Alexandria Column: Public Policy and Locating Affordable Housing

Alexandria Column: Public Policy and Locating Affordable Housing


“Planning is both art — politics and leadership — and science — demographics and economics,” Bill Klein, director of Research for the American Planning Association explained in 2009. In Alexandria’s Braddock neighborhood many residents equate planning with a backward notion of racial politics.

Alexandria’s Braddock neighborhood, mostly mapped in 1798, is of two eras. Described now as diverse, it is promoted historically as mostly black. The victim of Virginia’s late-19th century segregation policies, the Braddock cum Old Town Alexandria neighborhood developed a disproportionate share of concentrated public housing.

In the early 1930s Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Public Works Administration, a New Deal construction agency whose policies “effectively established … an overwhelmingly, inner-city, multi-family, rental non-white, public housing program.” Why? Roosevelt pandered to southern Democrats. He traded Jim Crow and the PWA’s Neighborhood Composition Rule for passage of his New Deal legislation. The Neighborhood Composition Rule assured segregated cities, like Alexandria, that the new federal presence would not alter the existing racial composition of any given project area.

The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, formerly known as the Alexandria Housing Authority, was established in 1939. Today ARHA claims dispersal of its low income residents is “hard,” and only 50-plus unit buildings are profitable. ARHA’s current financial model trumps the well-being of its residents including Ramsay Homes’ demolition by neglect.

Alexandria’s first public housing was constructed in 1942 in the Braddock neighborhood, the 90 unit white-only John Roberts and the still standing, 15 unit black-only Ramsay Homes. By 1957 the public housing program was in dreary deadlock; “rigid and paternal in its management, crude and segregated.” Concentrated neighborhood construction continued through 1967.

Scholars describe affordable housing as a means to an end. To house defense workers during world wars, to create jobs during the Great Depression, to provide an antidote to 1960s civil unrest, and or to stimulate the economy generally. Still one-third of Alexandria’s Resolution 830 public housing units remain concentrated in the Braddock neighborhood; that is Census Tract 16. The 24 unit Pendleton Park Apartments as well as other set asides are in addition.

“Deterioration, crime and other forms of blight are surface symptoms of prior and deeper economic and functional failure,” Jane Jacobs wrote in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Non-management is a recurring ARHA problem and critical analyses are lacking.

In 1977 ARHA narrowly avoided a city takeover. Six years later the city reported “the accounting firm of Coopers and Lybrand, Inc. recently completed a study designed to analyze past and current revenues, costs and deficits and recommend ways of improving ARHA’s cash flow.” Authorized by City Council, the sitting council should take note.

ARHA’s business model varies, and if Ramsay Homes is an example, its properties are poorly maintained. Yet ARHA in 2014 purchased 401 Wythe St., an office building for $4.8 million “in hand paid by Grantee.” Financial accountability is wanting; city bailouts include ARHA-Glebe Park (2008) and RPJ Housing (2011). Rather than tread carefully Council members Wilson and Chapman, on March 2, told the city manager the ongoing ARHA-Ramsay Homes review will not include a Memorandum of Understanding.

The issue is not availability of rental housing. It is price point. Alexandria, in 1990, had the lowest level of owner-occupied housing of any Northern Virginia jurisdiction. Mobility was high and 60 percent of Alexandria’s total housing units — 61,156 — were renter-occupied, the 17th highest in the United States. Today — 25 years later — 56.7 percent of Alexandria’s occupied housing units are renters. That said ARHA’s 2012 strategic plan, combined with increasing land values and the failure to off-site, gives the Neighborhood Composition Rule renewed vim.

As of 1993, Alexandria’s Affordable Housing Policy committed the city “to preserve the existing supply of affordable housing units (3,681 subsidized and public housing units and 224 units in buildings financed with tax exempt bonds), and to develop new affordable housing opportunities, primarily assisted home ownership, for households with members who live or work in the city and who have incomes between 50 percent of median income for the metropolitan area and the Virginia Housing Development Authority’s income limits.”

Alexandria’s public housing, integrated in 1965, was 91.2 percent black in 2008. Is it because affordable housing is now a political end, not a means, and Democrats — conservative, southern or otherwise — still “manage” Alexandria’s Jim Crow housing?

“Zoning is the filter for determining what actually gets built,” Klein, who retired in 2013, concluded. “It is a local power and there are all these fiefdoms. But, pulling poor people all in one place is terrible. Concentrated public housing settlements are not a good idea.”