A bitter dispute over whether to replace 15 decrepit apartments in Alexandria with more than 50 new units has exposed a growing rift in the small Northern Virginia city over the merits of affordable housing, historic preservation and high-density growth.
The strife reflects both continuing tension over the leadership of the new mayor, Allison Silberberg, and a deep split over a question of competing interests: Can Alexandria house its poorest residents while maintaining the quality of life treasured by the more affluent and preserving its history, including artifacts from the era of segregation?
After an acrimonious six-hour hearing Saturday, the City Council was unable to muster the supermajority it needed to rezone the 74-year-old Ramsey Homes property to accommodate a 53-unit project for low- and moderate-income residents. Six out of seven council members would have had to support the project because of a petition circulated by neighbors who oppose the size of the development.
Silberberg and the rest of the all-Democratic council clashed openly with the local public housing authority and each other during the council session, trading accusations of secret meetings and failure to solve long-existing problems. The discord has continued since Saturday, with critical and angry posts on social media.
“Wow! Still trying to find the words for how disappointed I am in my new mayor. . . .,” council member John Taylor Chapman wrote Saturday night on his Facebook page, triggering dozens of responses.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who supported the rezoning, said Monday that he remains profoundly disappointed that the council was unable to save the project. “I think Saturday was a leadership moment, not just for the mayor, but for all of us,” Wilson said. “And I think we all failed.”
Silberberg (D), chairing just her second meeting since taking office, repeatedly asked for advice from the city attorney on how to proceed, allowed back-and-forth questions during the time when residents each normally get three minutes to make their statements and ignored three requests from council members to call for a vote.
“It devolved into something I’ve never seen before,” said Jody Manor, a native Alexandrian who owns two cafes in Old Town and supported former mayor William D. Euille over Silberberg last year. “Apart from the issue of affordable housing, the other issue is governance, and I was frankly appalled by what transpired.”
By midafternoon Monday, 1,520 people had viewed the archived video of the council meeting on Alexandria’s website, more than three times as many views as a council meeting usually gets, city officials said.
Former state delegate and city council member Rob Krupicka said the reaction was “bigger than the waterfront” controversy, which consumed the city government for more than two years.
“This goes to the competency and ability of the government to do its job,” Krupicka said. “There’s been a lot of trust that’s been destroyed in this process. I worry about the city government going off the rails.”
Later this year, the housing agency is expected to propose the redevelopment of five other properties it owns. Manor and other council observers said the recent vote does not bode well for how that will go.
The four mustard-colored buildings that make up the Ramsey Homes are in bad shape, everyone agrees. There is no air conditioning, dishwashers or garbage disposals; the heating is inadequate; the bathrooms are not accessible to the disabled; and laundry water backs up into neighboring units. Nearby are handsome condominium units worth close to $1 million.
“I see new developments going up around us,” Ramsey Homes resident Marion L. Mealing told the council Saturday. “We deserve a change as well.”
The two-story structures were built as segregated housing for African American defense workers during World War II. The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) bought them in the early 1950s and turned them into public housing. Now the agency wants to replace the buildings with a much larger project that would generate more money for operations while preserving 15 very low-income public units.
The agency first proposed a four-story, 63-unit structure, then modified that to a three-story, 53-unit building after complaints that the project was too large. Preservationists called for keeping some of the existing buildings to preserve the Jim Crow-era history.
The council in September told the housing agency to come up with a compromise by year’s end. But city officials said ARHA officials stopped communicating with them in October and resumed only in January, after a meeting with Silberberg that other council members were not informed about.
ARHA board members said Saturday that they could not find a financially viable way to further reduce the number of units. A third-party analyst hired by the city found that statement questionable.
Michelle Krocker, executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance which is not involved in this project, said what residents misunderstand is that affordable housing does not work without increased density.
“You can’t build 10 or 15 units of affordable housing,” she said Monday. “You need a certain number to make it work. . . . More and more, we have to build mixed-income units so that the higher-income units can make up for the cost of the lower-income units.”
Faced with the neighbors’ petition requiring a super-majority vote, ARHA asked the council late Friday afternoon to defer any action on its project. The council refused, which means it will be at least six months before ARHA can refile a rezoning request — something that housing officials said they might not do at all because they do not want to expend more agency resources.
Council member Paul Smedberg, who with Silberberg voted against the rezoning, blamed the ARHA for its defeat, saying the agency has not exercised good financial oversight.
Silberberg said her concern stemmed from the higher-density zoning, which she believes could prompt the housing agency to try to sell its land to a private developer. ARHA officials on Saturday noted that even if the agency wanted to do that, the council and the federal housing authority could veto it. But Silberberg wasn’t convinced.
She said she remains committed to maintaining civility at council meetings and blamed the city’s legal team for some of Saturday’s procedural chaos. “I think there was confusion because the legal advice was not consist. There was a mixed message,” she said.