What Can We Learn From Alexandria's Chapter In The Washington Regional Fair Housing Plan?

Local governments around the DC region have come together to produce a draft Fair Housing Plan laying out how they, both as individual jurisdictions and as a collective region, will ensure all the region’s residents have access to safe and affordable housing and can share in the region’s prosperity. The plan aims not only to improve access to housing itself, but also to ensure that attainable housing is spread throughout the region so people can truly choose where they live based on their family’s needs.

Each jurisdiction produced its own section of the plan, delving into the details of housing access and discrimination at the local level. The section on the City of Alexandria contains a wealth of background data and maps of housing access in the city, many of which point at a single underlying truth: our zoning code remains an effective tool of exclusion. 

Alexandria’s Zoning Code

Like most places, Alexandria’s zoning code is complex. It addresses everything from where you can legally open a restaurant or corner store to the precise number of parking spaces required per home in an apartment building.

The most nefarious parts of the city’s zonings laws, however, are very simple. They state how many homes can be built on a given area of land, in effect mandating that some areas will be more or less expensive for people to live in. On one end of the spectrum there are areas of the city zoned for multi-family housing, which makes it legal for people to live in apartment or condo buildings. This allows many households to share the cost of the land their building sits on, lowering the cost for each family.

On the other end of the spectrum, large areas of the city are zoned for a single home on a large area of land. Various parts of the city make it illegal to build more than one home on 5,000, 8,000, 12,000, or even 20,000 square feet of land. These zones, respectively called R-5, R-8, R-12, and R-20, essentially mandate that only wealthy people can live in that area. If one family must be able to afford 20,000 square feet of land on their own, they have to be very wealthy to live in the R-20 zone! This is the root of how single family zoning excludes all but the wealthiest city residents from a neighborhood.

The blue areas of this map (source) are zoned to only one home on a plot of land, making it illegal to build more affordable types of homes that allow multiple households to share the cost of land. Everything else, from duplexes to apartment towers, is illegal to build in this blue area. 

There are of course other expensive areas of Alexandria, notably historic Old Town or the areas immediately around Metro stops. But these neighborhoods’ prices are driven by a combination of location and historic charm. 

As we look at the map of single family zoning and compare it to maps of everything from income to diversity, remember that there is no metro stop or historic downtown driving prices up in Central Alexandria. This is exclusion by government mandate, enforced scarcity to ensure that these neighborhoods remain unattainable to anyone but those lucky enough to be wealthy today or to have purchased a home decades ago.

Zoning and Segregation

In the portion examining racial segregation, the Fair Housing Plan finds that Alexandria is much more segregated today than it was in 1990 and that white Alexandrians are the most likely to live in areas isolated from people of other races and ethnicities. 

Of course, you may remember that single-family zoning was often used as a tool of racial exclusion. Today we find that areas zoned to exclude other housing types remain racially exclusive, as shown by this map of Race & Ethnicity. 

Map 1 from the report shows the population of different races and ethnicities in Alexandria. Notice where the pockets of diversity exist in Alexandria and, more importantly, where they do not. 

Map 1

Map 3

We also see that while Alexandria is famously diverse as a city, there are a few specific areas that do the heavy lifting in making the city that way. 

Our most diverse neighborhoods will be no surprise to residents: the Westernmost portions of the West End, namely the Landmark/Van Dorn and Alexandria West areas, plus the northeastern corner of the city known as Arlandria/Chirilagua. 

Other areas lag far behind in diversity and show why it is that white Alexandrians are mostly likely to live separately from others, specifically the southern and easternmost portions of Old Town, and the swaths of Central Alexandria zoned exclusively for single family homes. 

The same pattern shows up when we look at national origin instead of race, shown by Map 3 in the report.  This map essentially shows where immigrants live in Alexandria, and we see the same pattern. Western Alexandra and Arlandria/Chirilagua are joined by multi-family zoned areas of the Duke Street corridor, while Old Town and the single family-zoned areas of Central Alexandria appear barren.

Economic Segregation

While exclusionary zoning laws often aimead to exclude people by race, their effectiveness and legality is rooted in the fact that they remain race-neutral on their face. The mechanism for exclusion is not race, but wealth. Of course these factors remain heavily interrelated in the United States, so zoning to exclude by wealth or income results in exclusion by race and ethnicity as well. 

Map 19 in the report shows us how Alexandria’s zoning laws separate us by economic factors as well. Note how low the poverty rates are in single-family zoned areas of Central Alexandria compared. 

This isn’t because those neighborhoods have some quality that magically makes people who live there rich; it’s because they’ve legally excluded non-wealthy people from living there for decades.

The report explicitly names the fact that our zoning makes it difficult to build housing affordable to those who need it most, stating “The prevalence of single-family residential zoning…makes it challenging to develop committed affordable housing that could offer housing opportunities to members of protected classes.”

Map 71 in the report shows the percent of households that have one of the government’s four defined housing problems: lack of a kitchen, lack of plumbing, overcrowding, and housing const burden. 

Again, this map lines up with Alexandria’s exclusive zoning. Families with housing issues can’t afford to access the central areas of the city, while in those exclusive neighborhoods housing areas are uncommon relative to the rest of the city.

Map 19

Map 71

So, what do we do?

The Fair Housing Plan is rich with data far beyond what’s shared here, and we encourage everyone to give it a read. Alexandria’s housing problems and those of the greater DC region don’t have any simple solution. What is clear, though, is that exclusionary zoning is a large part of the problem that prevents people from living in the areas that meet their needs. 

Alexandria should examine its zoning code and remove all elements that set aside some neighborhoods as exclusive playgrounds for wealthy and overwhelmingly white residents while concentrating diversity elsewhere. We should create a zoning code that intentionally pushes affordability and inclusion forward not just in some parts of the city, but everywhere.

Alexandrians should be able to find housing they can afford in any part of the city so they can choose to live in the area that best meets their needs: living close to adult children or aging parents; to work or the transportation that gets them there; to their child’s school or the religious and cultural institutions that matter to them.

All of Alexandria should be for all Alexandrians. Join us in demanding more, not less. 

Join YIMBYs of NOVA in advocating for an Alexandria that provides safe, affordable housing opportunities for all Alexandrians.

See what we’re working on. 

Sign up for action alerts. 

Become a member.

Contact us.