Posts by Rob Krupicka
|Rob Krupicka is an Alexandria City Councilman and a member of the Virginia Board of Education. He lives in Del Ray.|
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.
The diminishing quantity of housing for middle and low-income workers in Alexandria is reaching epic levels. According to a recent study by the Center for Housing Policy our region is seeing a dramatic increase in the number of families spending over 50% of their monthly income on rent. Unchecked, this trend will substantially hamper the economic and cultural diversity that defines Alexandria.
A recent report from the Center for Housing Policy shows that, nationally, "[n]early one in four working households spends more than half of its income on housing costs." In recent years, for some, rents have gone up even as incomes have declined.
And, although Alexandria has already gone further than most to protect its affordable housing, the fact remains that rents are rising faster than incomes throughout the region, thanks to a housing shortage that shows no signs of slowing.
Lower income families feel the effects of this economic shift most, as families making less than 50% of the area median income, about $60,000 in Alexandria, have seen the largest increase in the percentage of their income that they spend on housing. They now pay over 40% of their income on housing. Those earning approximately 30% of the area median, about $40,000 in Alexandria, pay closer to 80% of their income on housing.
While most of the apartment rents in the city, even the affordable ones, are most financially accessible to people earning over $60,000 a year, there are thousands of people paying for these units even though their incomes are much lower. The result is they have little, if any, disposable income to live on.
And, these so-called affordable units are becoming ever more scarce. When property owners repair and fix up their buildings they are able to double rents, driving moderate income workers out of our city and further away, forcing longer commutes on them and more congestion on our region.
Last year, the average value of apartment buildings went up about 15% because a shortage of housing choices and the cost of construction continue to drive up costs. Alexandria gives substantial bonuses to create affordable housing projects. The city waives parking requirements. It allows for extra density. It helps non-profits to get subsidized financing.
But, it is evident that these measures are not enough. The lack of supply and increasing cost of managing or building units render it impossible for non-profits, and for profit organizations, alike, to create an apartment that is reasonably affordable to a person earning under $40,000 a year.
In short, our region isn't keeping up with the demand for rental housing. People want to live near jobs and fewer want long commutes from the far-out suburbs, especially with gas prices at over $4.00 per gallon.
The fact is that these trends are likely to continue. Every regional forecast expects significant growth of millions of residents over the next twenty years. This is economics 101. A good economy and jobs insulate us from some of the worse parts of the national economy. However, all of these factors also put huge pressure on rental prices.
Despite the awards Alexandria has won and the millions of dollars we have spent over the last ten years to preserve a range of affordable housing options, there is no city policy that can stop these rental price trends.
Typically, the most affordable housing in any area are the older apartment buildings. As those are replaced and upgraded, we lose affordable options. Building more rental housing now is the best long-term solution, because it increases supply, and because today's new unit will most likely become more affordable over time.
However, if we are to truly impact the supply and demand problems facing our region, it's going to take more than just Alexandria's participation. We will need the whole of our region to recognize and begin to address the problem.
In the conversation about how to keep rents affordable, some have suggested that the city not fix up public housing, or that it not advance public safety improvements, or that it not allow investment in our parks and other city infrastructure, in order to suppress the value of property.
Although purposely running real estate into the ground and encouraging crime would certainly keep some rents affordable, this is a narrow and dangerous approach that ignores the larger national economic trends behind this.
Furthermore, it is inconsistent with the city's identity, as a place where people from many backgrounds and incomes can live safely and enjoy a good quality of life. Smart urban planning and common sense would say there should be a range of housing options throughout the city, not segregated pockets of low income workers in crime ridden, rundown housing.
While some have complained about the fact that the city is demolishing significant blocks of pubic housing right now, the truth is that every unit of public housing that Alexandria is taking down will be replaced with a newer, higher quality unit of public housing that will provide for a better and safer environment for residents to enjoy.
Alexandria's median income is close to $110,000. And, it's going up as more high skilled, high wage people move into our region. But for recent college grads, blue collar workers, teachers, police, construction workers, cleaners and more, it also means living multiple people to a unit or driving hours each day to work here.
