Photo by joanna8555 on Flickr.

Rents in Alexandria are skyrocketing. Virginia’s state laws don’t make it easy to create affordable housing for people earning less than the area median income, so the city has to think outside the box.

True sustainability means that we provide housing options that mirror our workforce. This reduces people’s commute times, and cuts down on regional congestion. Forcing people to live farther out con­sumes farmland, increases food costs, and harms air quality. Jurisdictions closer to DC have an obligation to help address the rental housing shortage.

For Alexandria, this work also strives toward the mixed-income and mixed-culture vision that we have long held on to.  But rising rents are making this vision harder and harder to achieve.

Unlike other states, Virginia does not allow its cities to mandate that developers replace every unit of affordable housing lost to redevelopment, or to require a fixed percentage of affordable units. But affordable housing is a priority for Alexandria, so the City Council and Planning Commission are working together with staff, developers, and residents to find innovative ways to provide it.

Over the course of the next year, the City Council should adopt a new Affordable Housing Master plan.  We just completed a plan for senior services that specifically called for new, affordable retirement living options. Soon our public housing authority should complete its own master plan. And the city should finish work on the Beauregard small area plan.  All of these will have a significant impact on the future of affordability in Alexandria.

The Beauregard planning study demonstrates the limits of our power. Without a new plan, current rentals, which are barely affordable to people earning under $50,000, would become luxury rentals or townhouses. Thousands of currently affordable units would vanish. The city may be able to gain a small number of units out of these conversions, but it would be limited. We can do better.

The proposed Beauregard plan saves about 700 units of affordable housing.  The Council has asked that this number be raised and that we find a way to provide housing to a broader range of incomes, especially those earning under $40,000 per year.

To maximize the number of units saved, the city will need to create a more flexible approach to housing.  We need to increase the contributions from developers and use those funds to preserve existing units whenever we can because it is often much less expensive to preserve an existing housing unit than to build a new one. This helps us spread the value further.

We need to ensure that the structure of developer contributions makes it easy to combine with private and non-profit money to build new mixed-income projects over the 30 years it will take for the Beauregard plan to get fully built. Over that time, over $90 million in payments could go towards affordable housing. The scale those funds creates an opportunity to attract other investment.

We need better incentives for developers to create and preserve affordable housing and mixed-use development. The city should look at every new development as a chance to add affordable housing.

Alexandria should update its home ownership and rental assistance programs, to bring them up to date with national best practices. The city should revisit its zoning to allow “granny flats,” so that families can rent out affordable spaces in their home and give seniors and others living options. The city should also encourage housing on top of retail strips.

The master plan won’t solve all of these issues. There isn’t a silver bullet, and no one jurisdiction can solve this problem on its own. Alexandria also needs help from regional partners to build more rental housing. The federal government should also step up. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been too silent on our national rental housing problems for too long.

Alexandria’s problems are not unique. Rental rates are consuming more of people’s monthly income than can be sustained all over the country.  But hopefully, Alexandria’s work in the coming months can provide a model for our region and state to follow.