Alexandria, VA

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Landmark Towers has a problem.

The West End residential property at 101 S Whiting Street, originally built in 1964, was more or less falling apart and a planned ten-year rehabilitation project was prohibitively expensive.

The City of Alexandria also has a problem: its bleeding market rate affordable housing faster than committed affordable units — units with rents capped below market price — can be made to keep up with demand.

The two bodies came to an agreement last year for a loan that — like the old Reese’s ad — took each party’s problems and turned them into each other’s solutions. Now, the city is looking to that West End partnership as one potential solution to help stave off impending gentrification of Arlandria when Amazon comes to town.

At a City Council meeting on Tuesday, city staff said the earlier Landmark Towers agreement could act as a template for partnerships in Arlandria, where there are similar market rate residential developments that could be in need of extensive overhauls. Today, city staff said the majority of market rate units in the area are affordable at 60-80 percent of area median income (AMI).

“[We’re] proactively engaging with willing property owners may also create future opportunities to potentially buy down rents,” said Alexandria Housing Planner Tamara Jovovic. “The recent investment in Landmark Towers out at the West End is an interesting example. City provided financing to property owner to address outstanding capital maintenance issues.”

According to the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee (AHAAC), the loan would help pay for capital improvements in exchange for adherence to adhering to certain rent guidelines and other stipulations.

Provision of a $2.5 million capital improvement loan to Landmark Towers, LLC, a 154-unit mixed-use rental property in exchange for long term compliance with the City’s voluntary rent guidelines, provision of a right of first refusal in the event of a future sale, and a commitment to jointly explore potential redevelopment opportunities, if mutually beneficial, to add committed affordable and workforce units.

The AHAAC said in its report that market rate affordable units are part of a decreasing supply. The recommendation also said that the loan was the first of its kind: a housing opportunity loan to a privately-owned entity, but that doing so was consistent with the city’s housing and community development powers. It’s a shift that could blur the lines between committed affordable and market rate affordable units moving forward.

“The importance of this residential asset to Alexandria’s housing affordability ecosystem,” the report said, “the property’s many long term tenants, its locational and transit efficiency, as well as its capacity for potential additional development, combined with the owner’s desire to collaborate with the City on a mutually agreeable solution that maintains the property as market rate affordable and workforce housing, has induced the parties to come up with a package that offers short, medium and long term benefits.”

It’s a solution that was raised among others at the City Council meeting to discuss ongoing plans to try to preserve not only affordable housing in Arlandria, but the predominately Hispanic and immigrant communities that have called the area home for several decades.

Jovovic said other aspects of the plan will include making sure that Arlandria residents are the ones who benefit most from new affordable housing, with the city developing a system that would prioritize existing residents of the neighborhood when new units come online in the area. Jovovic said the city is also working on making the housing application process less intimidating, which can be dense and hard to decipher even to native English speakers.

City Council member Canek Aguirre said he was excited about the plan and credited the city’s partnerships with local community organizations in helping with outreach.

“I’m excited about this project and the level of outreach — even in the pandemic — and the Spanish-first approach to ensure the demographic areas are reached out to,” Aguirre said. “It’s a testament to the importance of our relationship to organizations like Casa Chirilagua and Tenants and Workers United.”

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The Arlandria-Chirilagua area of Alexandria is one of the last bastions of market rate affordable housing in Alexandria. With the arrival of Amazon on the horizon threatening that, the City of Alexandria is working on a plan to try to keep the area’s gentrification at bay.

A pair of Zoom meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, March 30, to present a drafted series of affordable housing recommendations. The first, at 6 p.m., will be held in Spanish with English interpretation. The second, at 7:30 p.m., will be in English with Spanish interpretation.

The majority of the area falls below the area median income (AMI). Around 95% of households surveyed in 2019 by Tenant and Workers United earned less than 40% AMI, less than the $35,280-$58,480 per year income range for households of one to six people. Many of them, around 28.5%, live in households with five or more residents.

Arlandria is one of the few areas in Alexandria — along with portions of the West End — with an adequately affordable housing supply. The study found that the majority of rental housing in the area is affordable at 60-80% AMI, most of which are one-bedroom units.

A document outlining themes in the upcoming plan said that while housing in the area is generally affordable, increasing rents are still a challenge. Protestors in Arlandria last year pushed for a rent freeze after many in the area were left unemployed by the pandemic.

“Residents struggle with the high cost of housing as rent impacts every family decision, including the need to share housing with unrelated adults and being able to pay for food, medical care, and childcare,” the plan noted. “More deeply affordable housing will help residents remain in their community and meet basic needs.”

