Earlier this year, housing advocates in Alexandria celebrated one of their biggest wins yet: city lawmakers had put their money and their votes behind a plan to build a 475-unit affordable apartment complex in Arlandria, a working-class Central American immigrant neighborhood that has long been considered a prime target for development.
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Three months later, that plan is facing a legal challenge by one of its neighbors — one who also serves many residents who could benefit from the two-building complex: the local Catholic church.
Bishop Michael Burbidge, who oversees northern Virginia parishes from the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, filed a lawsuit April 8 against the city of Alexandria, alleging the city failed to properly evacuate a alley that separates the development of a private Catholic school and a 72-year-old Church.
Burbidge’s lawsuit, which has yet to be served, argues that St. Rita’s Catholic Church has a private right to use the aisle above that of the general public. City lawmakers actually took that right away, he claims, and passed it on to the nonprofit Alexandria Housing Development Corp., which is building the complex.
“Current plans negatively impact the ability of the parish and school to serve its members and the local community and diminish its legal rights and property interests,” said Billy Atwell, spokesperson for the Diocese of ‘Arlington, in a statement. “The diocese had to take certain actions under the law, due to time constraints, to protect its property rights now and in the future.”
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Andrea Blackford, spokesperson for the City of Alexandria, said in a statement that the city does not comment on ongoing litigation. “We have reviewed the complaint and if the lawsuit is served, we will respond appropriately,” she said.
Jonathan Frederick, President of AHDC, said in a statement that “AHDC looks forward to continuing our work to provide much needed affordable housing to this neighborhood.”
Because the lawsuit has been filed but not yet served, some fear this is a last-ditch effort to further delay a much-needed affordable housing project – one that has already taken years and would be one of Alexandria’s largest sources of funding. affordable units engaged.
The trial also appears to mark a sharp break with a regional trend. Across Northern Virginia and across the country, churches are increasingly giving up some or even all of their land as a civic way to address the affordable housing shortage. In some cases, these agreements have also allowed churches with rapidly shrinking congregations to keep their doors open.
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About four miles away, in the Beauregard neighborhood of Alexandria, an Episcopal congregation voted to build a 113-unit building for low-income tenants atop its two-acre lot. Just across the border at Baileys Crossroads there is a push for build senior residences on excess land adjacent to a main Protestant church. And further west, a Presbyterian congregation in Fairfax City works with Habitat for Humanity transform part of his plot into a set of affordable townhouses.
In Arlandria, however, it is the church that seems to stand in the way of affordable housing – even though Saint Rita is a major community institution for Arlandria’s working-class Latino immigrants, many of whom attend her twice-a-week Spanish mass. week. (The neighborhood is sometimes referred to as “Chirilagua,” named after the Salvadoran town where many community members can trace their roots.)
Atwell said the diocese and Saint Rita Catholic Church, which has nearly 1,000 families among its parishioners, support adding affordable housing options to the neighborhood, including through the mixed-use development of AHDC next door.
He also noted that Catholics in Alexandria support programs that provide housing for those at risk and direct financial assistance to underserved communities to pay for rent, utilities, health care and other basic needs. .
That’s why other residents of the Northern Virginia town are upset — or at the very least surprised — that the church is now asking the courts to review the project.
With Amazon’s new headquarters a few miles away, change is already coming to Arlandria. The neighborhood is about a mile from the new Potomac Yard subway station, which is being built to accommodate the coming influx of new tech workers to the area that officials have dubbed “National Landing.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Even before Amazon’s announcement, this is an area that was in the crosshairs of strong economic pressures driving up prices,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said. “It’s a site that was always going to redevelop.”
The AHDC project was then seen as a major effort to ensure that neighborhood residents would not be overrated. The planned two-building complex, on the corner of West Glebe Road and Mount Vernon Avenue, would offer an unusually high level of affordability: a quarter of the units would be spared for renters earning 40% or less of the region’s median income , while half would be for those earning 60% or less.
An adjacent courtyard would also include a park and playground, with an additional 38,000 square feet of commercial space incorporated into the project.
About 95% of neighborhood residents earn less than 40% of the region’s median income, according to a 2019 survey led by Tenants and Workers United, a group of community activists. Rising rents and redevelopment projects have reduced options for these families: Between 2000 and 2017, Alexandria lost about 90% of its affordable housing stock.
Wilson also noted that the dollars for building the complex come from an unusually diverse mix of sources. In addition to the low-income housing tax subsidies, which are provided by the federal government, AHDC receives a $10.5 million loan from the city under the American Rescue Plan Act.
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Before the project was submitted to the vote of the municipal council, some residents affiliated with Saint Rita opposed it. Many have expressed concerns that it could increase traffic or that the complex’s two towers – 10 and 7 floors – could cast a shadow over the playground of Saint Rita School.
Land use concerns about the driveway were largely sidestepped in debate, and council members voted unanimously to approve the AHDC project.
Along with the lawsuit, however, Atwell said the church “has also taken steps to ensure that the parties involved now have sufficient time to discuss and resolve outstanding issues, so that they can continue to serve. his parishioners and the local community”.
Still, Ingris Moran, the main organizer of Tenants and Workers United, said she was “shocked” to hear of the lawsuit. While Moran has typically stayed home on Sundays with a newborn baby, her husband attends mass almost every weekend at St. Rita.
The AHDC complex “really intends to meet the needs of current residents who are in this neighborhood,” she said. “Anything that will stop or delay this project is concerning.”