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Catholic diocese sues Alexandria over affordable housing development

The affordable housing complex is set to be built next to Saint Rita Catholic Church. (Alexandria Housing Development Corporation)

Earlier this year, housing advocates in Alexandria celebrated one of their biggest victories yet when city lawmakers had put their money and votes behind a plan to build a 475-unit affordable apartment complex in Arlandria, an area of Central American immigrants that had long been seen as a prime target for development.

Three months later, that plan is facing a legal challenge by one of its neighbors, which also happens to serve many of the residents who might benefit from the two-building complex: the local Catholic church.

Bishop Michael Burbidge, who oversees parishes across Northern Virginia from the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, filed a lawsuit on April 8 against the city of Alexandria, alleging that it did not properly vacate an alley that divides the development from a private Catholic school and a 72-year-old church building.

The lawsuit, which has not yet been served, argues that Saint Rita Catholic Church has a private right to use the alley above that of the general public. City lawmakers effectively took that right away, he claims, and passed it on to the nonprofit Alexandria Housing Development Corporation, which is building the complex.

“The current plans negatively impact the ability of the parish and the school to serve its members and the local community and diminishes its legal rights and property interests,” Billy Atwell, a spokesman for the Arlington Diocese, said in a statement. “The Diocese had to take certain steps under the law, because of timing constraints, to protect its property rights now and into the future.”

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Andrea Blackford, a spokeswoman for the city of Alexandria, said in a statement that the city does not comment on pending litigation. “We have reviewed the complaint and if the lawsuit is served we will respond appropriately,” she said.

Jonathan Frederick, president of the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation, said in a statement that the nonprofit “looks forward to continuing our work to deliver much needed affordable housing to this neighborhood.”

Because the lawsuit has been filed but not yet served, some worry that it is a last-ditch effort to further delay a much-needed affordable housing project, one that has already been years in the making and that would be among largest sources of committed affordable units in Alexandria.

If that’s the case, the lawsuit would mark a stark departure from a regional trend. Across Northern Virginia and nationwide, churches have increasingly been giving up some or even all of their land as a way to combat a shortage of affordable housing. In some cases, these deals have also served as a way for churches with rapidly shrinking congregations to keep their doors open.

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About four miles away in the Beauregard area of the city, an Episcopal congregation voted to build a 113-unit apartment building for low-income renters on its land. Just over the border in Baileys Crossroads, there is a push to build senior housing on the excess land adjacent to a mainline Protestant church. Further west, a Presbyterian congregation in Fairfax City is working with Habitat for Humanity to turn part of its parcel into a set of affordable townhouses.

In Arlandria, however, some say the church is standing in the way of affordable housing — even though Saint Rita is a major community institution for working-class Latino immigrants in Arlandria, many of whom attend its twice-weekly Spanish mass. The area is sometimes called Chirilagua, after the Salvadoran town where many community members can trace their roots.

Atwell said that both the diocese and Saint Rita Catholic Church, which counts nearly 1,000 families among its parishioners, support adding affordable housing options to the area, including through mixed-use development next door.

He noted that many Catholics in Alexandria support programs that provide housing to at-risk individuals and direct financial assistance to underserved communities to pay for rent, utilities and other basic needs. That is why others in the Northern Virginia city are upset, or at least surprised, that the church is now asking courts to review the project.

With the new Amazon headquarters just a few miles away, change is already coming to Arlandria. About a mile away, the new Potomac Yard Metro station being built to accommodate the coming influx of new technology workers in the area officials have dubbed “National Landing.”

“Even before Amazon’s announcement, this is an area that has been in the crosshairs of strong economic pressures driving prices up,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D). “This is a site that was always going to redevelop.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The housing project was seen as a strong effort to ensure that local residents would not be priced out. The planned two-building complex, on the corner of West Glebe Road and Mount Vernon Avenue, would offer an unusually deep level of affordability. A quarter of units would be saved for renters making 40 percent or less of the area median income, while half would be for those making 60 percent or less.

About 95 percent of neighborhood residents earn less than 40 percent of the area median income, according to a 2019 survey conducted by Tenants and Workers United, a community activist group. Rising rents and redevelopment projects have slashed options for those residents: Between 2000 and 2017, Alexandria lost about 90 percent of its affordable housing stock.

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Before the project came to a vote by the city council, some residents affiliated with Saint Rita spoke in opposition to it. Many expressed worries that it might increase traffic, or that the two towers of the housing complex might cast a shadow on the Saint Rita school playground. Land-use concerns regarding the alley were largely avoided in the debate, and council members voted unanimously to approve the project.

Alongside the lawsuit, though, Atwell said the church “has also taken steps to ensure that the parties involved now have adequate time to discuss and resolve outstanding issues, so it can continue serving its parishioners and the local community.”

Ingris Moran, the lead organizer for Tenants and Workers United, said she was “shocked” to hear about the lawsuit. While Moran has typically stayed home on Sundays with a newborn baby, her husband attends mass almost every weekend at Saint Rita.

The project “really does have the intention of meeting the need of the current residents who are in this neighborhood,” she said. “Anything that is going to stop or delay this project is concerning.”