About 60 percent of people who live in Alexandria are renters, but the supply of rental properties is being depleted by market forces— and the cost of renting is steadily rising. In 2003, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,128. Just a year later, in 2004, it was $1,173. As more and more apartment complexes convert to condominiums, renters are being driven out of the market in Alexandria. In the past year, the city has lost 2,365 apartment units — more than 6 percent of the available rental properties.
In the housing market, costs have been rising at astronomical rates for years, pricing many potential homeowners out of the city. The average single-family house is valued at $563,092, but the median household income is $59,173 a year — an imbalance that threatens to move lower income people out of the city. Only 118 housing units in Alexandria are valued at less than $100,000, and the average property in the city increased 21.3 percent last year. In the past four years, the cost of single-family homes has risen 60 percent and condominiums have risen 100 percent.
This combination of dwindling rental properties and rising prices has made it difficult for schoolteachers and city workers to live in Alexandria. More and more, people who work in the city are forced to commute from places where housing costs are more affordable. The average mortgage payment in Alexandria, $2,265, consumes 81 percent of an elementary school teacher's monthly income.
"Folks are leaving," said City Councilman Ludwig Gaines. "And with them go an important part of our history and the diversity we say is so important."
CITY LEADERS are concerned about these trends, and the Affordable Housing Forum at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House last week was an opportunity to explore the problems associated with the rising cost of housing in Alexandria.
"We've got to stop talking about affordable housing and start doing something to make it happen," said Mayor Bill Euille. "When we lose the middle class, we're going to be a city of the haves and the have nots."
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), who served as an elected city official during the 1980s, said that the city has been trying to confront this problem for many years.
"There's a certain amount of deja vu here," Moran said, adding that the problem of dwindling amounts of affordable housing in the city was one of the reason he first ran for City Council in 1979. "Alexandria led the nation in requiring developers to set aside affordable housing units."
But developers are not forced to build affordable housing units. Many chose to make donations to the city's affordable housing fund. But with assessments constantly rising, money from the fund can buy less every year.
CONDO CONVERSIONS are creating many problems for the stock of affordable properties. Joe Resende, director of the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation, sees no end in sight. As property values rise, many developers are feeling compelled to purchase apartment complexes and renovate them into condominiums at a profit. Although the city has a goal of preserving 500 affordable housing units in the next five years, one landowner on the west side is considering selling 4,000 rental units.
"There's not anything we can do to stop it," Euille said. "That would be a big blow to everything we've been talking about here tonight."
Since October 2004, 10 apartment complexes have announced that they will convert to condominiums. If the trend continues, the city could lose a large number of residents who rent —forced out of their homes by market forces.
"The city cannot control what developers choose to build," said Mildrilyn Stephens Davis, director of the Alexandria Office of Housing.
Resende said that the issue of preserving affordable housing needs to be addressed realistically.
"We ought to scale down our expectations," Resende said at the forum. "Don't expect to preserve thousands of units, but we should expect to preserve hundreds of units."
The development corporation and other nonprofits have been competing with condominium developers to acquire rental properties. Resende says that it's a difficult battle, but the city has recently been able to support the preservation of a 28-unit rental property and a 41-unit rental property.
FUTURE DEVELOPMENT in the city will give opportunities to demand that developers include affordable housing units. For example, the Alexandria Office of Housing expects to have affordable housing units available in Potomac Yard and Landmark. But federal funds to increase the stock of affordable housing will probably be depleted.
"We're not going to get the money we desperately need," Moran said, adding that President George W. Bush proposed reducing funding for Hope VI programs and community development block grants.
Despite the challenges, the city has been able to make some progress over the last five years on the issue of affordable housing preservation and development. Since 2002, several new housing developments have pledged to set aside units for the city's affordable housing program — six have been built in the past five years, 14 are under construction and 30 units are scheduled for construction. New rental properties have also been setting aside affordable-housing units — 12 units were delivered in the past five years, 13 units are under construction and 15 new rental units are scheduled for construction.
With assessments sure to rise again this year, the forces that have created a dwindling supply of affordable housing show no signs of relenting. But the city is trying to combat the problem. Last year, City Council established the Employee Homeownership Incentive Program to encourage city employees to buy homes in Alexandria. The program provides unsecured, no-interest loans of up to $5,000. Earlier this year, council approved $3,650,000 for a new Affordable Housing Initiative.
"It ain't enough," Euille said at the end of the forum. "We still need to do a lot more."