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Wary of Amazon, Latino neighborhood vows not to be pushed out

A community forum at a church in the Arlandria area of Alexandria on March 12 drew residents concerned about Amazon’s plans. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

For decades, developers have eyed Arlandria, the working-class neighborhood near Reagan National Airport where a transplanted Hispanic culture flourishes amid Northern Virginia’s upscale condominiums.

In the 1980s, immigrants took a stand against a company that wanted to evict them and build luxury housing. A decade later, drug-fueled violence scared away investors. Then came the Great Recession.

Now, crime is down, the economy is humming, and Amazon is moving in virtually next door, with plans to hire thousands of well-paid workers, who’ll be in search of easy commutes. Virginia Tech is building a $1 billion graduate campus nearby.

All of that means change is probably coming to this mostly Salvadoran enclave of aging apartments and modest storefronts, where property remains relatively cheap compared with other Alexandria neighborhoods such as Del Ray, Potomac Yard and Old Town.

“I love the diversity of Arlandria, but, unfortunately, it’s going away,” said Jen Walker, a real estate agent who has lived in the area since 1997. “I can see, 10 years from now, Arlandria becoming Del Ray.”

Angelica Reyes, an 18-year resident, finds that prospect scary. She and her husband struggle to pay bills for themselves and their four children on what he earns as an electrician and she from selling clothes, sparkly sneakers and trinkets at a tiny shop, Fashion Girl, which she owns and operates from a rented porch.

“The apartment is not that cheap,” Reyes, 34, said recently, sorting her merchandise and keeping an eye on her 3-year-old daughter. “I worry about my rent, if it’s going to be more high.”

Alexandria and Arlington, which voted March 16 to approve up to $23 million in incentives for Amazon, plan to dedicate $150 million for affordable housing over the next decade. Officials say they will push for zoning changes, as well, to encourage housing for a range of income levels.

But advocates say the government must do more, especially with the world’s most valuable public company moving in nearby. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

The community organization Tenants and Workers United is calling on local officials to preserve existing low-income apartments and set up a displacement fund to help families evicted or pushed out because of rising rent. About 100 people crammed into a church meeting room this month to express their fears and vow resistance.

“They struggle to afford to live here,” Evelin Urrutia, executive director of the advocacy group, said in an interview. “What is coming is not a job for them. What is coming is displacement.”

Virginia officials say Amazon has pledged to try to avoid the housing shortages that exist around its Seattle headquarters, and the company said in a statement that it was drawn to Arlington in part because of “plans the County and the Commonwealth have in place to address this issue.”

“We plan to hire people who live here and grow gradually so the impact on the region will be minimal,” the statement said. “We will continue to share our growth plans with the County so they can plan ahead to address the needs of the community.”

On the avenue

On a weekend day, Arlandria’s appeal is clear.

Visitors crossing the Mount Vernon Avenue bridge over Four Mile Run can spot a father and son with a soccer ball or young adults jogging on the trail. The nearby Arlandria-Chirilagua Community Center, aglow in varying tones of red, hosts a farmers market on Sunday mornings.

The strip is bracketed by a $5 carwash to the south and a 24-hour laundry to the north. Inside the Mount Vernon Barber and Beauty Salon, all the seats are occupied, with razors buzzing, music playing and four customers waiting in plastic chairs.

“We have a diversity of people who come in here — African American, Spanish, Indian guys,” said Brasil Perez, who oversees the front counter and cash register. To him, the Amazon headquarters means construction jobs for his clients.

The owner of the Tiger Market grocery and deli is already thinking about the food and drinks he might stock for new, more affluent customers. He said he recently refused a buyout offer that would pay him $1.5 million more than what he owes on the property.

In the parking lot outside the market, men lean on cars to discuss in Spanish the issues of the day. A mother holds her children’s hands as they walk to Marcela’s Bakery, where the smell of fresh pastries drifts onto the street.

Glancy Rosales, 25, a student at George Mason University, grew up in this neighborhood of about 8,000 residents and sees Amazon bringing opportunities for her generation. But for older people like her father, who works as a carpet installer, “it’s difficult,” she said.

