Alexandria Ditches Jim Crow Zoning

Unanimous vote on City Council eliminates single-family housing.

Members of the Alexandria City Council are saying goodbye to a relic of the Jim Crow era that was created as a way to sideline and marginalize Black residents, single family zoning. A pair of initiatives known as "Zoning for Housing" and "Housing for All" were unanimously approved in a late-night vote earlier this week after an intense debate that prompted one opponent to suggest that members of the City Council be spanked.

"I have never seen a generational divide in the input quite like this one," said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. "The age of the people advocating on this was a pretty safe determinate of which side of the issue you were on."

By ditching exclusionary zoning, city officials say, properties that had previously been set aside for a single-family house can now be divided into as many as four dwelling units. 

County Board members in Arlington recently took a similar action they called "Missing Middle," although their version allows as many as six units. Here in Alexandria, city planners say, the new policy is expected to open the door for redevelopment of 66 properties, adding about 200 new units over the next decade.

"These reforms are progress toward erasing the vestiges of segregation and exclusion in our city's zoning code, and a critical step on the long journey to address our housing crisis," said Peter Sutherland, Alexandria lead for YIMBYs of NoVA. "Passing Zoning for Housing is a momentous step toward a better future for all Alexandrians."

"I've seen the market in this city destroy my generation. People are not able to stay here. People are not able to live here."

— Councilman John Taylor Chapman.

THE HISTORY of racist zoning in Virginia begins in April 1911, when Richmond adopted an ordinance dividing the city into blocks for white and "colored" residents. Falls Church and several other Virginia cities followed suit, although the United States Supreme Court declared that explicit racial segregation zoning was unconstitutional in 1917.

"In response, proponents of racial segregation found new ways to use zoning to support their agenda by incorporating class-based language, such as compatible use and nuisance abatement," wrote Krystyn Moon in a detailed history of zoning in Alexandria. "The prioritization of single-family dwellings over all other forms of land use adversely affected poorer residents and, in Alexandria, especially African Americans."

African Americans were targeted by racist zoning practices when city leaders zoned their properties for industrial use. Alexandria's first zoning map applied industrial zoning to about 100 residential structures, most of which were occupied by Black residents. Meanwhile, white neighborhoods were protected by single-family zoning. In addition to the zoning ordinance, restrictive covenants added a layer of explicit racism.

"All premises covered by these restrictions shall be occupied or used for private dwelling purposes only, by one family only, by persons of the Caucasian Race, but not excluding bona fide servants of any race," according to a 1947 covenant for Temple Terrace.

ZONING FOR HOUSING prompted an intense debate that mirrored recent controversies over bike lanes and bus lanes, often with the same partisans making similar arguments. Opponents created a group known as Coalition for a Livable Alexandria and installed yard signs across the city opposing the zoning change. In a series of public hearings, they made the case that longtime residents purchased their homes with the anticipation of living in a single-family neighborhood.

"You deserve to be spanked,” Ann Shack told members of the City Council during the public hearing. "This massive change in zoning under the guise of affordable housing is a pretext while interest rates are still climbing."

Supporters and opponents both enunciated support for affordable housing, although they outlined dramatically different strategies. In the end, members of the City Council went with a proposal they say will address the housing demand by expanding the supply of units available, an attempt to use market forces to lower prices. The next step for city leaders will be implementing a plan making it easier for developers to build townhouses and small apartment buildings in neighborhoods that were previously reserved for single-family homes.

"I've seen the market in this city destroy my generation. People are not able to stay here. People are not able to live here," said Councilman John Taylor Chapman. "The market has not been kind to Alexandria's middle and working class."