Little Development for Low Income Housing

Little Development for Low Income Housing

Six years after the Alexandria Council of Human Services Organizations (ACHSO) compiled a list of needs in the community, the group has met with local leaders to see what progress has been made. In regards to housing and affordable development in Alexandria, the answer is not much.

For many low income families in Alexandria, it is difficult or even impossible to find a place to live. Even if someone can find an affordable neighborhood or apartment complex, they are often faced with long waiting lists and low rates of turnover. In 2008, one of the biggest issues on the docket for ACHSO was the increasing need for affordable housing.

The 2014 focus group met at the Campagna Center on Tuesday, Oct. 21, to update the needs of the 2008 assessment. The goal was to revisit the recommendations from the old report and to examine the role of housing providers in the efforts to achieve those goals.

The findings were that, while housing costs have continued to rise, there has not been proportionate development of low income housing. Many of the problems come from what is generally seen the high cost and high risk associated with developing low income housing. But the cost of not addressing the affordable housing crisis is even costlier. Without a permanent home, many low income citizens wind up in hospitals or jail, where bed space is even more limited and expensive to the taxpayer.

For many developers, the cost and risk is seen as even higher for residents with a criminal record, who are charged double or even triple the usual security deposit as “prepaid rent.” Even non-profit low income housing developers, like the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation (AHDC), turn away residents with criminal records.

Melodie Seau, Landlord/Tenant Relations Division chief for the Office of Housing, noted that much of this can be improved by engaging with local landlords. Michelle Krocker, executive director for the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, agreed that hosting meetings with local landlords could help alleviate their concerns.

“We can show landlords that resources are available for residents with a criminal record,” Krocker said.

In terms of development, one of the main issues the focus group noted was the lack of housing between extreme low income housing and more moderate affordable residences. Many who live in the lowest tier of affordable housing could move into a higher tier if it were available, but cannot afford the next level available in Alexandria.

“If we don’t have a variety of rents available to people in this city, we may have a situation where people who could pay more are occupying units that have lower rents,” Krocker said.

“We show the number of market rate units that are affordable, but we don’t know who’s in those units,” said Eric Keeler, division chief of Program Administration for the Office of Housing. Keeler also added that many of those residences are occupied by low income occupants like students or young professionals who may only live in those residences for a year or two. “It’s a difficult number to come up with.”

With the current budgetary restrictions, Keeler noted that the city’s focus on low income housing is currently on redevelopment of existing sites rather than construction of new ones. One site along Beauregard Street is being converted into housing for senior citizens.

Moving forward, the focus group noted that in addition to low income housing development for citizens to upgrade into, the city needs to address housing for substance abusers and sex offenders. Like other citizens with criminal records, it is nearly impossible for substance abusers of registered sex offenders to find housing. They are seen as high risk to development communities and surrounding neighborhoods despite various programs provided by the city and nonprofits to mitigate that risk.

According to Jesssica Lurz, homeless services coordinator for the Department of Community and Human Services, development of low income housing in Alexandria is often fought by other citizens.

“Resource rich neighbors prolong the process for non-profits in court,” Lurz said, adding that part of developing affordable housing is dispelling many of the misconceptions in the surrounding communities.

“There is an incredible lack of knowledge on what affordable housing actually is,” said Katharine Dixon, executive director of Rebuilding Together Alexandria, a nonprofit that helps repair homes in the city.

Angie Rodgers, a representative of Peoples Consulting LLC and the focus group’s facilitator, expressed surprise that residents in a heavily Democratic city would oppose low-income housing. Various members of the board cited underlying racial tensions in parts of the community as a potential root cause and a lack of outreach to low-income communities from the city.

“Alexandria is Democratic,” said Krocker, “but not necessarily progressive.”