Manassas City Council kills downtown-area workforce housing proposal

The proposal would add 36 new townhomes adjacent to the 24-unit apartment building. (Elm Street Development)
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The Manassas City Council has killed a plan for affordable workforce housing near downtown over community character concerns, insisting at the same time the council is committed to increasing affordability amid rising rents.

The council took final action on the Manassas Square proposal at its June 12 meeting, denying the rezoning application from McLean-based Elm Street Development and likely ensuring the loss of affordable units at the Manassas Arms apartment building adjacent to Osbourn High School.

The proposal would have renovated the 24-unit apartment building while keeping 12 of the renovated units affordable, in particular for city and Manassas City Public Schools employees. In addition, the rezoning proposal would have allowed for Elm Street to build an adjacent townhome development. After a group of councilmembers, led by Democrat Tom Osina, tried to kill the 36-townhome proposal in May, the developer returned in June with a downsized proposal, reducing the number of townhomes from 36 to 28.

That still wasn’t enough for the four Democrats: Osina, Vice Mayor Pam Sebesky, Sonia Vasquez Luna and Ralph Smith. Democrat Mark Wolfe and Republican Theresa Coates Ellis were the only council members who voted in favor of the rezoning.

“That increased density at this location would adversely affect the adjacent neighborhood of detached single-family homes,” Osina said before voting to deny the application, foreclosing the possibility of any similar proposals for the site for a year.

All 24 units at the current Manassas Arms building have been considered affordable by city standards for nearly 30 years, with the owner making use of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits. But he indicated to the city that given the current Manassas housing market and the needed renovations, he won’t be reapplying for the tax credits and plans to convert them all to market-rate housing without a rezoning for the additional units.

Under the Elm Street proposal, city and schools employees would be given 45 days to rent the 12 below-market units before they hit the open market.

With the council voting to kill the proposal, Wolfe said it would mean the loss of any affordable units at the location.

“This has been very clear, between the marketplace and what we’ve heard from the current owner of the property,” Wolfe said. “Not doing this will almost certainly result in the loss of 24 affordable dwelling units in the city … You can’t really build on affordability if you continually are losing what you’ve got to begin with.”

The council is undertaking a long-term study of how to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city, though it’s already removed the most drastic potential changes from the slate of possible policy shifts, citing single-family neighborhood character and parking concerns. At the same time, average rents and home prices in the city continue to rise.

Speaking at the meeting, Coates Ellis said she couldn’t tell if the council was serious about affordability, saying it could deter developers from wanting to come forward with mixed-income housing projects in the future.

“It’s really a shame that … we’re probably going to be losing that affordable housing, and from what that applicant was bringing forward, to bring workforce housing for our teachers, our firefighters, our police,” she said. “I think it’s a huge slap in the face to anybody coming with other types of proposals or developments that want to try to do affordable housing … So I’m not sure what this council really wants. There you go, we lost 24.”

The councilmembers who voted to kill the project took umbrage at Coates Ellis’ message, saying they wanted to see affordable housing proposals, just not that proposal.

“I hope the public … see this as a denial to the project, not a denial to us making affordable housing a priority, at least for myself,” Vasquez Luna said.

Osina also suggested that preserving the current affordable units may not have been a good thing to begin with, given their need for renovations.

“The applicant for this project acknowledged that these affordable housing units were probably not of the best quality, given the fact that they were going to do renovations to them,” Osina said.

“These people who live there deserve good housing, and I want us to be sure that we keep that in mind as we move ahead.”

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