The city’s legislative package for the upcoming session includes a typical panoply of issues — everything from preventing unfunded mandates to supporting more local control. But one issue dominates city leaders’ agenda in Richmond this year: affordable housing. City Manager Jim Hartmann has directed Legislative Director Bernard Caton to push for measures that would help create opportunities for renters, first-time homeowners and low-income residents in Alexandria.
"Everyone wants to increase the availability of affordable housing," Caton said. "But different people have different ideas about how to make that happen."
As more and more apartment complexes are converted into condominiums, more and more low-income renters are unable to afford new high-price units. That’s why many renters waive their first right of refusal, relinquishing their place of residence to those with more money.
But the city of Alexandria might have a solution. Caton will ask the local delegation to patron a bill that will allow tenants to assign their right to purchase to a government agency or housing authority. The effort is supported by the Landlord-Tenant Relations Board and the Human Rights Commission.
Rising real estate property taxes have an obvious effect on property owners. But renters also end up paying for higher taxes when landlords increase rents. Hartmann wants to ease the burden for low-wage workers by providing a tax credit for renters with a household annual income of $35,000 or less.
"Illinois, for instance, assumes that 25 percent of a person’s rent is used to pay property tax, and allows renters to claim a tax credit when this portion of their rent exceeds 3.5 percent of their income," Hartmann wrote. "Such relief could be refundable if it exceeds a person’s state income tax liability."
Caton said that the city has never asked for such a provision before.
"What we’re looking for is a state tax credit on income taxes for low-income renters," Caton said, adding that he expects some resistance. "It’s always hard to get a tax credit through the Virginia Senate."
ACCEPTING DONATIONS is one of the city’s favorite ways to preserve affordable housing. These requests can be implicit or, sometimes, explicit. Last year, the city lobbied against two bills that would have prohibited local governments from requesting or receiving contributions for affordable housing.
"The city successfully worked to modify this legislation so that localities are still allowed to accept voluntary donations for affordable housing," Hartmann wrote, adding that the General Assembly’s Housing Commission plans to release a study before the session begins on Jan. 11. "At this time, the commission has not completed its study, so staff does not know whether it will recommend any legislation."
Last year’s debate over contributions to affordable housing was prompted by a dispute between the Arlington County government and a developer who was required to include a percentage of affordable housing. The sides in the case eventually came to an agreement, and leaders in Richmond expect that the agreement will hold — preventing an encroachment on the ability of localities to ask for affordable housing contributions.
"We’re hoping that the settlement will prevent any further legislation on that," said Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49). "I don’t think anybody’s looking for a fight on that."
RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE is one thing that city leaders hope will increase the availability of affordable housing. The federal minimum wage has been set at $5.15 since 1997, and eight years of inflation has taken its toll on the buying power of workers who earn minimum wage. So the Economic Opportunities Commission has asked City Hall to support an effort to persuade the General Assembly to increase the minimum wage in Virginia by $1 in each of the next three years.
"During the 1950s and the 1960s, the minimum wage averaged 50 percent, of half the average wage of workers in non-supervisory positions," Hartmann wrote. "It has now fallen to 32 percent, or less than one-third of the average wage for non-supervisory workers."
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) said that an increase in the minimum wage is unlikely to come from Congress anytime soon.
"We need to raise the minimum wage, but the Republicans are unlikely to let that happen," Moran said. "I applaud the city government for asking the General Assembly to raise the minimum wage."
But members of the local delegation don’t think that a rise in the minimum wage stands much of a chance in the upcoming General Assembly.
"It would probably have a very unreceptive audience in Richmond," said Del. Brian Moran (D-46).
DISCRIMINATION CAN BE another source of a dwindling supply of affordable housing, and City Hall wants to make it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to tenants who receive public assistance.
"In recent years, a number of states have added source of income to the list of discriminatory factors which are prohibited under their fair housing laws," Hartmann wrote. "Prince William plans to have its delegation introduce legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate in housing based on source of income, and is asking other Northern Virginia jurisdictions to support the proposal."
Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30) said that she would support such a measure, but she doesn’t see it being very successful in Richmond.
"If we manage to get it through the Senate, it would probably hit a roadblock in the House," Sen. Ticer said. "The success of something like this would depend on what kind of testimony would be presented in favor of the bill."
Lobbying to making loans available to first-time home buyers is one way that city leaders will seek to increase access to affordable housing in Alexandria. The city lobbyist will be opposing efforts to reinstate an outdated requirement that recipients of Virginia Housing Development Authority loans to be related by blood, marriage, adoption or legal custodian relationship.
"This precluded unrelated couples, including engaged couples and same-sex couples, from receiving VHDA assistance," Hartmann wrote, adding that the Human Rights Commission also opposes reinstating the old requirements. "Now anyone, or any couple, who satisfied standard criteria and requirements will be eligible for loans."
HOT-BUTTON ISSUES always steal the spotlight during General Assembly, and City Hall wants its voice to be heard on the controversial issues of the day. The city’s lobbyist will oppose efforts to restrict services to immigrants and prohibit same-sex marriage.
"Some local governments, especially in Northern Virginia, have recently funded day labor centers where employers can hire day laborers, some of whom may be illegal immigrants," Hartmann wrote. "In these cases, the local governments are trying to deal with issues that have nothing to do with illegal immigration, such as day laborers congregating outside small businesses."
Mayor Bill Euille has requested that the delegation oppose any legislation that would seek to have local law enforcement enforce immigration laws.
"Some state officials have proposed that local law enforcement officers should help enforce federal immigration laws," Hartmann wrote, adding that these proposals do not include money to reimburse local governments for their efforts. "This would be an unfunded mandate."
Same-sex couples are the target of conservative legislators in Richmond. Last year, the General Assembly enacted the "Affirmation of Marriage Act" to prohibit any "civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage." The Human Rights Commission asked the city to oppose such measures.
"Although the patron of the legislation portrayed it as a statue aimed at ensuring that Virginia is not required to recognize civil unions that were legally entered into in other states, many others fear that it will have other significant, fear-reaching efforts," Hartmann wrote.
Hartmann says that the act could prohibit contracts between two people of the same sex — regardless of their sexual orientation — and prevent business partners from entering into certain partnership agreements. The city’s lobbyist will ask the local delegation to work to repeal this act and oppose a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to "one man and one woman."
"The Human Rights Commission has noted that state law already prohibits marriage between individuals of the same sex, and makes any contractual rights created by any marriage entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or jurisdiction void and unenforceable," Hartmann wrote. "The commission believes that the proposed amendment is mean-spirited and unnecessary given the state laws that have already been enacted."
Sen. Ticer said that she anticipates more action on the amendment in the upcoming session.
"I expect this to come up again this year," Ticer said. "And I expect it to be narrowly defeated again."