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‘Affordability’ vs. ‘Sustainability’ in Alexandria

Advisory group considers challenges to preserving public housing stock.


By Dan Brendel/Gazette Packet Tuesday, January 23, 2018


The Resolution 830 Working Group, an advisory body representing 27 local organizations, began considering Jan. 10 how best to maintain the city’s stock of public housing in light of dwindling federal resources.

In 1981, the city government and the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), which administers federal housing programs locally, agreed not to diminish the stock of 1,150 public housing units existing at that time. The joint agreement, established in Resolution 830, requires, among things, that any demolished or redeveloped public housing must be “replaced by an equal number of either conventional public housing units, or any equal number of publicly assisted housing units.” The latter must be “substantially equivalent to the units be replaced for a period of 20 or more years.”

Part of the working group’s task will be to recommend to City Council and ARHA’s Board of Commissioners what exactly “substantial equivalence” should mean going into the future, and what roles ARHA, the city and others might fulfill toward achieving it. In particular, this will entail weighing the desire for continued accessibility to the city’s lowest-income households against ARHA’s need to balance the books, in part through higher rents, to offset ever-shrinking federal dollars.

“Affordability is great, but you also have to have [financial] sustainability,” ARHA CEO Keith Pettigrew told the working group in his opening remarks.

“It’s not a pretty picture; the need here is great,” said Rhae Parkes of EJP Consulting Group, hired to facilitate the working group. To qualify for public housing, a household must earn no more than 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). While about 22,000 Alexandria families met that threshold in 2017, only about 3,600 received federal assistance. ARHA’s total waitlist — applicants in excess of inventory for all the programs ARHA administers — currently comprises some 9,100 families (though including duplicates who’ve applied to more than one program).

Nor is federal funding to meet the need a pretty picture. HUD “has been pursuing ‘demolition,’ ‘disposition’ and ‘repositioning’ of … public housing assets as a strategy, because they understand that the funding from Congress is not sufficient to maintain the current stock,” said EJP’s Naomi Byrnes.

Nationwide 10,000-12,000 units of public housing disappear annually. Between 2000 and 2016, HUD’s capital funding declined 53 percent. A 2010 HUD study revealed a $26 billion backlog of capital repairs. Likewise, operating subsidies for public housing — for which HUD’s formulaic calculation is in the first place “never enough to support [housing authorities’] needs” — are being further “pro-rated,” said Byrnes. Of its calculated need in FY16, ARHA received only $3 million (82 percent), the lowest amount in the past decade.

In keeping with the national shift away from government-owned and -operated housing toward a voucher system, ARHA’s funding from the feds has increased only for its Housing Choice Voucher program (“Section 8”). Vouchers help tenants access the private rental stock by topping up tenant payments to meet market rents — if the landlord is amenable and up to a cap — and follow the tenant anywhere in the country. ARHA’s Connie Staudinger said vouchers provide “our families housing choices to do what they want to do.” At the same time, there may be “parts of Alexandria, because the rents are much higher than the caps in Section 8, that families are not able to lease in. … Those rent caps typically lag behind the market anywhere from 1-2 years,” said Byrnes.

Resolution 830 is unique in that it’s a strictly local commitment; Pettigrew says he’s never seen anything like it in his nearly three-decade career.

It’s been “a mainstay of city and ARHA housing policy,” said Helen McIlvaine, the city’s housing director. But “over time we all have come to believe it means something that it may or may not actually include in its text. … There are many things that would be very helpful to our staff if we kind of clarified our understanding so that we’re all on the same page. We’re at a pretty important time as ARHA looks down the road and undertakes its redevelopment of several properties.”

Potential clarifications discussed to date include whether units should be replaced with comparably affordable rents, at the same geographical location and/or with the same number of bedrooms. The working group floated various other potential stipulations, including proximity to social services and transportation; alternative minimum affordability periods; and whether the 1,150 target should continue to count only units redeveloped by ARHA, or units developed by other entities too.

Any of these possibilities has consequences and trade-offs.

For example, replacing Old Town public housing elsewhere in the city might remove tenants from communities where they’re invested, and also reduce Old Town’s demographic diversity. But doing so also allows ARHA to seize upon other property acquisition opportunities, such as in the West End. Currently, more than social ramifications, “opportunity” and “market-rate forces” drive decision-making, said McIlvaine.

Similarly, Resolution 830’s 1,150 units, including 67 with 4-5 bedrooms each, originally comprised nearly 2,400 bedrooms. Kevin Harris, a working group member representing the ARHA Resident Association, said: “There’s people that go in units. It reduces the number of people who are served” if ARHA redevelops the same number of units but with fewer bedrooms. At the same time, most families on ARHA’s waitlist want 2-3 bedrooms. Redeveloping larger units for which there is little market demand could hurt a project’s economic viability, said Parkes.

The working group will meet again Jan. 31, Feb. 21 and Mar. 14. Meetings are open to the public. All meeting materials, including video recordings, are available on the city’s website. Submit questions and comments to Brandi Collins of the city’s housing office: 703-746-4990 or brandi.collins@alexandriava.gov.

The writer sits on the working group as a representative of the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee (AHAAC).

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