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Letter: Affordable Housing

To the Editor:

The vanishing amount of affordable housing in Alexandria has been a frequent topic of discussion in the City in recent weeks. It is a complex topic that has people confusing “market-rate” affordable housing with “dedicated” affordable housing, which differ significantly.

The cost of “market-rate” affordable housing is determined exclusively by the whims of the rental market, while “dedicated” affordable housing is housing the true cost of which is “bought down” (i.e., subsidized) by developers as part of the development packages negotiated with the City or directly by the City using money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

In the past several years, Alexandria has become such a desirable place to live that rents in our City have risen to the point that they are beyond the means of many residents whose annual earnings are below the Area Median Income (AMI) of $100K. As a result, people whose annual income is substantially below the AMI (i.e., $60K or less) are being priced out of Alexandria’s rental market. This rapid loss of “market-rate” affordable housing has spurred many to demand that the City do something to reverse this trend.

Since rent control is illegal in the State of Virginia, the City cannot require landowners to “cap” the rents they charge for apartments. And in 2004, the Virginia Circuit Court forbade the City from requiring developers to pay for affordable housing as part of the development approval process, so the City has few tools it can use to maintain, much less increase the amount of affordable housing in Alexandria.

The main tool it has is to allow developers some additional height and/or density in exchange for providing “dedicated” affordable housing units on-site in a new development. Another tool the City has is to require the provision of on-site “dedicated” affordable housing in Small Area Plans, such as the Beauregard Small Area Plan (BSAP) that was approved by City Council on May 12.

At present, of the housing units that will be torn down over the next 25 to 30 years as a result of approving the BSAP, only 829 are “market-rate” affordable units. All the rest of the units have rents determined by the whims of the marketplace that are already beyond the reach of a family with an annual income of 60 percent or less of the AMI. Now that the BSAP has been approved by City Council, at least 800 “dedicated” affordable housing units will be built or otherwise provided on-site over the next 25 to 30 years to guarantee that there will be economic diversity in the Beauregard planning area.

If the BSAP had not been approved by City Council and current market trends continue, there would shortly be no affordable housing units at all in the Beauregard planning area as the whims of the marketplace eliminated all “market-rate” affordable housing units there. Preventing this from happening is why I spent the past 18 months — 12 months as chair of the Beauregard Corridor Stakeholders Group — making sure that there were at least 800 “dedicated” affordable housing units in the BSAP.

As the BSAP is implemented over the next 25 to 30 years, the whims of the marketplace will continue to affect the rents of the “market-rate” affordable housing units in the Beauregard planning area. Since the first housing units that will be torn down in this area are those with some of the highest marketplace-determined rents and the first “dedicated” affordable housing units are scheduled to become available in 2014, none of the current tenants who reside in the 829 units that are currently “market-rate” affordable should ever be without housing with rents that they can afford to pay at their current income levels. Indeed, once these tenants move from “market-rate” affordable units into “dedicated” affordable units in the Beauregard planning area, their rents will likely decrease, because of the subsidies provided for “dedicated” affordable units. During the 25 to 30 year build-out period, some of these tenants may have to move to another “market-rate” affordable unit in the Beauregard area as re-development proceeds, however, tenant re-location assistance is also provided for in the BSAP.

So the claims of some that thousands of lower income people are being thrown out of their homes because of the BSAP are completely inaccurate. Instead, because of the BSAP, at least 800 families with annual incomes considerably below the AMI will be able to keep their homes in the Beauregard area and continue to be part of our diverse City.

Donna Fossum

Democratic Candidate for City Council