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Votes

Beauregard Waiting Game: Half the Affordable Housing Units Are a Decade Away

Supporters of the plan praise set-aside units; opponents fear complacency and inaction.

Thousands of low-income residents who live in these low-slung garden apartments on the West End are worried gentrification might push them out of Alexandria.

Thousands of low-income residents who live in these low-slung garden apartments on the West End are worried gentrification might push them out of Alexandria. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

Waiting for Housing

2014: 47 units

2015: 46 units

2016: none

2017: none

2018: none

2019: 58 units

2020: 56 units

2021: 62 units

2022: 38 units

2023: 60 units

2024: 60 units

2025: 60 units

2026 to 2030: 150 units

2031 to 2035 : 100 units

2036 to 2042: 63 units

Total: 800 units

For the thousands of people who live in low-slung garden apartments on the West End, the future is an ever-present worry. Will they be able to stay in Alexandria? Or will gentrification push them out into far-flung suburbs and exurbs of Northern Virginia with little more than a 120-day notice? Half of the affordable housing units the city says is set aside in redevelopment there won’t be available for a decade. And even then, residents might have to enter a lottery to get an available unit.

“This is the cheapest neighborhood in Alexandria,” said Amine Ketani, a native of Morocco who has lived here for the last six years. “So it’s going to be hard to find, you know, somewhere that’s cheaper than here.”

Last year, members of the Alexandria City Council approved a plan that would demolish thousands of low-end garden apartments in favor of high-end housing, offices and hotels. Now city leaders are ready to move forward with the zoning change that would allow developers to move forward with demolition of the existing buildings and relocation of some of the residents.

“If the rezoning doesn’t happen, we can renovate existing units or redevelop under existing zoning,” said Cathy Puskar, a land-use attorney who is representing developer JBG Properties. “Neither of which guarantees any affordable housing.”

SUPPORTERS OF THE REZONING say the 800 units of dedicated affordable housing would be an unprecedented addition to the stockpile of residential units for low-income Alexandria residents. But according to the city’s implementation plan, the units will come in small increments over the next 30 years. Most of the units won’t be available until after 2023 — if the developer delivers all the units that are currently part of the discussion about rezoning.

“This is not enforceable in any way,” said civic activist Sammie Moshenberg, whose unsuccessful campaign for City Council was based largely on her opposition to the Beauregard small-area plan. “It’s recommended, but not guaranteed.”

Last week, three attorneys with the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent council members a letter expressing their support for stronger assurances that the developer will follow through with delivering the affordable housing units. One model would be a formal “community benefits agreement,” according to members of the organization. Without such a legally binding contract, opponents of the plan fear, thousands may be waiting for units that may never materialize.

“Without a firm enforceable commitment to long-term or permanently affordable housing, there is no guarantee that the developer will follow through on its promise,” wrote Diane Glauber, David Zisser and Melissa Gallo in the Feb. 8 letter. “And the neighborhood is likely to become unaffordable to families that currently live there.”

PLANNING COMMISSION MEMBERS are scheduled to consider the rezoning in April, setting the stage for weeks of conflict as the plan moves forward. The proposal now under consideration would have developers kick in about $80 million for the affordable-housing units. City taxpayers would also contribute about $76 million over the next 30 years. One issue that has yet to be determined is how much money individuals will have to earn to qualify.

“Our survey of residents showed a much greater number of lower-income households than we expected,” said Helen McIlvaine, deputy director of the Office of Housing. “We don’t expect to be able to serve everyone with the committed units.”

About half of the residents who currently live in the series of garden apartments known as the Hamlets earn less than $40,000 a year. That’s why an advisory panel is suggesting City Council members set aside a majority of the units for lowest-income residents. That would mean 405 units for those who earn 40 percent of the average median income or less.

“We shouldn't be focused on units but rather the people who live in the units,” said Aurora Vasquez, co-director of the advocacy group known as Tenants and Workers United. "Twenty-five hundred units means thousands and thousands of people. It means individuals. It means moms. It means dads. It means children. It means senior citizens.”

THE DEBATE ABOUT ZONING will pit low-income residents against development pressure. Hanging in the balance is tens of millions in new revenue for the city in addition to a new fire station that developers have offered to construct for the city. Residents are calling on city leaders and JBG Companies to roll back rents to 2010 rates and freeze them in place, which would prevent low-income residents from being priced out of Alexandria. They’re also asking that city leaders increase the number of dedicated affordable housing units from 800 to 2,473 — the number of existing market rate units that will be demolished under the current plan.

“That is completely impractical if we are to continue to maintain this property to satisfy resident needs and meet city of Alexandria standards,” said Charles Maier, spokesman for the JBG Companies, in December. “Most residents living in Mark Center know and understand that.”

As the rezoning vote nears, members of Tenants and Workers United are hoping that they might be able to help current residents deal with rising rents and increase the number of affordable housing units that will be available in the future.

“We’re frustrated and angry about what’s going on,” said Hector Pineda, president of the Beauregard Tenants Association. “And we’re still in this fight.”