A prescription for fair housing in Alexandria is in reach

by Daniel Moshenberg

Like much of northern Virginia, Alexandria has been a kind of affordable housing desert for decades, actually decreasing the number of affordable units, especially deeply affordable units, as housing prices, both rental and mortgage, have risen steadily. With the arrival of Amazon and Virginia Tech, it was anticipated that housing costs would rise even more sharply. With the extraordinarily hot real estate market that has occurred during the pandemic, prices are rising more even more quickly and more steeply. But part of a solution is in sight … perhaps.

In December, Inova Health System announced its plan to build a billion-dollar medical campus on the currently vacant Landmark Mall lot, on Alexandria’s West End. This is welcome news, and the move is anticipated to occur in about seven years. That leaves open the question of the disposition of the land on which Inova Alexandria Hospital currently stand. There’s a great opportunity here, if the City of Alexandria and Inova Alexandria Hospital seize it, an opportunity for Inova to take an important step toward addressing inequities that impact the health of the communities it serves. Thus far, that’s not what the hospital seems to have in mind. Inova has applied to rezone its current property from the current designation as “Institutional” to “Residential Medium,” which would convert the land on which the hospital currently sits into single-family housing units. Alexandria doesn’t need more single-family houses, certainly not now. Alexandria needs affordable housing, which will mean higher density.

Dr. Syed M. Qasim Hussaini, at the John Hopkins University’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center makes a strong case in a piece, entitled “A prescription for fair housing during the COVID-19 pandemic” that appeared in The Lancet at the end of May. Its author concluded, “In the long-term, there will need to be a concerted effort for more institutional–local partnerships between hospitals and the neighborhoods in which they deliver care, and expansion of local health department services to address data gaps in measuring ongoing health inequities. These endeavors must also include larger policy-level efforts in combating exclusionary zoning, upholding community reinvestment act, expanding housing vouchers to promote social mobility, and repealing discriminatory protections to make housing more affordable. A prescription for fair housing might go much further than any novel health care we could deliver at this moment.”

At the beginning of June, in Boston, a five-year study into housing and health revealed that reducing housing insecurity among low-income families improves health outcomes, especially for children and their caregivers. Reducing housing insecurity means reducing the likelihood of eviction, improving the opportunities for housing, improving the quality of housing. The Boston study demonstrated the intimate and powerful links between housing and health. Low-income caregivers and children whose housing situation improved reported improved health and drastically reduced anxiety and depression symptoms. Children had far fewer visits to emergency rooms and urgent care facilities.

Inova Alexandria’s Mission Statement states, “Inova Alexandria Hospital is committed to supporting its mission, `to improve the health of the diverse community we serve through excellence in patient care, education and research,’ by offering a wide range of community benefits and clinical services.” Now would be a perfect time for Inova Alexandria to ‘improve the health of the diverse community’ it serves by seeing the connections between public health and housing and by supporting both the public health and housing needs of its diverse community, which needs are actually one and the same.

Inova Alexandria’s proposal went before Alexandria’s Planning Commission and passed 5 – 1. Now, it’s up to the Alexandria City Council. Hopefully, concern for equity and community health will prevail and the property will be re-designated higher than “medium” density, so that the site will accommodate affordable housing, desperately needed in Alexandria. This is an opportunity for the hospital to show other hospitals across the nation that the juncture of housing and health is not lost on the medical profession. It is an opportunity for Alexandria to show other municipalities, in particular, that it understands that a large part of the housing crisis in the city, as in the country at large, is a function of zoning which has created a local and national crisis for the simple reason that there are not enough homes.

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