With the John Roberts Homes, an Alexandria public housing project, facing an uncertain future, the Alexandria Housing Coalition is moving to stave off a possible sale of the property which might displace the project's 90 families.
Tenants met Saturday with housing coalition members to hear proposals by eight Howard University architecture students to convert the homes at Braddock and West streets to commercial-residential mixed use. The purpose would be to generate income to help offset the expected loss of subsidies early next year.
Tenants voiced fears that the project might be sold to developers interested in the commercial potential of the land on which the housing project sits. The Braddock Road Metro station across the street is scheduled to open next year.
"The name of the game is money," said coalition spokeswoman Marjorie Shumann. "If development comes in and buys the property, the price to stay will go up, and because of the debt service on new mortgages and inflation, residents won't be able to afford to stay there.
"To make it possible for tenants to remain," she added, "we're trying to develop a plan to prove that publicly assisted housing can be made economically self-sustaining." Residents pay one-quarter of their income for rent.
"I'd just like to know what's going to happen to us," said Lillie Mae Munday, a project resident for eight years.
"We are under a lot of pressure," added Helen Penn, who lives in the project with her two children. "One week we hear one thing, the next week we hear something else. It creates a lot of anxiety."
"I'm fighting for the young people as well as the old," said Eudora Lyles, 63, a lifelong resident of Alexandria. "This is what should be done. One or the other of these (proposals) should be accepted."
The plans which the Howard students drew at the invitation of the coalition provided for modifying and renovating the interiors of existing units, rearranging roads and walkways within the project to alleviate hazardous conditions, and constructing a commercial facility that would generate income and jobs and contribute to the city's tax base.
"They don't have enough facilities or jobs for the young," said tenant Virginia Shelton.
The proposed multi-story commercial facility would be built on Braddock Road opposite the station. Designed to attract both tenants and commuters, it would house shops, restaurants and offices. The students estimated it could produce $1 million a year.
The expected loss of subsidies is part of a process which began when the 40-year bonds on the John Roberts Homes were retired late last year. At that point, the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) took full control of the project from the federal government.
To continue to be eligible for federal subsidies, the authority would have had to agree to run the project as public housing for 10 more years. The authority rejected that option in January and has been subsidizing the project out of its own operating budget.
Coalition member Carol McCracken said the pressure to make the John Roberts Homes self supporting comes to from two sources: the authority, which has been running a yearly deficit, and the City Council, which wants to increase the city's tax base.
"The city sees an opportunity to sell to developers in order to increase the tax base," McCracken said. "They won't say it, but that's the basic issue."
The future of John Roberts and other public housing projects has become a hot issue in Alexandria. The city already has lost 1,500 rental units to condominium conversions in the last several years, McCracken said, and coalition members are concerned that Alexandria's diverse population is being threatened.
"This is a trend that is threatening hundreds of communities throughout the country," Shumann said. "All these public housing projects that were built in the '40s are running out their mortgages. People are being displaced, and there is nowhere for them to go."
"We're concerned about the reduction of rental stock in the city of Alexandria for both low- and moderate-income people," McCracken said. "Housing is a basic need like food and clothing."
If the project is not saved, the relocation prospects of John Roberts' mostly black residents will present grave problems, McCracken said.