Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) designs for the affordable housing replacing Ramsey Homes.
The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority has agreed to a work plan with the city. One of the core tenets of this plan, number 3 on the list, is “no surprises.” Unlike the last City Council public hearing on the Feb. 20, the March 12 meeting went about as expected. Given Councilman Paul Smedberg’s vote reversal that allowed the issue to be brought before the City Council again, ARHA had the supermajority vote it needed for the master plan and zoning amendments. Even Mayor Allison Silberberg yielded her opposition and the council voted unanimously in favor of the amendments and deferral of the development special use permit (DSUP) as ARHA had requested.
But for opponents of the Ramsey Homes redevelopment, Saturday was not a complete loss: ARHA will now have to wait another year of working with the city and community on the DSUP before they can move forward.
Because of the deferral, though later overturned, ARHA’s CEO Roy Priest says they missed the deadline for requesting state funding for 2016. While the council did ultimately approve the rezoning, March 4 was ARHA’s deadline to apply for funding from the Virginia Housing Development Authority. Priest said the delays with the city stacked up over the months, starting with the Board of Architectural Review’s denial of the demolition permit in the fall of 2015 and the appeals process with the city in the months that followed.
Priest said there were two major factors driving ARHA’s decision not to pursue the lower occupancy options that the City Council had requested: competitiveness for tax credits and the debt coverage ratio. While the 49 resident housing option the city had requested ARHA pursue does meet the low end requirement for competitiveness for tax credits, it does not meet ARHA’s debt coverage minimum. While the City Council had been pushing ARHA to look into an option that preserved one of the existing Ramsey Homes for historic preservation purposes, Councilwoman Del Pepper said she was beginning to recognize that it may not be possible.
While some of the February meeting’s redevelopment opponents returned at the March 12 meeting to speak out against the proposal, overall ARHA was also backed by a more supportive public voice. Supporters included several representatives from the regional interfaith group V.O.I.C.E., Tenants and Workers United, nearby residents, and a former ARHA board chair.
“Every board member inherits the legacy of ARHA, good and bad,” said Michele Chapman, former ARHA board chair and mother to City Councilman John Chapman. “I will always be grateful to the Lord that I was allowed to put a roof over someone’s head, despite opposition; that people won’t be sleeping in their cars, that they won’t be couch surfing. It will be a little tough to build that community with increased density, but it can be done. It’s just a start, but it will make a difference for 53 families, and they need that difference.”
But ARHA still faced harsh criticism from local residents.
“Let’s not forget it was ARHA who let the projects deteriorate … they certainly haven’t been investing money in the project,” said Heidi Ford, representing the West Old Town Citizen’s Association. “If you don’t require ARHA to play by the rules on this one, you can’t expect them to [for future developments].”
“If you reach a compromise … you have to stand by it, otherwise you’re dealing with the public you represent in an uneven way,” said Dino Drudi, citing the city’s deal with ARHA as the type of thing an ethics commission was supposed to prevent. Drudi’s comments provoked a direct reaction from Councilman John Chapman.
“This is not about ethics, it’s about flexibility,” said Chapman. “If we don’t engage our business community, to look to keep them here, things get rough. If we don’t react to schools bursting at the seams … we won’t have families in this community. If we have a housing crisis in this city, and we as a community don’t react to that, we’re not going to be a city that people want to come to. That’s what you’re seeing here. It is not unethical by any means, it is reacting to a current crisis.”