Do we really need more density? Alexandria is already the most densely populated jurisdiction in Virginia and all of the DC metro area. The Port City has more people per square mile than 7 of the 10 largest cities in the country, and our density ranks in the top 7% of the more than 300 U.S. cities with populations over 100,000.
Density advocates, including Mayor Wilson and City Manager Mark Jinks will tell you that density pays for itself. If that were so, why have residential property taxes increased five times faster than our population has over the past decade?
They are also promoting affordable housing, which appears to be a noble cause until you understand why and how they are going about it. It starts with Amazon’s concern that their new “HQ2” headquarters in Arlington will drive up housing prices and contribute to a further reduction of housing affordability.
HQ2 was a principal reason that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) set a goal to add 75,000 new housing units across the metro area within 10 years in order to keep the area affordable for people making 20-50% less than the area’s median income. But here’s the catch: MWCOG requested that Alexandria commit to 3% of that goal, reflecting our proportion of the region’s population. (By publication time, this commitment may have been formalized by a vote of City Council.) City officials will tell you that it’s for teachers, firefighters and cops (among others), but few would qualify based on income. And we don’t even know how many City employees would want to move here - beyond the 19% of them already living within our boundaries.
The bigger problem is we don’t have the land, transportation infrastructure, or potential school capacity to accommodate much more density. Other jurisdictions in the region have a lot more to work with. Fairfax County has only 26% of our density. Prince William and Loudoun have even less at 13% and 7% respectively. Even Arlington is less dense, although only somewhat less so than Alexandria.
We should have told the extra-governmental MWCOG, “We already gave at the office.” As well, we should have said, “You don’t represent the residents of Alexandria, so we will address housing and affordability in ways that make the most sense for our residents and taxpayers.” Meantime, owners of condos, townhouses and single family homes are being asked to pay an average of 6.4% more in property tax/fees in fiscal year 2021 (which begins on July 1st) making the city less affordable for those already living here. But that’s nothing new. As inflation has run at 1.5% in the DC area since 2011, the increase in property taxes/fees has averaged a whopping 4.5%!
Perhaps the City should focus less on making the city affordable to meet MWCOG’s dictate and to serve some number of yet undetermined new residents, and spend more time managing livability and tax affordability for the homeowners and renters who already live here.