If residents, planners and officials want to preserve, and even improve upon, the diverse, vibrant and accommodating character of Alexandria, they will have to go further and exercise open-mindedness, creativity and flexibility in the coming years. And, Alexandria will need the partnership of the greater Washington region to make a true impact on rent-to-income ratios as the city and metro area continue to expand and evolve.
After a year of fevered debates over Alexandria's waterfront, it is time to embrace the basic framework approved by the planning commission. The commission's approach is the most economically feasible way to proceed, and it is also the plan most likely to actually produce the attractive waterfront we deserve.
A recently released alternative proposal falls far short and requires the city to borrow more than a hundred million dollars to buy, through eminent domain or otherwise, private land to add more open space to those already provided in the commission's plan.
The budget forecast recently delivered to the council anticipates years of slow economic growth. The reality is that Alexandria can't afford such outlandish spending.
In addition to increasing park space and including a new museum, the proposal approved by the planning commission addresses flooding problems and allows for better pedestrian access, and it does all of this within the current low-building heights and architectural care that characterize Old Town. Further, it uses a public-private financing approach that takes much of the economic burden off of taxpayers.
There are ideas in the alternative concept that merit consideration. For example, council should evaluate the appropriate number of hotels allowed along the waterfront, as well as work to prevent privatization of the remaining waterfront with more townhomes.
Encouraging adaptive re-use of historic spaces is important. And the idea of a waterfront not-for-profit that raises funds to improve and take care of the waterfront is a good one. But the sheer audacity of spending proposed in the alternative concept makes this a budget issue.
In addition to land purchases, the alternative would use funds to build and operate a maritime museum, which would allegedly attract thousands of people a day paying up to $5 per person.
This idea fails any basic test of reasonableness as evidenced by the failed maritime museum in New York, our fiscally challenged Carlyle House and Torpedo Factory, and the reality that no city museum has been able to pay for itself with an admission charge. To speak nothing of the impact of thousands of daily visitors attempting to park around Union Street.
Proponents of the alternative say that their plan will attract people and tax dollars to Old Town. It likely would. But the planning commission proposal would as well.
In fact, opponents once criticized the commission recommendation by saying more visitors to Old Town was a bad idea, raising concerns about traffic. They also once professed concerns about costs in the planning commission plan. Now they want to spend millions more and need a higher number of visitors to make up lost tax revenues and pay for their enormous borrowing binge. Their proposal contradicts their own arguments.
After 5 years of budget cuts, with our nation's lackluster economy, the council has to carefully manage city resources. The city manager recently asked departments to suggest up to 6 percent cuts in their budgets. Staff reductions and cuts over the years have already strained city services.
New city open space funding was killed by the recession. Our combined sewer system in Old Town needs hundreds of millions to fix. Library services have been reduced. Parks like Ft. Ward, Windmill Hill, and Four Mile Run, city pools and other public infrastructure have unfunded maintenance needs. We must improve fire and emergency services so residents on the west-end are treated as quickly as those on the east. And our police department can't sustain more cuts without diminishing services.
"Just borrow the money," some say. But they fail to consider the significant new taxes required for the bond payments or the impact of borrowing on our city's AAA credit rating. Or the risk that new borrowing undermines school and transportation needs.
We have a multi-year plan to add classrooms for our growing student population; it requires new funds each year. We will likely need even more to address continued crowding. And transportation and Metro costs continue to burden our city as state and federal funds vanish.
In short, we can't put basic needs on hold in exchange for a Quixotic quest for a few acres of land on the waterfront.
"Just get a grant," some say. There is no easy money from foundations and conservation organizations. I've talked to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Funds for land conservation are scarce, and existing funds are prioritized for less expensive and much larger swaths of land outside the Beltway.
I'd welcome any private citizens or groups that want to raise or donate funds to buy waterfront land. Anybody interested can contribute to the city open space account or can buy land themselves.
By working with the planning commission framework, we can have a waterfront that is a pleasure to walk along and visit without an extravagant waterfront spending spree. Opponents are entitled to hold the view that their proposed spending is a higher priority than education, public safety or transportation. Or that the city should do it all by raising taxes to be among the highest in the region. Or that the city should abandon its AAA credit rating to make the alternative work.
But they should be clear about what they want to give up and who it will impact. There are no free lunches. Not even on the waterfront.
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