The concern is that the arrival of Amazon in nearby Crystal City could sent housing prices in the area skyrocketing, as it has in Seattle.

“Residents are concerned about the impact of Amazon HQ2 and fear displacement from gentrification,” city staff said in a presentation. “Many feel that their undocumented status and limited English language skills prevent them from resolving landlord issues. Building community capacity to raise concerns without fear of retribution will help residents access services they need, including tenant relocation and displacement protections.”

The city launched a community feedback campaign in 2019, though the process was somewhat waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the draft recommendations generated from the outreach efforts will be presented at the upcoming meetings.

“During the live virtual meetings, City staff will present the draft recommendations,” the city said in a press release, “followed by a question and answer portion at the end.”

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In the latest Agenda Alexandria conversation, local business and civic leaders came together to discuss the highs and lows of the recently proposed City Manager’s budget.

The budget included a proposed tax rate reduction, but City Council candidate Bill Rosssello challenged the overly sunny narrative about the reduction.

“I look at the budget the way it’s been presented and something that always seems to concern me is when we lead with a narrative around the tax rate,” Rossello said. “The tax rate is only one part of the equation for the actual taxes that people pay… While we’re looking at a proposed 2 cent tax rate decrease, when you do the math, for the average household it comes out to be almost a 6% tax increase in real dollars and that’s what really matters to residents: how much more or how much less am I going to pay?”

Rossello was joined on the panel by Rob Krupicka, former City Council member and Delegate and owner of Elizabeth’s Counter, and Janet Blair Fleetwood, Secretary of the Budget & Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee and the Mayor’s representative on Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee (BFAAC).

The group discussed the current imbalance between the residential and commercial tax bases, which has only gotten worse during the pandemic.

“Back in 2009, we used to get 30.5% of revenue from commercial, said Fleetwood. “It is now 21.3%. We have a good situation here, with Virginia Tech’s Innovation area coming in, Amazon, the Patent office, the National Science Foundation, and Landmark. We should start looking to grow businesses that will come in and bring good jobs and use commercial real estate.”

Fleetwood said there has been talk that post-pandemic, companies may not want to use commercial real estate as they did before, but Fleetwood said she has also heard from companies that they will still need physical footprints for team projects.

“I don’t think commercial footprint is going away,” Fleetwood said.

Krupicka noted that questions about the balance between residential revenue and commercial revenue may fundamentally change post-pandemic.

“The balance between residential revenues and commercial revenue… there are fundamental shifts happening right now that make that an old debate,” Krupicka said. “People are working from home now, and you’re going to see a lot of businesses that don’t go back to commercial office when COVID ends.”

Krupicka said one of the larger concerns is that small business have to compete against larger companies like Amazon and pay taxes those companies don’t.

“Small businesses are competing against Amazon and large internet companies,” Krupicka said. “There is big international competition that pays a lot less taxes than small mom and pop. Small mom and pop has to pay BPOL tax… small businesses like mine are writing checks to government, but doing it in the hole. If you broke even on COVID, you’re paying on gross receipts, not profits.”

Krupicka said Amazon pays retail taxes, which benefits the city, but in general pays less on taxes per transaction than small restaurants or retailers.

“We need to have conversation about if we want small businesses to be at a disadvantage tax wise,” Krupicka said.

On the other side, Rossello said the burden on residential taxpayers has grown considerably and is pushing people out of Alexandria.

“We’ve taxed out so many middle class folks, who can afford to pay decent mortgage or rent, but find it more affordable to leave,” Rossello said. “We’ve seen whole neighborhoods turn over from diverse middle class neighborhoods to gentrified neighborhoods where houses on very small lots are $1.5 million dollars.”

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Amazon is giving an additional $1 million to Alexandria and other local families impacted by COVID-19 to help pay for urgently needed items, including food, school supplies and clothing.

The money is in Amazon’s Right Now Needs Fund, which is available for all 18 Alexandria City Public Schools, as well as all 41 Arlington Public Schools.

Back in March, Amazon donated $200,000 to ACT for Alexandria’s COVID-19 response fund as part of a separate $1 million donation across the region.

“The start of this school year has been difficult for many families across our new home of Northern Virginia, and we are determined to provide support to the students who need it most,” said Jay Carney, Amazon Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs in a statement. “At Amazon, we are always looking for innovative solutions to tough challenges, and we are confident that the flexibility and speed built into our new Right Now Needs Fund will help ensure that more students from underserved communities can focus on their studies, and not fall behind as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.”

