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Yes, There’s a Housing Crisis. No, You Can’t Build Here

Are you a Millennial who may never own a house? You can, among other things, blame the "not in my backyard movement" as municipalities across the country refuse to allow folks to build homes to meet a backlog of demand...in the name of preserving the character of their neighborhoods.


Of course, residents of these neighborhoods want housing to be in short supply which makes their homes more valuable.


Lot's of additional blame to go around. Not only are home prices sky high because of a shortage of inventory, stratospheric interest rates make own twice as expensive. Thank out of control gov spending for that (as most supply chain inflation has largely abated).


Yes, There’s a Housing Crisis. No, You Can’t Build Here

A modest redevelopment proposal meets Nimby resistance in my ‘quirky’ suburban Virginia neighborhood.

By Stephen Ford, WSJ

March 3, 2023 5:56 pm ET


Why do urban areas constantly get more expensive and exclusive? My neighborhood provides a clue. A proposed redevelopment of a single property in Del Ray, a much-loved part of Alexandria, recently died after a yearlong fight. The brouhaha, which divided the community, shows how the not-in-my-backyard mindset blocks virtually any increase in housing supply, even those that strive to maintain local character while making relatively modest changes.


Washingtonian magazine calls Del Ray “quirky,” while local signs declare it a place “where Main Street still exists.” Del Ray holds an annual “Art on the Avenue” festival, a Halloween parade and multiple bar crawls, some of which are attended by tens of thousands of people. Decent restaurants and boutique shops line the main drag, while side streets feature attractive one-, two- and three-story craftsman and colonial homes. It’s the sort of place that’s allergic to chain stores.


Del Ray was once a working-class neighborhood, having been built around rail lines heading into the District of Columbia. Now the most affordable town homes typically run in the low to mid $700,000s, and single-family homes usually go for $1 million or more. People want to live in Del Ray, but for many families it’s getting difficult to move—or even to stay—here.


New houses, condos and apartments are hard to come by. Most land is already used, so the only option is to build upward. A local developer, Bonaventure Realty, hoped to do that in 2019. The company bought a building in the heart of Del Ray that had long housed Alexandria’s Department of Community and Human Services. In early 2022, Bonaventure proposed turning the two-story brick building into a four-story mixed-use retail and apartment building, bringing more properties into the area—something Alexandria officials have said is desperately needed to make housing cheaper.


Cue the protests. In April 2022, a few residents launched “Save Del Ray,” which said its objective was “preserving the history, character, and economic vibrancy of Del Ray” and opposed the building project. A spokesman for the group declared, “we’re not antidevelopment or antiprogress.” That claim is tough to square with the facts.


The proposed building preserved critical elements of Del Ray’s character. Like the current building, the bottom two floors had a brick facade, with columns reminiscent of the Art Deco style popular on the main thoroughfare. Above that were two modern floors of apartments, set back from the front of the building to keep the eye focused on the brick. The top two floors admittedly weren’t the prettiest, but there are uglier buildings in the neighborhood.


Many residents expressed support, according to the developer. Local business owners, including several who live and work within a few blocks of the site, told me there was broad (but not universal) support for the project among Del Ray’s business community. One local entrepreneur and community stalwart told me the development represents “smart growth,” by which he meant the kind of cautious change that would maintain the best of Del Ray while making it marginally better in terms of housing and commerce.


So what got opponents so upset? The building height and disruption to daily life during construction—and the precedent the development would set. Yet Del Ray already has numerous stylistically similar three-story mixed-used buildings within a few blocks. The local post office is about the height of a four-story building. If a one-story increase in building height is too much to bear, it’s hard to see how Del Ray’s housing supply will ever increase. And if concerns about construction are enough to kill a project, how could any building be built or renovated down the line?


To its credit, the developer responded to local concerns. In May, it scaled back the plans, agreeing to make the building smaller by nearly 20% and dropping some of the apartments. This mollified no one; protests spread to related issues. At a June meeting of the Alexandria Planning Commission, Del Ray residents successfully pressured officials to defer height limit increases for affordable housing. One resident told them, “I understand the city is in need of and has promised increased affordable housing.” You could hear the “but” coming: “If this is approved . . . ‘where Main Street still exists’ will be gone forever.”


Hyperbole carried the day. In November, Bonaventure put the project on indefinite hold, and the property is now for sale. It makes sense. Nothing short of the status quo seems likely to win over opponents. Until some middle ground can be found between not-in-my-backyard and yes-in-my-backyard, neighborhoods like mine—and Berkeley, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y., and many other desirable places—will keep getting more expensive and less welcoming to newcomers.


Mr. Ford, a former chief speechwriter for Vice President Mike Pence, is founder of West Exec Writing.


Appeared in the March 4, 2023, print edition as 'Yes, There’s a Housing Crisis. No, You Can’t Build Here'.

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