Image by Ken Lund licensed under Creative Commons.

Alexandria has 16,000 fewer homes that are affordable on the free market than it did 17 years ago, according to a recent report. That’s a loss of over 90% of what was available in 2000, and enough to house the entire population of Falls Church, and then some.

What is “market-rate affordable”?

Simply put, these are unsubsidized, privately-owned apartment units that anyone can rent, but are cheap enough to be rented by people with less. In other words, they are made cheaper by market forces (rather than government mandate), enough that someone making below the median income for the region can afford to live there.

Every year the City of Alexandria Office of Housing reports on the apartments affordable to households earning 60% or less of Area Median Income ($46,380 for one person, $66,180 for a family of four). With a few exceptions, each year since 2000 has seen a decrease in the supply of these market-affordable apartments.

Image by The City of Alexandria Office of Housing.

One reason for this drop is older, cheaper units being retooled into newer, more expensive ones. Another is that for even the unimproved homes, rents are going up.

The report goes on to say that out of the 1,749 market-affordable homes currently left, only 7% have three bedrooms, making the crunch for families particularly difficult.

Image by The City of Alexandria Office of Housing.

Alexandria has unique and powerful tools to preserve affordable housing, but they don’t address this issue

This dramatic reduction in naturally affordable homes is perhaps more startling when we consider Alexandria’s history of strong policies to preserve affordable housing.

In 1979, Alexandria became one of the few jurisdictions in the country to pass a law requiring that public housing units must be replaced one-for-one when the site is redeveloped. The law is called Resolution 830.

Derek Hyra, author of recently published Race, Class,and Politics in the Cappuccino City, and previous board chair of the the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), describes the importance of this law, which has been around for 36 years now:

The point [of resolution 830] was to protect Alexandria's public housing stock. Very few cities and counties have a resolution like this. The federal government used to have a national law that maintained a one-for-one replacement for demolished public housing. The 1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act permanently removed the federal one-for-one replacement (of public housing) law, so in that year Resolution 830 became very important for the preservation of the public housing but not the private market affordable housing the Alexandria.

830 only covers certain publicly subsidized units and most of the units that are lost are private market affordable housing that have no protection.

And that has been the problem; there are simply not enough publicly-subsidized units in Alexandria, especially as the naturally affordable housing stock has decreased.

Currently, Alexandria has 3,710 apartments under some form of income or rent restriction, and 1,150 public housing units. That is simply not enough to meet the demand. In 2011, ARHA reopened the waiting lists for its public housing and voucher programs. The lists were only open for one week, and 15,000 households applied.

Rising rents are also causing some to rethink Resolution 830, saying it is financially impractical

Today in Alexandria, the future Resolution 830 is under discussion. Some members of ARHA say that the law makes ARHA’s job impossible— that it cannot afford to redevelop public housing and replace every home with an equivalently priced and sized unit. They say this is especially true because the federal subsidies available have dramatically and constantly decreased due to regular cuts to the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, something many expect to continue under the current administration.

Hyra and others are against a fundamental change to the law. From Hyra:

Alexandria has struggled to maintain affordable housing. I've watched the affordable housing units in the private market severely decline. I’m a huge proponent of preserving subsidized, affordable housing there, and want the city to maintain their long-standing commitment to affordable by upholding Resolution 830. This will be critical to helping low-income people stay in this historic, high-cost city.

Michelle Krocker, Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance (NVAHA):

Now we have a situation where ARHA, like everyone else, has declining federal resources. Nobody anticipated this situation when 830 was passed…

There is a difference of opinion about this now, but we need to reaffirm the intent of the resolution. If ARHA can’t keep this commitment, the question we should be asking is: what do we need to do to keep this commitment?

The public housing available at Braddock Road Metro Station, Andrew Atkins, has plans for redevelopment. Image by Virgina Housing Development LLC - ARHA.

One-for-one replacement is an essential part of keeping the region inclusive, but obviously other strategies are needed too

Alexandria is not the only city in the region grappling with these issues. Last month, Greater Greater Washington and a diverse group of stakeholders crafted and submitted a set of amendments to the Comprehensive Plan. Among them were policy frameworks that address some of the same issues in Alexandria’s struggle.

Fundamentally, the region needs enough homes for everyone of all incomes to live here. That means building many more market-rate homes, but it also means drawing a firm line in the sand when it comes to preserving the few subsidized homes we have.

Our amendment package proposes to do this in DC, but we wanted to make sure that policy would pencil out financially as well:

When redevelopment occurs on properties with housing made affordable through subsidy, covenant, or rent control, the District, Zoning Commission, and neighborhoods should work with landowners to create redevelopment plans that preserve such units or replace any lost ones with similar units either on-site or nearby. These entities should provide the necessary density and/or potential funding to ensure it is financially feasible to reinvest in the property with no net loss of affordable units.

We knew that if we want to take the preservation of these subsidized units seriously, governments and partners need multiple tools at their disposal to fund that reality, things like additional density, tax credits, voucher programs and all sorts of combinations of local and federal funding.

Policies like this are important and necessary, but neither our proposal nor Resolution 830 directly addresses the dramatic loss of market-rate affordable homes in the region. That challenge is going to require an all-of-the-above approach if we truly want to have enough homes for us all.

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.