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Church lawsuit could stall affordable housing project in Arlandria

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington is suing Alexandria over a land dispute.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — There is a land dispute happening between a local church and an affordable housing project in Alexandria, Virginia. The Catholic Diocese of Arlington is suing the city of Alexandria over a proposed project that could serve many of its own parishioners.

The church at the center of the suit is St. Rita Catholic Church off of West Glebe Road in the Arlandria neighborhood. The Church has been serving the mostly immigrant community of Arlandria or Chirilagua (named after a town in El Salvador) for over a century in the sanctuary and in schools. Now, the church is at the center of a lawsuit that could stall a long-awaited and much-needed affordable housing project. 

“Affordable housing is important, particularly in areas like this where cost of living is so expensive,” said Drew Rivera who lives in the area.  

The non-profit organization Alexandria Housing Development Corporation plans to build a 475-unit affordable housing complex off Mount Vernon and Glebe Roads. According to AHDC, that includes 100 deeply affordable apartments for families making about $52,000 a year or 40% of the area median income. 

Housing advocates with Tenants and Workers United told WUSA9 that the price point is the difference between families staying in their homes or being priced out.  

“We all support people getting in homes and having a home and raising their families,” said parishioner Rob Fernandez who was picking up his children from the parish daycare.

But according to a lawsuit filed in April, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington argues the alley between the proposed project and the catholic school belongs to the church – they’ve even submitted the 1922 land deed to prove it.

“If you handle land title issues with a lot of casualness then a lot of problems are going to happen,” added Fernandez, “you get into dispute and the disputes get really, really bad.”

A mom also picking up her child from the daycare stopped to weigh in adding, “The churches and the parishioners do want to help especially those in need, I think it comes down to a lack of communication between the city of Alexandria and the church. It’s the same as if someone came into your backyard and used your backyard for whatever purpose obviously you would have a problem with that,” she said.

In a letter sent to families, church leaders expressed their support of the project writing, “we look forward to being next-door neighbors with residents of the AHDC project.” But its support doesn’t mean the church must “forfeit its property right and due process rights.”

Billy Atwell, Chief Communication Officer for the Diocese of Arlington said the church filed the lawsuit to protect its legal and property rights.”  Read the entire statement here:

"Saint Rita Catholic Church, located in Alexandria, has been part of the local community for over a century and is the spiritual home to nearly 1,000 families and 260 students in the parish school in grades pre-K through 8.

Catholics in Alexandria support underserved and disadvantaged communities through programs such as parish food pantry partnerships, donated clothing, housing to at-risk individuals, a day center for the elderly, legal immigration assistance, and direct financial assistance to pay for rent, utilities, healthcare and other basic needs.

Saint Rita Catholic Church and the Catholic Diocese of Arlington are supportive of increasing affordable housing options and the mixed-use development planned by Alexandria Housing Development Corporation on land adjacent to the church’s property. With any development on adjacent property, the church must assess the impact of the development on its current operations, as well as ensuring the protection of its legal and property rights. The current plans negatively impact the ability of the parish and the school to serve its members and the local community and diminishes its legal rights and property interests.

The Diocese had to take certain steps under the law, because of timing constraints, to protect its property rights now and into the future. However, the Church has also taken steps to ensure that the parties involved now have adequate time to discuss and resolve outstanding issues, so it can continue serving its parishioners and the local community. We are hopeful that these issues can be resolved swiftly and amicably."

Neither the city nor the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation have been served the official lawsuit, so they can’t comment on potential litigation. But AHCD sent WUSA9 a statement saying they are excited to bring deeply affordable housing to the neighborhood.

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