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Letter: Losing Low-Cost Housing

— To the Editor:

Concerning the Council Notebook “Double Offense” and last week’s article on the destruction of public housing:

I have been active fighting for affordable housing in Alexandria since 1985. During these 27 years every City Council member has been clear about their strong commitment to affordable housing and equally clear about their inability to do anything about market forces that are destroying affordable housing. This is the “big lie” that is constantly repeated while working people — particularly African Americans and immigrants — are forced from Alexandria.

A quick review of recent efforts that are driving the working poor from this community include:

  • The destruction of the “uptown projects” and the “Berg” — both have been or are being bulldozed and replaced by high cost town homes. Hello big profit for EYA. Good bye working poor. Good bye Black Community.

  • The Council gave away to PMI parking magnates the right to build a mega-development at the Arlandria Shopping Center. Hello big profit for PMI and Steven Weinstock. Good bye working poor. Good by Latino community.

  • The approval and destruction of market rate affordable housing at the Calvert on Mt. Vernon Avenue. No affordable housing on site — mega profit for UDR.

  • Oh yeah, it was City Council that approved zoning for Potomac Yards that creates $800,000 townhomes instead of affordable apartments.

  • Of course we can go back 50 years and talk about building Route 1 through the heart of the Black community. Or urban renewal on the Southside (the dip) that removed African American homeowners.

Once again City Council is faced with a huge decision and Council can do something. The last large concentration of market rate affordable housing — virtually the entire West End — is seeking new zoning and permission to almost triple housing density. City Council is racing to approve another give-away that will end up with 6,000 housing units that virtually no current resident can afford. Now is the time for City Council to slow down and use the tools it does have to preserve low-cost housing.

The most powerful tool that Council has is the ability to say “No” to JBG and its allied developers. It's all math and negotiation. The math is simple — by tripling density the developer will make a certain number of millions in profit. A small portion of this is to be given back through 700 so-called affordable units, a fire station, and some road improvements. Nice but no cigar. Negotiating with JBG is like buying a car — you have to be prepared to walk out of the dealer and push beyond the first offer to get the best deal.

Second, the City maintains the power of eminent domain. It can seize property, pay the market rate, and preserve affordable housing and Alexandria's most diverse community. This same power was used to destroy hundreds of affordable African American occupied apartments. It can legally be used to save apartments that are the home to thousands of working families. Third, the City can reestablish a “housing fund” to accrue money needed to buy and preserve affordable housing. There is much that can be done — the City's hands are not tied. No one is in a rush except the developer. Why not get a detailed study on the actual incomes and housing needs of West End residents? Why not get a detailed study of the projected profits so we know how much is potentially being given away and can establish reasonable parameters for negotiation? Many of our Council members are astute business people — why not use those skills to get the best deal for Alexandria? For the rest of us — we need to build the biggest possible movement to fight for Alexandria's most precious resource low-cost housing and the people who live in them. In November we need to look for at least four candidates who will join us and use every tool at their disposal to "Save the West End."

Jon Liss

Alexandria