Amazon says that social workers and site coordinators will identify students needs, and that Education Assistance Product Vouchers will be given out as a prepaid payment to help with food, school supplies and clothing.

“By using the prepaid vouchers, students and families can redeem much-needed items in a dignified and convenient way,” Amazon said in a release.

This school year alone, Amazon also gave Northern Virginia students Mi-Fi devices, and donated $1 million for local emergency response efforts.

Photo via ACPS/Facebook

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Amazon has given $200,000 to ACT for Alexandria’s COVID-19 response fund as part of a $1 million donation that the company is making to the region.

“The funds received by ACT will be used to support the nonprofits providing services to Alexandrian’s who are hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak,” ACT CEO Heather Peeler told ALXnow.

“The human service needs, economic impact and strains on our critical services will be with us long into the future,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “We have a resilient community and this contribution will help bring our City and our resident back stronger than ever.”

On Saturday, the Alexandria City Council allocated $100,000 in matching emergency funds to the ACT Now COVD-19 Response Fund with a goal of raising $200,000 so that nonprofits in the city can apply for and receive grants.

Council also approved an allocation of $20,000 to ALIVE! to buy bulk food equivalent to 17,000 meals. ALIVE! is currently working with the city and buying food to support the city should deliveries need to be made to people under quarantine without food reserves at home.

Amazon is contributing $1M to the DMV to support our community during the COVID-19 crisis. ACT is pleased to…

Posted by ACT for Alexandria on Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Thanks to Amazon.com for providing critical financial support to the ACT for Alexandria COVID-19 Response fund. Please contribute today to support the many in need in our community due to this crisis.

Posted by Justin Wilson on Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The full press release is below the jump:

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The City of Alexandria is hosting an open house this evening to help gather community input for plans to shape Arlandria and Del Ray.

The open house is scheduled to be held from 5-8 p.m. at Casa Chirilagua (4109 Mt. Vernon Avenue). The event will be an opportunity for people to share their thoughts before the start of the formal planning process later this year, according to the city website.

The process to update the city’s Arlandria and Del Ray plans was launched in the wake of several city government discussions about how Amazon’s arrival will impact the tight-knit neighborhoods. In addition to Amazon, the nearby Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, the redevelopment of Potomac Yard, and the new Potomac Yard Metro station will likely bring new residents and redevelopment.

Planned or not, changes are coming to both neighborhoods. In Arlandria, for instance, a D.C. developer recently filed plans to redevelop the shopping center that houses MOM’s Organic Market into 624 apartments and 44,500 square feet of ground floor retail race.

Previous meetings have been held throughout the community in both Spanish and English. The next open house is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 1, at 10 a.m. in the Mount Vernon Avenue Recreation Center (2701 Commonwealth Avenue).

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Morning Notes

Absentee Voting Starts Today — “Absentee voting for Virginia’s March 3 Democratic Party Presidential Primary Election begins on Thursday, January 16. Many Alexandria voters are eligible to vote absentee.” [City of Alexandria]

Opening Nears for New Waterfront Coffee Shop — “According to Misha’s General Manager Graham McCulloch, the coffee roaster hopes to open their new waterfront location in April, weather and construction permitting. Misha’s new waterfront coffee shop, the company’s second location, will be at 6 Prince St., the former home of Olde Town Gemstones.” [Alexandria Living]

Amazon Funds Used for City Apartment Purchase — “Investing to benefit existing & future business growth was the foundation for @amazon HQ2 package — very excited that 1st affordable housing funds allocated will be used in ALX!” [Twitter, ALXnow, Washington Business Journal]

City Looking for Top Parking Meter Enforcer — “Hiring Announcement: The Alexandria Police Department is currently looking to fill the position of Parking Enforcement Officer Supervisor.” [City of Alexandria, Twitter]

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It will be more than a year until Bonaventure Realty makes a move on plans for a swath of properties it recently purchased along Mount Vernon Ave. in Del Ray, according its Vice President Jeremy Moss.

The company, which last summer bought the properties at 2401, 2403 and 2411-2419 on Mount Vernon Ave., has no immediate plans for changes and jumped at the chance to purchase the properties.

The reality is that when the properties became available, this was a once in a generation opportunity,” Moss told ALXnow. “All the current uses have remained the same. We still have retail and residential uses, and we intend to honor the existing uses in place.” 

The properties include the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services (2525 Mount Vernon Ave.), which has a lease for an additional 2.5 years, as well as Cheesetique (2411 Mount Vernon Ave.), the recently shuttered Catch on the Avenue restaurant, a number of retail and residential properties and a 144-space parking lot across from Pat Miller Square on Mount Vernon Ave. and E. Oxford Ave.   

