Alexandria City Council tussles over housing fund

The reasoning behind the Alexandria City Council’s decision almost two weeks ago to end a funding guarantee for affordable housing resulted in a bit of a verbal tussle Saturday as council members both defended and assailed the board’s action.

Mayor William D. Euille (D) said the decision to end the seven-year practice of setting aside a portion of property tax revenues for housing for low- and moderate-income residents happened “accidentally” and stressed that the council could vote to restore those dollars at its June meeting.

Council member Paul Smedberg (D) pointed out that the council addressed the issue two or three times in its informal budget workshops, albeit briefly. Separate funds within the general budget that are set aside for particular purposes are not part of a good fiscal policy, he said.

“So it was not an accidental thing in my opinion,” Smedberg said. “People need to start paying attention and listening.”

That riposte, aimed at rookie council members Allison Silberberg and John Taylor Chapman, both Democrats, sparked immediate responses before Euille cut off debate.

The controversy began May 6, when the council removed a “set-aside” for affordable housing — one-sixth of a cent of the $1.038 tax rate — sparking concern from advocates who worried that the city’s commitment to affordable housing is eroding.

The removal of the set-asides (three-tenths of a cent for an open-space fund was also eliminated) had not surfaced previously as a major budget change, and it had not been voted upon separately. It was not announced when the budget was passed.

Staff members misunderstood council members, City Manager Rashad Young said last week, and quickly drafted a memo that was read aloud before the budget vote.

It passed unanimously and without discussion. Chapman raised questions with the city staff the next day and Silberberg, who had left town to attend to family matters, called a reporter for the Del Ray Patch, which had broken the story.

Local housing advocates expressed concern as the news became known, and several members of the city’s Economic Opportunities Commission on Saturday urged the council to reverse its decision, which precipitated the council’s sparring.

Euille noted that the budget still has an affordable-housing fund and that it will increase $164,000 next year.

The city, he said, has supported efforts for years to make more housing affordable for low- and moderate-income residents.

Patricia Sullivan covers government, politics and other regional issues in Arlington County and Alexandria. She worked in Illinois, Florida, Montana and California before joining the Post in November 2001.

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