‘Solving a Problem’ — Or ‘Punting’ in Alexandria?

‘Solving a Problem’ — Or ‘Punting’ in Alexandria?

City, public housing leaders continue grappling with Resolution 830 overhaul.

“Are we solving a problem if we adopt this language? —Vice Mayor Justin Wilson

City and housing authority officials encountered familiar stumbling blocks, but also achieved some modest progress, in an initial joint review on Thursday, Oct. 11 of a draft revised bilateral agreement.

In 1981, the city government and the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), which administers federal housing programs locally, agreed not to diminish the stock of 1,150 public housing units existing at that time. The joint agreement, established in Resolution 830, requires, among things, that any demolished public housing must be “replaced by an equal number of either conventional public housing units, or any equal number of publicly assisted housing units.” The latter must be “substantially equivalent to the units be replaced.” But the two entities’ interpretations of what substantial equivalence means have diverged over the years.

In the past, the city tended to think of substantially equivalent one-for-one replacement in terms of affordability at given income levels. By contrast, ARHA tended to think of the provision more in terms of the number of units than of hard-and-fast levels of affordability. The latter view would grant ARHA the flexibility to redevelop units with rents targeted at higher income families. ARHA leaders have long said that they need this flexibility to in order to ensure sustainable building operations in a world full of political and market uncertainties. They can’t commit today to replace units tomorrow at the same extremely low rent units, if those low rents won’t cover debt service in tomorrow’s financing and HUD subsidy environment.

Through a process formally underway since January, city and ARHA staff, as well as other community stakeholders, have labored to reconcile these diverging views. The fruits of that process to date consist in the draft proposal that made its public debut last week.

What Vice Mayor Justin Wilson called the draft’s “money paragraph” is a replacement of the old substantial equivalence language with new language, saying: “The size and affordability levels of replacement units shall be responsive to local market demand and the housing needs of existing ARHA households immediately impacted by the proposed redevelopment.”

This language doesn’t guarantee affordability levels in perpetuity. Nor does it constitute a “‘right-to-return’ policy,” according to the staff presentation. Rather, it memorializes, at least in part, ARHA’s stated need to maintain “flexibility in its financing structure,” said Helen McIlvaine, the city’s housing director.

“I’ve been preaching all along,…we need flexibility so we can have sustainability,” said ARHA CEO Keith Pettigrew.

The housing authority’s trepidation lay “in the variables we don’t control,” such as changes in federal housing policy, said Daniel Bauman, who chairs ARHA’s governing board.

Other cautioned that the proposed draft merely poured the resolution’s prior vagueness into a new wineskin.

It “seems like that’s going to be terribly subjective,” said Wilson. “Are we solving a problem if we adopt this language? Or are we…punting to a project-by-project fight that we’re going to continue to have on the unit math?”

“We’re going to rehash that conversation every time,” agreed Councilman John Chapman.

However, officials achieved agreement in two areas of the proposed revision, which represent marked changes compared to the older version.

First, council members suggested that the housing authority, if it can’t commit to affordably parameters in a blanket policy, at least propose an overall long-term vision for its property portfolio. Housing authority leadership received the suggestion favorably.

“I would feel more comfortable about flexibility on an individual project if we had all bought into, here’s where we’re going generally, as it relates to the portfolio,” said Wilson. “The individual puts-and-takes on a project won’t panic everyone, because we say, well, we’re still headed to this vision.”

Second, the draft revision requires a “Housing Plan” as a prerequisite for the redevelopment of any applicable properties.

As “part of the initial DSUP filing,” the Housing Plan “will give a lot more certainty to what is being proposed” in terms of, for example, number of units, bedroom mix, affordability levels, said McIlvaine. It’ll also provide more certainty “with regard to the [tenant] relocation sites.” Additionally, the Housing Plan will inform the city of ARHA’s intentions “much earlier on” that in past cases. That way, “if it’s not something that is either acceptable or where resources are needed, it gives us a chance to be a partner in the solution.”

For more information, visit follow the “ARHA Redevelopment Projects” link at www.alexandriava.gov/Housing.

The author represented the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee on the city’s Resolution 830 Working Group earlier this year.