Moss said that Bonaventure will make no moves on the area until the city updates its  2005 Mount Vernon Avenue Business Plan and 2003 Long-Term Vision and Action Plan for the Arlandria neighborhood in the spring of 2021.

Gayle Reuter, an Alexandria Living Legend and member of the Del Ray Business Association, said that misinformation has been spreading regarding Bonaventure’s intentions. The rumors, she said, have spread largely because of Amazon’s HQ2 development in Pentagon City, Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus at Potomac Yard and the recent groundbreaking of the Potomac Yard Metro station.

“I was pleased to get to meet with Bonaventure recently and am excited to welcome them to Del Ray and in hearing their interest in being involved with the community,” Reuter said. “They’ve already reached out to sponsor several of our events, and I think they will be great new neighbors.”

Bonaventure’s President Dwight Dunton was raised in Del Ray and is a graduate of T.C. Williams High School. He’s also a trustee with the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria.

“Alexandria has a place in Dwight’s heart and he’s certainly sensitive to the uniqueness of Del Ray and the vibrancy of the neighborhood,” Moss said.  

See: With Amazon on the Horizon, City Begins Update to Arlandria and Del Ray Plans

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Morning Notes

Amazon Presence on Innovation Campus? — “Virginia Tech leaders and Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) executives are working toward a partnership that could give the company’s cloud computing arm a home at the $1 billion innovation campus at Potomac Yard.” [Washington Business Journal]

Underage Drinking Prevention Town Hall — “On Dec. 10, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the Charles Houston Recreation Center (901 Wythe St.), the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Alexandria will host a town hall discussion titled, ‘Healthy Youth, Healthy Families: Promoting Alcohol-Free Holidays.'” [Zebra]

Boat Parade Winners Named — “A record number of 60 boats competed for prizes in ten categories at the 20th Anniversary Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights on Saturday… Best of Alexandria Show was awarded to Anamchara and Captain Steve Preda who presented the theme ‘Peace’ featuring a rotating lighted globe, glowing doves and a peace sign.” [Press Release]

City ‘Open for Solar Business’ — “The City of Alexandria has received a Silver designation from the national SolSmart program for making it faster, easier, and more affordable for homes and businesses to go solar… For companies looking to expand, a SolSmart Silver designation is a signal that Alexandria is ‘open for solar business.'” [City of Alexandria]

T.C. Teacher Wins National Award — “When T.C.Williams High School teacher Kimberley Wilson stepped on stage on Wednesday to collect the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) National Teacher of the Year award, her first thought was for her students.” [ACPS]

Snow Likely Overnight — “Temperatures are poised to leap to near 60 degrees Tuesday, and it won’t feel at all like it could snow. But, in a flash, that will change. An Arctic front charging to the East Coast will switch our weather from fall-like to winterlike in a matter of hours, setting the stage for possible wet snow overnight Tuesday into early Wednesday morning.” [Capital Weather Gang, Twitter]

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An Alexandria agency that helps locals adapt to a changing job market is itself trying to figure out how to adjust its services to meet the city’s changing marketplace.

Facing the impacts of Amazon’s looming arrival, the Workforce Development Center (WDC) is working to modernize and realign its services to fit with younger demographics.

WDC staff told City Council at a meeting last Tuesday that the incoming Amazon HQ2 and the Virginia Tech campus present both challenges and opportunities for how the organization connects young locals to jobs.

“We’ve got to offer more to engage youth,” staff told the City Council. “We need to expand our virtual service platform and be working proactively to mitigate the impact of automation.”

Staff said engaging with younger workers means offering more useful digital options than its current, fairly sparse website, and shifting beyond the current focus on catering mostly to low-skilled workers.

Many of the employment options on the WDC website currently are entry-level, lower-income jobs. But staff told the City Council that the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 and the new Virginia Tech campus offers opportunities to expand to other levels of employment. Staff said workforce training will have to adjust to offer more technology and cybersecurity-related job placement efforts.

These improvements, however, could require greater levels of investment from the city, as decreasing levels of unemployment also correspond with less federal funding for services that help with employment.

“We will continue to lose federal funds because of our unemployment level,” staff said. “It’s a good thing, we want our unemployment to be low, but [it means] we’re not eligible for some unemployment [programs].”

Staff said the next immediate steps for the organization are to study underemployment — the number of people working in jobs that do not pay enough to sustain a livable income — in Alexandria and put together a report.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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