What do the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, Tenants and Workers United, the Alexandria Police Officer’s Union, the Alexandria Community Services Board and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church have in common?
They believe the people they represent are suffering in diverse ways from the steady decline of affordable housing in Alexandria.
All were co-sponsors, along with more than 20 other organizations, of the Alexandria Housing Action Forum, held Thursday night at Westminster Presbyterian Church. About 80 people attended the meeting, organized by Housing Action, an advocacy group for affordable housing in Alexandria. The meeting was intended to allow the community to voice its opinion on the housing issue and to give candidates for City Council the opportunity to state their position on how to stem the steady ebbing of low-income and workforce housing from a city with a tradition of diverse residents.
Jim Hoben, co-chair of Housing Action, stressed that lack of affordable housing was an issue that affected everyone, even homeowners whose only exposure to the housing situation was to see their property values and tax assessments rising "wildly high." He stressed that in order to have a healthy city, with the workforce necessary for it to function and roads unclogged by bumper to bumper traffic, housing must be available not just to the poor struggling to support themselves, the group most people associate with the idea of affordable housing, but to members of the workforce, employed in steady jobs but still unable to meet rising housing costs.
Only 11 percent of city employees actually live in the city, Hoben said, a point that many attendees raised when discussing how the housing problem could affect access to medical care and emergency services.
Hoben said an estimated one to two thousand affordable housing units drain away each year — torn down to be replaced by luxury apartments, converted into condominiums or simply priced beyond the average person’s ability to pay. Everyone at the meeting seemed to agree that little or nothing was being done to stop this decline. Calls for greater unity and enthusiasm were frequent.
"The problem is that we as a community — businesses, non-profits, faith groups, homeowners — are not yet sufficiently focused, organized and active to preserve and secure affordable housing," Hoben concluded as he handed the podium to Nancy Carson, the other co-chair of Housing Action.
She picked up the theme, "We need a much stronger vision. We need inspiration."
THEY ALSO AGREED that they need more information. Hard data was scarce at the meeting, and the vastness of the problem was emphasized by the difficulty both residents and the city itself seem to have had in analyzing it. "What are these people leaving for?" one audience member asked. "And why do others come?" another added.
"It’s going to take some good professional work" to evaluate the problem, understand it, and set benchmarks for addressing it, Hoben said.
Housing Action’s assessment of Alexandria’s delayed response its own housing issues was made plain when it revealed the action plan that it proposed. The plan was an acknowledgment that any action to preserve and create affordable housing would be not be fully effective until action was taken simply to understand the precise dimensions of the problem.
Housing Action called for the city to hire a full-time staff person in the city manager’s office to oversee affordable housing efforts. The staff person must be in the city manager’s office rather than in a more specific branch, they argued, because only there could that person tap into the disparate sectors that affect and are affected by the rising costs of living in the city. In addition, Housing Action called for the city council to hire an outside consultant to prepare a detailed "road map" for housing.
The estimated cost of these two initiatives: a combined $400,000-500,000. Housing Action claims to have calculated how this sum can be found within the city’s existing budget for the current year.
Mayor William D. Euille addressed the forum after the unveiling of the action plan.
"I wish this room was packed standing room only," Euille said. "Public housing doesn’t mean ‘poor people.’ Many renters are one paycheck away from being homeless."
The mayor addressed the proposal of the forum to hire a staff member responsible for affordable housing to the city manager’s office. "We need to have one person that’s our housing czar… That’s going to happen."
He called on citizens to stop talking about what needs to be done and to start working. He suggested welcoming more density and taller buildings as aspects of the work that needs to be done.
Nine City Council candidates followed the mayor and closed the forum with brief statements on the housing problem and how they would address it. The candidates were unanimous in their support for Housing Action’s goal of increasing affordable housing in the city.
The mayor and the candidates avoided mention of the $500,000 commitment that Housing Action called for, but Hoben expressed a lack of concern about this. They agreed with our platform, he said, and "they know darn well this can’t get done without some resources."