Foreshadowing a likely spirited forthcoming overhaul of Resolution 830, an advisory group agreed that requirements for public housing units replaced through redevelopment should include comparable locations and affordability levels. The group was more divided about whether housing providers other than the public housing authority should participate in preserving the city’s lowest income units.
Resolution 830, a 1981 agreement between the city government and the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), requires the “substantially equivalent” one-for-one replacement of demolished public housing units. The parties have diverged in their understandings of what that means. City Council established a 27-member working group to advise regarding the resolution’s “modernization and potential expansion.” Recently city staff published the results of the working group’s concluding meeting, held April 26.
The group considered two particularly significant questions. What should define substantial equivalence of replacement units? And to whom should Resolution 830 apply?
Eighty-one percent of group members at the final meeting said substantial equivalence should include “comparable location and/or access to transit, services, schools, jobs, amenities, etc.”
Seventy-six percent said it should include a “minimum standard of affordability … to serve the same profile of families.” City government wants replacement units to serve the same low-income levels — namely, 30 percent of the area median income (AMI), about $33,000 for a family of four, or less. But ARHA says it must redevelop higher rents to offset diminishing federal subsidization.
Rules prevent the city from subsidizing public housing operating costs directly to cover the gap. Though the city could help by topping up public housing residents’ rents with additional rental assistance.
“ARHA could develop a unit intended for a 50 percent AMI household but the city’s rental subsidy can make that unit deeply affordable (30 percent AMI),” according to the staff report. However, “the [rental assistance] pilot program is currently very modest and the city will assess its ability to continue and/or expand this initiative, after the pilot period ends.”
Sixty-seven percent said substantial equivalence should include a “similar bedroom mix.” Resolution 830 originally covered 1,150 public housing units in configurations from efficiencies/one-bedrooms up to five-bedrooms, for 2,411 bedrooms total. Though ARHA’s waiting list, as of January, indicated the highest demand for two-bedrooms (53 percent) but almost no demand for four- and five-bedrooms (0.1 percent). Currently, larger units may provide occupants with “more bedrooms than needed,” or otherwise house “multigenerational families."
The group discussed the possibility of specifying the preservation of total bedroom count rather than units, allowing ARHA flexibility to reconfigure unit-by-unit bedroom arrangements to match market demand. For example, ARHA could replace a five-bedroom unit with one one-bedroom and two two-bedrooms, but not merely one one-bedroom.
As to whom Resolution 830 should apply, 43 percent said “a completely new resolution should be contemplated.” The present resolution includes only the city government and ARHA. A new, supplementary resolution could bring nonprofit and private developers into the fold of building for the lowest incomes. Currently, ARHA provides the vast majority of units at or below 30 percent of AMI. Recent and current nonprofit projects target 40-60 percent of AMI. Only 188 market-rate units in the city are affordable below 50 percent, and none are affordable below 45 percent of AMI, according to the city’s 2018 Apartment Survey.
Eighty-one percent said, if there’s a new resolution, non-ARHA providers should have access to the same suite of “incentivizing tools ARHA uses.” Non-ARHA providers should get “city financing for development costs (loans, grants)” (86 percent); “city fee waivers (development applications, permits, sewer tap fees, etc.)” (76 percent); “rental subsidies for operational support” (76 percent); and “real estate tax exemptions” (71 percent). These costs are nothing to sneeze at. For instance, sewer tap fees are $8,000 per unit, said Housing Director Helen McIlvaine. Reducing such costs would help developers make projects economically viable in spite of low rents.
“Currently these tools are only provided to ARHA because of its mission to serve households at very low income levels, and offering them to other providers would represent a shift in our policy and practice,” said McIlvaine in an email.
Find all working group materials online at www.alexandriava.gov/Housing.
The author represented the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee (AHAAC) on the working group.