Opinion: Commentary: City Council Candidates: Do Your Homework on Affordable Housing

Opinion: Commentary: City Council Candidates: Do Your Homework on Affordable Housing

As a homeowner and city resident, I support our aspiration to be a just and inclusive community by ensuring that we have affordable housing opportunities for residents of all income levels. This is arguably our highest priority as a city. As a housing policy professional, I also know that housing affordability is a regional challenge. Across Northern Virginia, thousands of households are struggling to afford decent, quality housing that allows them to pay the rent and still put food on the table. These families are one paycheck away from homelessness – and that was before the pandemic.

Given the pressing need to increase affordable housing opportunities both locally and regionally, I’m pleased to see so many City Council candidates identify this issue as a key element in their campaign platforms. But to speak credibly, candidates should understand the existing tools and strategies, current challenges and the far-reaching impact of this issue, before making policy recommendations.

The City’s elected officials, Office of Housing, Department of Planning and Zoning and the Department of Community and Human Services work in concert with nonprofit and for-profit partners to address the continuum of unmet housing needs from homelessness to first-time homeownership. In 2013, City Council adopted a comprehensive Housing Master Plan that identified housing needs and detailed strategies and goals to address our housing affordability crisis. Alexandria follows proven best practices that are used in cities and counties across Northern Virginia to increase affordable housing, including the provision of density bonus, reduction of parking requirements, maintaining a local housing trust fund and co-locating housing with public facilities.

Land use and zoning policies have been adopted to support affordable development, and the City has worked with for-profit developers to create mixed-income housing in their new developments. Is the system perfect? No. But the process is continuously examined for ways to create more affordability. I recommend the Housing Master Plan as assigned reading for candidates running for City Council.

Building housing for low- and moderate-income residents is not for the faint of heart. There are strict federal, state and local regulations to navigate, costs to contain and important community meetings to hold. It’s not unusual for these developments to require four, five or six layers of debt and equity just to make their projects break even. The moniker of ‘greedy developer’ does not apply here.

To support the retail and hospitality sector so vital to the City’s economy, we need housing for the workforce. To retain essential workers, including teachers’ aides, day care workers, hospital employees and receptionists and attract new employers to the region, we must increase housing supply and affordability. Some candidates have endorsed the practice of local preference, but that’s a violation of Fair Housing laws.

Growth for the City is inevitable; we cannot sustain our businesses and economy without it. There will be disagreements about how that growth impacts the present and shapes our future, but we need informed discussion of the issues. In the end, I hope we can be united by the vision of a city that is home to all of us, not just a privileged few.

So to City Council candidates, this voter has a request: please familiarize yourself with the City’s considerable body of housing programs and policies. Then you will be better equipped to recommend meaningful housing solutions that meet the needs of all city residents. As a resident who cares deeply about this issue, I will have more confidence in where to place my vote knowing who has done their homework on housing.

Michelle Krocker is chair of Alexandria’s Housing Affordability Advisory Committee and executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.