Thursday, April 12, 2007

An "Affordable Housing" Gap?

Here we are on the morning of April 12, less than 12 hours away from the "final" public meeting on the Braddock Road Metro small area plan, and a quick glance at Planning & Zoning's Web site reveals there are still chapters of the plan that have not been released to the public.

That includes an important chapter on "affordable housing," presumably encompassing not only affordable housing but public housing as well.

Now understand that the plan has already been announced for the Planning Commission docket on May 1. Commissioners are normally given their materials a week ahead of the hearing, which means the draft plan must be completed by April 24, less than two weeks away.

Does anyone think P&Z's consultants haven't started writing the chapter yet? After all, the Planning Commission hearing has been postponed several times over the last few months. Surely these chapters are somewhere in the hopper.

Or did the dog eat the consultants' homework?

So the question du jour is this: is the City deliberately withholding information from the public for tonight's hearing? Is the idea to release the critical chapters between April 13 and April 24, after the public meeting, which would require concerned neighbors to troop down to City Hall yet again to fight this nonsense? Is it a tactic to defeat citizens and taxpayers?

And is this an example of staff running amok or are the orders to dawdle with the missing chapters coming down from the highest levels of elected officialdom?

The Growler will leave it to readers to figure that one out (make sure you ask about it tonight), but for a moment let's ponder what is so controversial about the affordable housing chapter.

We've talked a lot about public housing issues on this site, but less so about affordable housing. It's time to turn the spotlight in that direction.

In many respect, affordable housing is a slogan in search of a policy.

We all know that the price of housing in the greater Washington area skyrocketed from 2001 to 2005, fueled by low interest rates and strong demand. There's also strong demand for reasonably priced rental housing, the opposite side of the coin.

As housing prices rose sharply after the millenium, the City began to consider methods for preserving affordable housing and ultimately changed the Zoning Ordinance to permit granting developers up to 20% greater density on their sites in exchange for affordable housing. That bonus density features prominently in the discussion on our community.

The politicians really started salivating about density bonuses with the movement in 2005-2006 to save Gunston Hall apartments on S. Washington Street. Some readers will recall that Gunston Hall was scheduled to be acquired by a developer who proposed tearing down the post-war low-rise brick apartment buildings and replacing them with luxury housing. The coalition that successfully fought to save Gunston Hall included historic preservationists, the Old Town Civic Association, various local activists, the National Park Service (since the buildings front on what is part of the GW Parkway), and ... the affordable housing lobby.

The group's turnout saved the day (although the fate of Gunston Hall is now tied up in litigation) and the experience seems to have left a deep impression on politicians. They now had the dream policy: they could hand their buds the developers greater density for their projects at the same time they appeared to be throwing bread and chocolate at the masses. Affordable housing proved to be a sure-fire populist issue.

Here's where Braddock Road Metro comes in. If you remember, at the March 20 meeting we heard ad nauseum from P&Z Acting Director Rich Josephson about affordable housing. Why?

This area has long been a cornucopia of affordable housing, ranging from the Carpenters' Shelter (self-described as the largest homeless shelter in Northern Virginia), subsidized housing (public housing, Section 8 projected based housing like Jefferson Village, and private rental homes supported by Section 8 vouchers) all the way up to a small quantity of Habitat for Humanity homes, reasonably priced market rental apartments and small entry level single-family homes. Why would we need more affordable housing here? Isn't it reminiscent of carrying coals to Newcastle?

Well, the reason is pretty obvious in the Growler's opinion. The politicians plan to shovel in lots of affordable housing here in as a big IOU to please their core voting constituencies in other parts of the City, while handing their friends in the development industry extra density. No-one loses except us. We have to deal with the detritus of density, including congestion and pollution. And because the cheapest and easiest form of affordable housing is condominiums, we are getting few townhomes and lots of high-rises.

But is there really an affordable housing crisis in Alexandria? In today's Washington Post, the Alexandria-Arlington section lists a number of home sales under $300,000. These are mostly condos but as Planning Commissioner Donna Fossum has observed publicly, condos are now the most common starter homes in the area.

The Growler has tried in vain to find out if the City has really looked analytically at the affordable housing issue to determine what is the supply of housing (both rental and sale), what is the demand, and what is the size of the gap or shortfall (if one exists). Only then would it be possible to determine if there is a problem, what its magnitude might be, and what would be the price tag associated with filling the gap.

Even then, the issue still needs to go to the public to determine if voters really want their taxes to directed to narrowing such a gap rather than filling other perceived civic needs. It looks, however, like this rigorous analysis has not been done with any great precision. (Feel free to point the Growler to the analysis if you, dear reader, are aware of it.)

And here's another twist.

According to research by Dr. Stephen Fuller, presented to Council on June 7, 2006 at a special session on affordable housing, there was no shortage of affordable housing in the Washington area in the early 1990s. The unspoken observation was that was the date of major recession and a severe slump in the real estate market that lasted well into the 1990s.

The U.S. appears to be in a similar slump right now, so the question remains why the affordable housing issue should be such a hot button with our local politicians right now.

The more closely one examines this thicket, the more the questions crop up. Why do some Alexandria developers set aside units while others contribute to the Housing Trust Fund? How is the Housing Trust Fund used? Has it been evaluated for effectiveness? The Growler once spent more than an hour being transferred around the Office of Housing while trying to track down a financial statement for the Trust Fund -- how much has been paid in and what has been expended. So far it appears to be a swamp.

So is the Braddock Road Metro plan the vehicle to advance politicans' agendas while leaving us to cope with the density?