Median household income in Arlandria was just over $54,600 in 2017, compared with $93,370 in Alexandria as a whole. More than half of the residents are younger than 30, and nearly half were born in Latin America, according to the 2017 U.S. Census American Community Survey. Median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,856, compared to $3,142 in Old Town and $2,733 in Pentagon City.

A George Mason University analysis of the economic impact of Amazon’s arrival said new residents will be geographically dispersed and arrive gradually. But a study by the liberal New Virginia Majority predicted “mass displacement of nearby low-income communities of color.”

Some Arlandria residents still resent a developer who renamed a strip shopping center in the heart of their neighborhood “Del Ray North” and rented space to an upscale pet store. They vowed at the community meeting to resist gentrification.

“We have to organize, we have to be unified, we have to have one objective, one solution,” Luis Salmerón, a 17-year resident, said through a translator. “This is as much for me as for our kids, our grandkids and future generations. We want to be a collective force to preserve our community.”

Decades of challenges

Arlandria, named for its location on the Arlington-Alexandria border, flooded 80 times between 1965 and 1980, with Hurricane Agnes in 1972 causing $14 million worth of damage and forcing out hundreds of residents.

After Four Mile Run was straightened and turned into a $63 million flood-control channel by the Army Corps of Engineers, real estate developers took note.

“Look, it’s a mile from Crystal City, a mile and a half from the airport and two miles from the Pentagon,” one developer told a Washington Post reporter in 1981. “How could it miss?”

Many Salvadoran residents came from a town called Chirilagua, fleeing civil war. By the mid-1980s, the neighborhood was known by that moniker as well.

Dina Martinez arrived in 1985 and never left, joining other tenants to resist a developer’s plan to turn 3,000 apartments into luxury rentals. They filed lawsuits, worked with religious leaders and staged protests, their unrelenting chants forcing the city council to abruptly adjourn one meeting in 1987.

The developers ultimately paid some renters to relocate and set aside one-quarter of the newly renovated apartments for low-wage earners. The activists, flush with success, created a housing cooperative where Martinez, 69, still lives. She says a similar grass-roots effort is needed now.

“If we get pushed out, where are we going to live?” Martinez asked. “Everybody would go in different directions.”

In the 1990s, gangs, street crime and drug dealing led to clashes between immigrants and African American residents. A police operation dubbed “Bear Trap” resulted in 29 arrests and seizure of $3,500 worth of crack cocaine. The local prosecutor set up a walk-in office on Mount Vernon Avenue.

Things quieted down by the early 2000s. But the exodus of thousands of federal jobs from Crystal City, a result of cuts in defense spending and then the 2008 recession, stopped real estate investment cold.

“People thought, ‘Something’s going to happen here,’ and it didn’t,” said Dianna Campagna, a Long and Foster executive who grew up in Alexandria and expects Amazon’s arrival to trigger a housing boom. “I’ve watched that area never quite do anything — until now.”

Fear and 'bold moves'

Housing is a top concern in the Washington area, which Kiplinger magazine ranks as the fifth-most expensive market in the country. Across Northern Virginia, suburban Maryland and the District, political leaders have started to discuss working together on the issue. The Federal City Council and JBG, Amazon’s landlord in Arlington, are leading an effort to build 2,000 to 3,000 units of affordable workforce housing in the region over the next decade.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said he expects the arrival of Virginia Tech and Amazon to be a catalyst, bringing attention and resources. In the fall, Wilson wants to consider revising zoning rules to make it easier to develop multifamily apartments and accessory dwelling units in Arlandria and other parts of the city.

“This is not a new discussion for us,” Wilson said. “My hope is this moment that Amazon is creating, and the fear that people are experiencing, is going to drive politicians to take some bold moves.”

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said on WAMU this month that the “Achilles’ heel” of the headquarters project is affordable housing. “Amazon needs to have some skin in the game in helping the region create the affordable housing so folks . . . don’t get pushed out,” he said.

Vincent Kim, 49, who has owned the Tiger Market for eight years, says Amazon's arrival "is like both sides of a coin. One side is worry, and one is hope."

He plans to expand his food offerings, which now focus on Central American cuisine, to appeal to immigrants from elsewhere and the wealthy newcomers he thinks will move in.

During construction, he expects business to boom. What happens after that is an open question.

"The two years later," Kim said from his tiny office upstairs from the deli. "That's the worry."

John Harden contributed to this report.

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