included in the state budget.

Huskey said that the city also approves a lot of special use permits without too much scrutiny from Council. He used the approval of the 301 N. Fairfax Street SUP as an example. He said Council went outside of its scope when voting to approve the conversion of a non-historic office building into an apartment building in the Old Town Historic District.

“Basically everything gets adopted,” Huskey said of SUPs. “How these developments are getting done, the process by which they get done, and who gets what they want is really the key here.”

Huskey said that if elected he would vote to revise or reverse the zoning changes.

“This city council’s gotta do a much better job of listening to folks, especially folks on the West End,” he said. “Not everybody wants to live in Del Ray. Weird, right? They don’t. They live out there because they like it and they enjoy it. They love their neighborhoods, and you pushing an ideology of where what neighborhood should look like, is the ultimate insult by representatives.”

The Democratic primary is June 18, and there are a number of candidate forums between now and then.