Zoned Out

City Council to determine future of single-family housing in Alexandria.

"In 2019, we came to City Council and said there's a list of 12 things we think we should do. It'll be a very familiar list to all of you because it's the same list that we're talking about right now except that three of them were accomplished in the interim."

— Karl Moritz, Alexandria planning director

    This restrictive covenant from 1939 prohibits a new subdivision from being sold, rented or conveyed 'to any person not of the Caucasian race.'

The history of zoning is a story of racism. One of the earliest uses of zoning in the early 20th century was segregating white populations from non-white populations. Here in Alexandria, the zoning ordinance was a tool in the toolbox for enforcing Jim Crow white supremacy of the 1920s by prioritizing single-family homes for wealthier homeowners over other types of development. Properties in African-American communities known as "Uptown" and "The Berg" were zoned industrial, marginalizing Black property owners

Now Alexandria is having a reckoning with its racist past, reconsidering the value of single-family housing.

"Unfortunately, if you look at our zoning map, and you overlay it with a demographic map of the city of Alexandria, they nearly match. And that's not an accident," said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. "The areas of our city that have more multi-family housing and have more density tend to be more diverse areas of our city, and the areas of our city that have predominantly single-family homes tend to be whiter."

The institutional racism of restrictive covenants spills over in page after page of a report presented to the city government last year, providing in painstaking detail the specific language of Jim Crow segregation in Alexandria. There was the 1913 restrictive covenant of a subdivision on Princess, Oronoco, Fayette and Payne streets that prevented properties from being sold or rented to "any person of negro descent." Then there was the neighborhood behind the George Washington Masonic Memorial where "no lot or lots shall ever be sold, leased, rented or in any way conveyed to any person or persons of African descent" in 1911. Then there was Rosemont, where land ownership was prohibited for "anyone not of the Caucasian race" in 1914.

Now, as Alexandria considers the crush of demand for more housing, members of the Alexandria City Council are about to consider a suite of proposals known as "Zoning for Housing/Housing for All." The goal of the plan is to address the exclusionary housing provisions of the past while also expanding affordability and availability of a place to call home. A similar effort was recently implemented in neighboring Arlington, where opponents were able to elect one critic of the proposal thanks to the use of ranked-choice voting.

"I'm not suggesting that we do away with zoning," said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. "We use portions of our zoning code for good things, and I don't oppose the entire concept. But I do think we need to apply strict scrutiny on the zoning provisions we have and ensure that they do not have a disparate impact, particularly to ensure that some of the provisions are not segregating our communities."

AGENDA ALEXANDRIA recently hosted a panel discussion on the topic, which featured biting criticism from a newly created group known as "Coalition for a Livable Alexandria." Roy Byrd, chairman of the coalition, appeared as a panelist and described Zoning for Housing as a "giveaway to developers," constructing too much too fast too soon. Ultimately, he said, he didn't understand why City Council members were in such a rush to schedule final adoption a month from now on Nov. 28.

"We're not opposed to zoning reform," said Byrd. "We don't know why this has to be fast tracked and why all these proposals have to be linked together and they can't be separated and looked at individually."

The suite of reforms currently under consideration include five zoning text amendments, two policy revisions and a handful of master plan amendments. It includes replacing the word "family" with "unit,” an approach designed to encourage smaller unit sizes and improve affordability. It also includes a parking provision designed to limit the number of parking spaces in transit corridors. City officials say they are eager to get started on a plan for increasing the supply of housing that dates back to before the pandemic.

"In 2019, we came to City Council and said there's a list of 12 things we think we should do," said Karl Moritz, planning director for the city. "It'll be a very familiar list to all of you because it's the same list that we're talking about right now except that three of them were accomplished in the interim."

ARLINGTON RECENTLY attempted a similar plan to ditch single-family zoning, although the effort ran into a buzzsaw of opposition. The debate featured prominently in the June Democratic primary, and candidates that supported the so-called "Missing Middle" proposal got more votes than the other candidates. But because Arlington was using a concept known as "single-transferable vote," one candidate who was opposed to the proposal got one of the two Democratic nominations in the process of ranked-choice voting.

"I ran for the Arlington County Board on the position that our 'Missing Middle,' which has gotten renamed 'Expanded Housing Options' because it wasn't going down well, has just not been as complexly looked at as it needed to be," said Susan Cunningham, currently a candidate for Arlington County Board who appeared in the Agenda Alexandria panel earlier this week. "I've been impressed at the complexity of [Alexandria’s] approach to not just pulling one lever but at least having conversations about the relative value of pulling different levers."

Between now and the anticipated City Council vote on Nov. 28, city officials have scheduled a very large number of ways for people in the community to weigh in on the proposals. If elected leaders end up supporting the plan, it'll be an action that was taken after hearing extensively from opponents of the plan. During one recent town hall, for example, City Council members defended themselves from engaging in "authoritarian" tactics — a charge that was a bit ironic considering that the discussion happened during a public hearing where city leaders were hearing from members of the community about their concerns.

"Of all the things that are involved in this, how do we think about all of them together," asked Planning Commissioner Stephen Koenig, who was a panelist in the Agenda Alexandria discussion, "and then come up with what I personally consider is a very thoughtful and well-organized and quite moderate proposal that we have in front of us from staff that to me fulfills our long term history and tradition of consensus driven planning?"