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Letter: A Solution for Catastrophe

To the Editor:

Based on the City’s approval of the Beauregard Small Area Plan we can expect the continued forced exodus of at least 5,000 low- and moderate-income people from Alexandria. We have the City proclaiming its commitment to diversity as City actions will result in the forced displacement of its most diverse neighborhood. The West End neighborhood holds high concentrations of African American, African, Latino and Muslim and most are likely to move without City intervention.

Despite banner headlines proclaiming “800 units” of affordable housing committed because of the BSAP; the reality is starkly different. It is two to three years out before even one unit of dedicated affordable housing will be available. In the last three years rent increases have priced almost 1,700 apartments out of the “affordable” housing category. In the last three years rents have skyrocketed, fees have been added, and utility charges imposed.

Residents who paid close to $1,300 / month for a two bedroom apartment in 2009 are now paying close to $1,700. With annual increases of 10 percent or more, it is likely that most residents will be “constructively evicted.”

The affordable units promised by the plan will not be available in time to prevent mass displacement of the residents of the West End. Close to 75 percent of the affordable and workforce units envisioned in this plan will not be available until 2020 or 2028 or later. It is hard to pin down when these units will actually be available because the language approved by City Council is so vague. Developers’ contributions and commitments to housing are conditioned by vague or non-committal words like: “may,” “depending on market forces,” “potential(ly),” “goal,”, “preliminary target,” “some dedicated units,” and “shall negotiate in good faith.” Rather than delay the vote or better yet to negotiate concessions to address the pending mass displacement, the City approved the plan and in doing so lost a major bargaining chip.

Even at this late moment, the City can preserve the unique and vibrant community that makes up the neighborhood. The City and the developer can do the right thing and roll back rents to 2009 or 2010 levels when all of the apartments were considered affordable. A rollback of $150 / month should be made available to all tenants who sign a 12-month or longer lease, are low-income and have lived on the property for 12 months or longer. The City should agree to use Housing Trust Fund monies to pay for half of this rent reduction.

Future annual increases should be limited to either cost of living increases or to the 5 percent Voluntary Rent Guideline. Essentially JBG would receive about a million dollars / year less in rent, the City would offer about a million dollars a year in rent subsidy. There would be instant savings as high turnover and associated maintenance and marketing costs will be reduced. This arrangement should stay in place until the projected affordable units in the BSAP are actually available. Yes, this is an extraordinary measure. The City is a partner and investor in this multi-billion dollar plan which is also extraordinary. This one relatively inexpensive act will do more to preserve the West End’s diverse tenant community than a $100 million of housing that will not be available until next the decade or later. Budgets and plans should reflect our community’s values and priorities. Tenants, property owners, elected officials, and staff can work together and turn this likely tenant catastrophe into a shining example of Alexandria at its best.

Jon Liss

Alexandria