With few exceptions the incumbent Council suffers collective amnesia when it comes to calamitous decision made on their watch. As new candidates for City Council contemplate how, if elected, they will resolve the many challenges facing the city, they might consider a couple axioms. First, the road to Hades is paved with good intentions; and second, be mindful of the law of unintended consequences. Part-time legislators can be forgiven for the occasional idyllic illusion of what constitutes good governance, provided they recognize and assume responsibility for adverse outcomes.
An area in which this council excels is feel good legislation. The most recent example is the one percent increase in the restaurant meal tax to buttress affordable housing. The lack of affordable housing is a real issue in the city.
To determine whether the legislation will meaningfully achieve what the council intends, it is necessary to understand what constitutes affordable housing and how it is legally defined. HUD defines affordable housing as living units that can realistically be paid for by median or low-income households. Generally, eligibility for affordable housing ranges from zero to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) range of the household. For a family of four, the cap in Alexandria is just over $88K. There are various programs for addressing affordable housing. Public housing, administered by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), manages 1,150 units, typically servicing households at or below 40 percent AMI. Another 2,586 units serving up to 80 percent AMI are supported through a combination of Federal, State and Local funding; additionally, there are 273 affordable rental set-asides in market-rate buildings and 67 supportive units. The city employs a variety of financing tools, operating fund programs and rental subsidy sources with 52 units currently at different stages of development specifically for households earning up to 40 percent of AMI. HUD funded project-based voucher (PBV) contracts provide units at or below 30-40 percent of AMI — there are 10,406 privately-owned PBV units and 1,637 ARHA owned units. Even with this expansive inventory the waiting list for eligible households below 50 percent AMI exceeds 9,000. The point of this tutorial is the Councilmember behind and driving the meal tax legislation defined affordable housing in different terms, targeting public service professionals — teachers, police, firefighters — those more likely in the 60-80 percent AMI range. This places the neediest behind those with the highest AMI rates.
Second and third order effects result as Metrorail announced it will suspend service to all Alexandria stations next summer. This will negatively impact tourism, hotel occupancy and dining. Business revenue and therefore tax revenue will decline. Declining income, combined with the new meal tax, might force some restaurants to close. Of course, council couldn’t see any of this coming, despite having membership on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
On June 12, council incumbents will ask to be reinstated for another term, believing the electorate will not judge them too harshly; after all, their intentions were good.