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Alexandria Public Housing Tenants Organize
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Alexandria Public Housing Tenants Organize

Tenant association hosts its first City Council candidate forum.

Public housing residents host their first forum to ask City Council candidates about their interests.

Public housing residents host their first forum to ask City Council candidates about their interests.

A growing public housing tenant association, hosting its debut City Council candidate forum last Thursday, May 24, generally received support for its interests.

The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) administers federal housing programs locally. In April, the ARHA Resident Association (ARA) held elections for tenant representatives of some 20 housing sites across the city, ultimately seeking to represent some 1,100 households.

Kevin Harris, ARA’s president, said in an email: “The purpose was to establish an infrastructure that would foster better communication from the ground level of each community. …Now, we have a resident council for every housing community that ARHA manages. The establishment of the local resident councils made it easier for us to initiate our ‘Get Out to Vote’ campaign [currently underway] and increase resident participation in our efforts.”

Fourteen of 17 council candidates attended the forum at Alfred Street Baptist Church. Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D) will answer questions at a separate mayoral candidate forum. Mark Shiffer (I) was out of town.

Michelle Millben, a minister at Alfred Street Baptist and the forum’s moderator, asked candidates: “[Public housing] residents for years have not been given any input into who [council-appointed ARHA board members] are, and usually residents learn about these individuals by surprise. What plans do you have to ensure that residents can be more involved in the selection process?”

Candidates generally supported greater transparency of council activities, but also encouraged tenants to engage the existing political process.

Candidate Dak Hardwick (D) suggested that tenants might interview potential commissioners and provide formal, documented recommendations to council.

Candidate Elizabeth Bennett-Parker (D) suggested “field hearings across the city.” She thinks work and parenting responsibilities prevent some citizens from attending public meetings at city hall.

Candidate Kevin Dunne (R) suggested finding “better ways to integrate technology, the phones that people use in their everyday life.”

Incumbent Paul Smedberg (D) called the ARA “a huge first step in engaging in the process and making your voice heard, and coming forward with actual candidates or recommendations, like anyone else can.”

Millben asked: “It is permissible for a citizen to serve on the ARHA board and have access to city and ARHA development information, and still engage in development [business activities]. What plans do you have to conduct meaningful oversight of the ARHA board of commissioners to make sure that no board member profits from development that either runs counter to or diminishes affordable housing in the City of Alexandria?”

The ARHA board includes “five executive-level real estate professionals,” said Daniel Bauman, chair of ARHA’s board, in January. The ARA presented no specific instances of commissioners improperly using insider information.

Many candidates said it’s the commissioners’ responsibility to recuse themselves if necessary.

Incumbent John Chapman (D) wants to establish a city ombudsman — a go-between on city staff to investigate complaints. Arlington County has such a position.

Candidate Michael Clinkscale (R) said: “This is not a simple matter of, ‘I don’t like it, I’m going to eliminate it.’ …On the one hand, you have people [developers] who are experts in what they do. …On the other hand, you have these potential conflicts.”

Millben asked: “School rezoning [redistricting] is something that occurs periodically within the city. However, in some areas it seems to residents that all of the kids of ARHA are zoned to particular schools, regardless of how close they might reside to another school. Do you see this as an issue and, if so, would you offer any plans to change it?”

Several candidates said redistricting is the School Board’s responsibility.

Echoing Hardwick, Smedberg said: “One thing we can do is redistrict more often. …We are one of the few communities in this region that, when you have a major school renovation or you’re adding a new school facility, doesn’t do a ‘spot rezoning.’”

Candidate Canek Aguirre (D) said: “I actually attended 90 percent of the [recent] redistricting committee meetings. And 90 percent of that time, I was the only person from the public there. …We need to be more engaged, and the schools need to be held accountable as well.”

Clinkscale said: “I think we ought to open this up to a competitive market.” He suggests looking further into homeschooling and charter and magnet schools.

Public housing residents from the audience posed a series of yes/no questions.

Barbara Edwards, a 16-year resident of Pendleton Park in Old Town, asked: “[While campaigning,] did you knock on doors at any of the ARHA properties?”

Dunne, Hardwick and Clinkscale said no. Pepper said: “I will be doing that.” Ray said: “I’m not sure I’d know.” Feely said: “If you voted before, yes. I knock on doors where people vote.” The others said yes.

Holly Johnson, a resident of Old Town Commons, asked: “Would you commit to changing parking [regulations] to ensure that [public housing] residents are able to secure parking within a block distance of their homes?”

Dunne and Clinkscale answered no; the other candidates said yes.

Tanya Matthews, a resident of Princess Square in Old Town, asked: “Do you support the city requiring transparency and disclosure in all police stops [and] acquiring body cameras for all officers?”

All candidates answered yes.

Tasha Moses, a resident of Old Dominion in Arlandria, asked: “Do you have any plans to expand the home ownership program within the city that [assists] residents to buy an affordable home — beyond a 2-bedroom condo?”

Dunne and Clinkscale answered no; the other candidates said yes.

Darold Kerns, a resident of Andrew Adkins in Old Town, asked: “Will you use the power of your office to uphold and protect Resolution 830?” Resolution 830 is a bilateral agreement between the city and ARHA to replace demolished public housing units on a one-for-one basis.

Clinkscale answered no; the other candidates said yes.

Harriett Greene, a resident of Alexandria Crossing in Arlandria, asked: “Will you ensure that ARHA and other agencies in the city are Section 3 compliant?” This law requires entities receiving HUD money to “provide training, employment, contracting and other economic opportunities to low- and very low-income persons,” according to the HUD web site.

Dunne answered no; the other candidates said yes.

The ARA’s mayoral candidate forum will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 31, at Third Baptist Church, 917 Princess St.