Candidates for Alexandria's council seats and mayorial post attended a forum this week to expound their views on rental housing in the city and all came out in favor of the status quo of voluntary rent guidelines.
"I wouldn't be interested in anything other than voluntary control," said council incumbent Carlyle C. Ring Jr., one of seven city council candidates to speak. "All you have to do is look at the South Bronx and parts of D.C. to see that an effort to try to mandate by the government has closed down housing opportunities rather than create them."
Rental housing has become an issue of increasing concern in Alexandria because some fear the city's poor are being squeezed out by condominium conversions and rent hikes, said Vicki Cavaney, executive director of the Northern Virginia Apartment Association, a landlord group that sponsored the forum.
"This was the first time that most of the candidates got together to discuss rental housing specifically," said Cavaney, who conceded that the candidates may have tailored their remarks to the audience of 50 people -- most of whom were landlords.
"That was not the group to get in front of and say you were in favor of regulation," she said.
But Cavaney said the forum also was designed to show the candidates that the landlord group has a new interest in politics and legislation. Two years ago, the organization hired a legislative liaison person, she said, and has increased other lobbying efforts as well.
"It [the forum] was a step in our effort to become more involved," she said. "No one said anything really startling, which is not surprising. The idea was to identify an issue and make sure the candidates know it is an issue."
Currently, Alexandria has some 54,000 rental units, 25,000 of them in apartment buildings, said Mark Looney, division chief of landlord-tenant relations in Alexandria. In the past 15 years, the city has tripled the amount of subsidized apartments for low-income tenants to about 3,300 units, he said. But the waiting list for subsidized apartments is so lengthy that the city has closed it for several years.
In the meantime, the city has been losing apartment units to condominium conversion while other apartment complexes have been upgraded and then re-rented at higher rates, he said. "There is a definite squeeze on the availability of low-income apartments," he said.
The city does not regulate rents, but asks that landlords voluntarily follow a guideline that allows a 5 percent annual rent increase if the tenant pays utilities and an 8 percent annual increase if the owner pays the utilities.
Most landlords follow these guidelines, said Looney.
In an effort to provide more low-income apartments through the private sector, the city also offers tax-exempt bonds to developers who, in turn, set aside 20 percent of the units financed for lower-income tenants.
Candidates at the forum encouraged a continuation of the incentive program, and some said the city should increase its efforts to provide more low-income housing.
"The marketplace does not provide for low-income renters, so the government must," said Margaret D. Inman, incumbent council candidate, at the forum.
She also said the city must be more aggressive in going after dwindling federal money for low-income projects.
Mayorial candidate and former vice mayor James P. Moran said he also favors subsidized housing.
"We can't count on landlords to be philanthropic," he said. " But . . . we can't attract more low-income people, we've got to take care of the ones here and make them more self-sufficient."
John D. Williams III, also a candidate for mayor, disagreed with both, calling public housing a "45-year-old program that fails. . . . We cannot afford one more unit.
"We have three times the national average of subsidized housing," said Williams. "All this talk of low-income residents leaving Alexandria is bull----. It has increased by 108 percent."
Other council candidates at the forum were Bruce Adkins, Lynnwood Campbell, Lewis J. Carter III, Bill Cleveland and Gus Lamond. Mayor Charles Beatley, the third candidate in the race for his post, did not attend. The election is scheduled for May 7.
"The candidates have not really focused on rental housing as an issue compared to the attention they have been giving schools and parks," said Cavaney. "Rental housing is an issue, though. There is a low-income population that is really concerned, and we wanted to know the views of a new council."