Mayor Justin Wilson’s recent op-ed (Jan. 30) opposing new state legislation related to housing affordability is irritating, though not really surprising. Metropolitan Democrats' schizophrenia (bordering on blatant hypocrisy) regarding housing, widely agreed to be at the root of a host of social ills including poverty and structural racism, is being revealed elsewhere, too.
Though he doesn’t specify, Mr. Wilson probably refers to a number of recent bills from Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-86). Among other things, these bills would ease single-family zoning restrictions, in order to help alleviate the structural housing shortage that's sending prices sky high. But only ever-so-modestly, by overriding municipalities’ ability to block the construction of duplexes and accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”) on single family parcels. That's it: not Tokyo towers, just two-family in place of single-family.
My wife and I moved away from Alexandria last summer (though we kept our property there, possibly to return one day). But 3,000 miles away in our new home, near San Diego, it's the same story. California state senators — notably, from solid Blue districts around Los Angeles and the Bay Area — just killed a bill that would similarly have loosened zoning constraints on the housing supply. And the wealthier coastal municipalities, though I'm sure they’ll all blindly vote the 2020 down-ballot in an anti-Trump fervor, can nevertheless be relied on to arrest systematic housing reform, even from their fellow partisans. Indeed, all over the country, the most “inelastic” housing supplies (can’t rise in tandem with demand) usually coincide with solidly Democratic metros.
Mr. Wilson says he’d rather the state increase its investment for affordable housing. Curious, since he’s routinely been ho-hum about increasing such investment out of local coffers, preferring instead to unlock market value inherent in projects' underlying land, precisely by allowing more density. If I’m a taxpayer elsewhere in Virginia — or the country, since federal housing subsidy flows through the states — I might reasonably wonder why that logic shouldn't apply more broadly. Why should I subsidize affordable living in quaint Alexandria, simply because the local government there refuses to allow property owners the freedom to realize their private assets’ gimongous market potential? As I recently wrote elsewhere about this phenomenon: it’s “like someone panhandling from a gilded chair.”
Changing zoning doesn’t make anyone do anything. If a single-family homeowner doesn’t want to build a duplex, or a buyer or tenant doesn’t want to live in one, then he or she doesn’t have to. If Alexandrians densify their properties in droves, it’ll only be because that’s what people fundamentally want. Let the market do what it's supposed to: follow price signals to match supply to demand. That’s ultimately far more democratic than Mr. Wilson’s technocratic approach.
Moreover, Mr. Wilson’s concerns about exacerbated commutes and climate impacts in Alexandria are dubious. Most job growth near Alexandria will occur in the vicinity of HQ2 and in the District’s metropolitan core. Under Mr. Wilson's central planning regime, if the city undershoots its housing needs estimate, or forecasts correctly but then under-delivers (hardly unlikely), workers will just end up living farther outside the Beltway, where their carbon footprint will worsen, and probably commute through Alexandria anyway.