The Alexandria City Council has unanimously approved a proposal to renovate the Abingdon Apartments with funds raised through an $11 million tax-exempt bond issue, after the National Corp. for Housing Partnerships agreed to lower the proposed rents for units to be set aside for low-income tenants.
NHP, chartered by Congress in 1968 to encourage private investment in low- and moderate-income housing, had proposed to purchase and renovate the 242-unit Abingdon in north Alexandria and then increase rents by roughly 50 percent, a plan that city housing officials said would force almost all the tenants to move out.
NHP's compromise -- which included an agreement to triple relocation allowances and reduce rents by $100 for the 20 percent of the units to be reserved for low-income people -- will not ease the burden of increased rents for most of the tenants, but was viewed by City Council members as the "best possible solution to a difficult problem."
Tenants at the Abingdon -- one of Alexandria's last affordable apartment complexes -- begged the City Council to reject NHP's proposal during a lengthy hearing Saturday, but the council finally voted 6-to-0 to allow the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority to issue the bonds for the project.
"It was just that kind of no-win situation that makes you wonder why you're on the City Council," said council member Donald Casey. "We knew NHP would do a good job on the project, and when they agreed to lower the rents on the low-income units we realized it was the best deal we could get."
Rents at the Abingdon today are $375 for a one-bedroom and $400 for a two-bedroom. In exchange for receiving tax-exempt financing for the purchase and renovation, NHP is required by federal law to set aside at least 20 percent of the units for low-income families.
Low-income is defined by the federal government as a person or family making 80 percent of the area median income or less. Because the Washington area has such a high median income, $29,280, NHP was able to legally propose rents for the low-income units that were higher than the median rent in Alexandria. NHP's proposal was to rent the low-income units for $536 for a one-bedroom and $635 for the two-bedroom units, and to rent the rest of the units at $625 for a one-bedroom and $725 for a two-bedroom.
Now, NHP will rent the low-income units for $436 and $535, but those rents will increase by $25 a year for the next four years. In addition, NHP will give tenants in a one-bedroom who move $1,000 in relocation money, tenants in a two-bedroom $1,200 and elderly and handicapped tenants $1,500.
Despite the concessions, tenants from the Abingdon said they were still angry and bitter.
"I think every one of us is still in shock," said William Nelson, a retired resident who said he would have to move. "At least 93 percent of us will have to move, even with the present decrease. I hate to think the City Council members are not our friends, but I sometimes feel they got the concessions because they wanted an excuse to pass the proposal."
NHP's regional director, Jack Koczela, said the housing corporation was "pleased that they had been able to find a resonable solution for the problems" presented by the renovation plan for the Abingdon. He said the concessions would cost an additional $250,000, part of which would be funded by a $50,000 contribution from the Alexandria housing authority.
The housing authority, which collects fees for issuing the tax-exempt bonds, will earn at least $100,000 for the Abingdon bond issue.
"I find it ironic that ARHA was forced by the city to contribute part of their fee to cover some of the cost of the concessions , because they use that money to cover operating costs of the deeply-subsidized, low-income housing units they own," said Koczela. "The city didn't contribute one penny, and they very easily could have."
For the City Council members, however, the issue was whether the city's tax-exempt bonding authority should be employed to help a project that would undermine Alexandria's policy of maintaining the pool of affordable rental units.
"That was a hard one in this case," said Casey. He said he finally agreed to go with the proposal because the broker for the sale said he had a backup offer from a condominium converter. "What NHP was proposing was better than what we could have gotten from a converter."