December 18, 2018

VHDA Grant Helps Planning Efforts to Preserve Affordable Housing Along Alexandria’s Route 1 Corridor

Alexandria is putting the final touches on a plan it hopes will safeguard its dwindling inventory of affordable housing.

Since 2000, 88 percent of Alexandria’s market-affordable units have been lost. These units, which have unregulated rents, often house low- to moderate-income families. With two rental properties on its Route 1 corridor – 215 units in all – in danger of joining that list in the next two years, the city wants to change its redevelopment and zoning guidelines to protect those properties and others. A Community Impact Grant from VHDA has helped fund that work in its early stages.

At the heart of the process was a series of community engagement activities designed to solicit feedback and gain consensus from a broad cross section of stakeholders. The most meaningful activity,by far, was a collaborative planning and policy session called a charrette. This week-long meeting was attended by several hundred people including neighbors, the residents and owners of the two Route 1 properties, city staff members, and community service organization representatives, some of whom brought special expertise to the group.

“Without VHDA’s grant money, there’s no way we could have pulled off such a comprehensive strategy and planning effort,” said Helen McIlvaine, Alexandria’s director of housing. “In addition to the charrette, VHDA’s funds helped pay for market and housing development studies, postcard mailings, door-to-door outreach and similar activities. It also covered language interpretation and translation services that helped us engage the diverse group of residents who are likely to be impacted.”

Federal subsidy contracts have helped the two Route 1 rental properties remain financially viable over the years. But those subsidies will expire in 2019 and 2020, increasing the likelihood that the property owners will choose to redevelop them. If that happens, the families who reside there – nearly all of whom make less than the area’s median income – could be priced out of their homes.

Alexandria’s charrette focused on both short- and long-term issues related to the properties, including a plan to relocate the tenants temporarily if redevelopment occurs. Traffic patterns, school capacity and housing density were also key topics. It’s estimated that three or more new market-rate rental units will need to be built in order to conserve one of the existing affordable units.

McIlvaine believes their work can jump-start tangible improvements to the city’s housing environment. “We want our planning and strategy work to create an envelope that can guide redevelopment along the Route 1 corridor, and potentially be a template for elsewhere in the city,” she said. “That will include, hopefully, zoning changes that help maintain our existing inventory of affordable housing, at close to their current level of affordability.”

Recommendations from the charrette were integral provisions in Alexandria’s long-term planning document, titled the Rt. 1 South Housing Affordability Strategy. It was unanimously approved by the planning commission on September 4, and by the city council on September 15, 2018.

The safe bet is that redevelopment economics, as well as other financial pressures, will continue to put affordable housing inventories in jeopardy. But in Alexandria, the belief is strong that proactive planning will drive policy and zoning changes that can balance those realities.

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