The Alexandria City Council is preparing to implement wide-ranging changes to the City’s zoning code that would effectively eliminate single-family neighborhoods in Alexandria. Despite the significant impacts these changes would impose, little has been written about them in the press. The City itself has taken few steps to notify residents in the affected areas that the neighborhoods in which they chose to purchase their homes and raise their families will be subject to very significant changes during the next decade. In some ways, Alexandria’s proposed changes go beyond Arlington’s similar changes to its residential zoning, which received much attention in the press and is the subject of pending lawsuits.
What is Alexandria proposing? Several elements of its euphemistically named “Zoning for Housing/Housing for All” project would effectively result in the elimination of single-family neighborhoods. First, the proposal would remove the single-dwelling unit limit on lots in the single-family neighborhoods and increase the limit to four dwelling units (or six units if some Councilmembers have their way). Each lot would then be a multi-family property (using the current terminology). This change is proposed even though Alexandria already has extensive townhouse and multi-family zones.
Second, the proposal would completely remove the use of the term “family” to describe how dwelling units are occupied. Without offering objective evidence, the proponents have said that the term “family” is an outdated way to describe the range of possible relationships for occupants of a dwelling. Perhaps as a demonstration that evidence does not exist to justify this change, few residents of Alexandria have availed themselves of the existing regulatory opportunities to use an expanded definition of “family.” In fact, the zoning code explicitly allows four unrelated adults to occupy “single-family” dwellings today without any regulatory approvals.
The proposed zoning change is silent on a replacement for the term “family” to describe the permitted occupants of dwellings. Instead, it would allow the Virginia uniform building code to become the only limit on occupancy of dwellings, which would allow two occupants per bedroom e.g. a four-bedroom dwelling could have eight unrelated occupants, provided certain minimal standards are met.
Historically, Alexandria has protected against the potentially undesirable impacts of having large numbers of unrelated adults sharing single-family homes by imposing detailed regulations on the operation of “rooming houses” in the City. The third element of the proposed zoning change would eliminate all the restrictions and regulations on such facilities. As a result, any existing home in the current single-family neighborhoods could be converted into and operated as a rooming house without the need to obtain any approvals from the City. The current zoning restrictions were put in place to protect neighborhoods from various problems that had arisen from the conversion of many homes in the Del Ray neighborhood into boarding houses or single-room occupancy dwellings before the 1990s.
Finally, the proposed changes to the zoning code would dramatically reduce the parking requirements within the current single-family zones. Imagine the impacts on many of Alexandria’s residential streets if houses that today are occupied by two adults and their children — and their two cars — are transformed into de facto rooming houses with eight adult occupants and their eight vehicles. The proposed new zoning provisions contain no safeguards to prevent such a scenario, and most residential streets cannot accommodate the additional parking that would result.
Why are these proposals being pursued? Nominally, two reasons are driving them. First, some proponents say that Alexandria needs to expand its population as the greater Washington region continues to grow. A counter argument is that Alexandria is already one of the most densely populated jurisdictions in the United States and there is no need to make it even more congested.
The second argument by the proponents — and indeed a driving force behind the “Zoning for Housing/Housing for All” initiative — is the perceived need to create more affordable housing in the City. (We can leave the question of whether such efforts ever succeed to another day.) For now, it is sufficient to note that City staff have publicly indicated that the proposed changes to zoning for single-family neighborhoods would do little or nothing to make housing in Alexandria more affordable.
Alexandria’s city leaders must take a pause on implementing the single-family neighborhood zoning changes embodied in their broader “Zoning for Housing/Housing for All” initiative. Those of us who live in the existing single-family neighborhoods deserve to have our interests much more thoroughly considered before Alexandria breaks the covenant that has existed since long before we chose to purchase our homes.
Eric Wagner has lived in Alexandria for 36 years. He served on the Alexandria Planning Commission for 22 years, including nine years as its Chairman.