Wednesday, March 09, 2011

More of the Same

Yesterday the Growler attended the Council-ARHA work session with this article from the Gazette in hand, curious to see to what extent Council is true to its words.

The 2003 story is about the City's loan to ARHA to redevelop Chatham Square. Del Pepper (then Vice Mayor) was quoted stating “I want to make sure that everyone understands that this is a loan. In the past, we have loaned ARHA money and have ended up forgiving the loans. That is not the case here.”

But what took place at the work session belies that uncharacteristic display of firmness seven years ago.

First, ARHA staff softened up Council by bearing some good news. Council was told that ARHA is now preparing to start paying back the Quaker Hill redevelopment loan and will be reducing principal faster than anticipated to save on interest. The housing authority is even offering to subordinate its own developer fee to the City's lien, moving Alexandria's position as creditor up to second place immediately after the commercial SunTrust mortgage.

That news -- which is nothing more than appropriate debt management -- had the Council nearly swooning, which set the stage for the next docket item: Pendleton Park.

Council isn't concerned about ARHA buying another property one block from the Braddock Road Metro, where we've been told via the small area plan process that every scrap of land close to the Metro must be exploited to the max. In fact, the Council couldn't be more pleased that ARHA was moving to preserve affordable housing at no cost to the City. They were persuaded by ARHA Chairman Melvin Miller that there was no guarantee HUD would provide housing vouchers for the 24 current residents at Pendleton Park and that they risked being left out on the street. This, despite the fact that ARHA never seems to have problems rustling up spare vouchers in all sorts of challenging situations (like the mold outbreak at Glebe Park), and ARHA CEO Roy Priest also threw out that there were Bland-related vouchers that might be available.

So eager was Council to support the Pendleton Park acquisition that they scuffled among themselves about how they could quickly vote then and there or at the Council hearing that very night to support ARHA's low-income tax credit application to the Virginia Housing Development Authority. The tax credits are needed to buy the property and the application is due Friday, March 11. (The Growler will confirm with City staff later today that a vote was actually taken.)

Free market advocate Councilman Frank Fannon questioned why it was necessary for the City to endorse ARHA's purchase of Pendleton Park with VHDA given residents' concerns, while Councilman Paul Smedberg questioned how this acquisition was consistent with the promises made to the neighborhood and the vision of the community embodied in the Braddock Road plan. Mr. Smedberg also protested strongly at ARHA's continuing habit of withholding key information from Council before these work sessions, only providing the spreadsheets without summary or analysis just as Council are taking their seats.

To which ARHA's new vice chair Derek Hyra responded that in the past ARHA didn't give Council the information ahead of time and then asked for millions but now they are providing information at the last minute but not pleading for money. Many on Council and the ARHA board thought this was funny, but it was a jejeune comment, and just one more illustration of how Alexandria elected officials are so weak they cannot hold their overweening vassals to professional practices or standards of behavior.

Nonetheless, Council was presented a fait accompli and were more than happy to be pushed along by ARHA once again, with an external deadline serving as the proverbial gun to the head.

Finally, the issue of ARHA's delinquent 1990s loans from the City were discussed. Forgiveness will have to be docketed for an April Council hearing and voted upon, but the Council was clearly swayed by ARHA's arguments that these weren't City operating funds loaned to ARHA but federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) monies which are usually provided to constituent groups as grants rather than loans. Housing Director Mildrilyn Davis stated that the City passed-through the CDBG money as loans because they expected to be paid back from future ARHA redevelopments like Chatham Square, only to find out later from ARHA that HUD would not allow Hope VI grant money to be used for pay back.

Apparently a loan is never really a loan in ARHA's world, and Council is once again prepared to be indulgent about definitions and promises.

So readers, the Growler's conclusion is that the plunking strategy deployed in the 2009 Council election apparently didn't send a sufficiently strong message to our entrenched political establishment, like Councilman Rob Krupicka who is running for the state Senate but whose contribution to the work session yesterday was only a sudden eruption of gush about the wonderful "new ARHA."