By Denise Dunbar
What is now known as Community Lodgings Inc. was launched 30 years ago with literally a prayer and a shoestring budget.
Former board chair Barry Roman, involved with the organization since its early days in 1987, said CLI, which was originally called Carpenter’s Lodgings, was started by the rectors of eight Episcopal churches in greater Alexandria.
“The rectors of those eight Episcopal churches got together and realized there was
a lack of transitional housing space for people who wanted to get out of the shelter but didn’t have the means to live on their own,” Roman said.
“Typically, these were [single] mothers with children. Most of them had jobs but didn’t earn enough to pay the rent in Alexandria.”
Roman said CLI’s original holdings consisted of six townhouses scattered around Alexandria.
“Those townhouses were old and beat. They took a ton of money to keep up,” Roman said. “They took these families who wanted to get out of the shelter and put them in these houses and helped them get back on their feet.” CLI has expanded its mission, staff and budget during the past 30 years, but the ride has at times been bumpy.
“Our budget has grown from trying to raise funds with raffles on the street, about $20,000 to $30,000 a year, to well over a million dollars as an annual budget,” Roman said. “We have a very professional staff and a terrific executive director who has done a great job. It’s run very efficiently.”
But that wasn’t always the case.
Obstacle one: funding shifts
CLI’s first roadblock to success was the fact that transitional housing alone as a
business model was a money-losing proposition. According to Roman, it costs about $15,000 per year to maintain a family in transitional housing, even with the family contributing a nominal amount in rent.
The other obstacle to transitional housing was a decrease in federal funds dedicated to the effort, according to longtime board member Helen Lewis. When CLI was formed, ample federal money was being dedicated to transitional housing programs, but when that money dried up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, CLI had to change with it.
“When federal spending priorities changed, rather than doing transitional housing, the emphasis shifted to socalled ‘housing first,’” Lewis said. “Community Lodgings could not get funding because we owned buildings. We were considered a landlord and couldn’t have transitional housing beyond what we could fund from our own money…Our original goal was to [eventually] have up to 30 units [of transitional housing] and of course it’s gone the other way.”
So, CLI decided to emphasize affordable housing – consisting of apartment units where the rents were low but covered the organization’s costs – over transitional housing.
They bought a nine-unit building, then a second one on Notabene Drive, Roman said, for an early total of 18 units.
“Then we got rid of the townhouses,” he said.
In the early 1990s, the nonprofit bought a property on Elbert Avenue using tax credits and government funding.
“At one point, we couldn’t get it all to match up [for the purchase],” Roman said. “We had to have the board of directors to personally guarantee a loan a month to get it to close. A loan of half a million bucks.”
That brought CLI up to a total of 45 apartment units, but the buildings were constructed in the 1940s and were run down by that point. The organization continued to struggle to make ends meet.
Obstacle two: a leadership deficit
By the early 2000s, CLI was in a difficult financial situation with an uncertain future.
Bonnie Baxley had been on the board for about three years in 2005 when she volunteered to become executive director with no salary. She sat down with longtime board member Chris McMurray and said if he would become head of the board, she would become executive director.
“I said, ‘I think we can make this go,’” Baxley said.
Longtime board member George Tuttle, a lawyer who drafted the original articles of incorporation for the nonprofit, said, “Bonnie taking over is the best thing that ever happened to us, except for Helen [Lewis] being involved the whole time.”
According to Tuttle, CLI had a string of unfortunate or ineffective executive directors prior to Baxley. One even died suddenly in her chair in the office, he said. And the organization simply ran out of money to pay the director who preceded Baxley.
“Bonnie saved us when she came in in 2005,” Lewis said. “We were at a point of having to declare bankruptcy. It was that bad. Bonnie just stepped in. She knew everybody in town. She called people and kept things moving. She made major, major changes throughout in the management that made a real difference…She didn’t do it alone, but I give her full credit.”
When Baxley took over, her husband was incredulous.
“My husband said, ‘You’re going to work from nine to five for no money?’” Baxley said.
CLI was at a dead end in almost every respect.
“There was nothing going on in the organization,” she said. “They weren’t getting any money. They weren’t getting any grants. It was amazing to me what they had not done. They had buildings and such, but nothing was thriving about it.”
She began by trying to raise the organization’s profile in the community.
“I went around the city and people would say, ‘who are you?’ I would bring as many people as I could so it wasn’t just me there. People started noticing Community Lodgings,” Baxley said.
The Alexandria Community Trust was a big help as well, providing a grant to hire someone to do strategic planning and board development.
Baxley slowly created an infrastructure with policies and procedures.
The organization took a great leap forward financially in Baxter’s eight years at the helm — so much so that she did eventually draw a salary.
“We went from a $300,000 budget that was not being met to $1.3 million,” she said.
“All that money went to the extension of our program. Our learning center was just booming. Arlandria was just booming.”
Baxley said her legacy at CLI was the passion she brought to her post and her longevity in the role after a lengthy period of instability.
“It was pretty remarkable what we were able to do,” she said.
A focus on family services
In the late 1990s, an educational component was added to CLI when the organization converted one of its three-bedroom apartments into its first learning center.
“It’s a heavily Hispanic neighborhood. The kids had very few services or support of any kind,” Lewis said. “There was a lot of need there.”
The CLI website says it began providing computer literacy and English Language Learner classes to adults in 1998. The nonprofit has continued providing services to the whole family since then. In 2002, the community-based Fifer Family Learning Center and youth education programs were introduced and in 2008 the learning center was expanded.
Roman said he was astounded by the response to the after school program.
“We announced that we were having an after school program and 150 kids arrived outside the door. We said, ‘Wow, the demand here is unbelievable,’” he said. “We built that extra building back of the Notabene property and it’s grown from there. We still run the transitional housing, but it’s become a family learning center.”
According to the CLI website, the nonprofit’s three learning centers assist 110 children each day in their after school program. A safe place to go When Gezae Berhane grew up in the Arlandria/ Chirilagua neighborhood in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “It was rough. There was a lot of violence,” the 23-year-old recalled.
Having a safe place to go – the Fifer Learning Center – where he and his brothers felt welcome, was huge. At the CLI center, not only did they have access to computers, a rare thing for many households back then, but also to adults who served as additional role models who taught kids life skills such as conflict resolution.
“The staff was like family to us,” Berhane said.
Much of what CLI does goes beyond helping people keep a roof over their heads. CLI partners with other agencies and organizations to assist both the transitional and affordable housing residents in overcoming long-term barriers to success.
The barriers vary widely. Some individuals are victims of domestic violence, while others may struggle with speaking English, health problems or qualifying for jobs. While those in affordable housing units can stay at CLI indefinitely, the transitional housing tenants must be ready to move out on their own in two years. They are also required to be working or participating in job training to qualify for the program.
Affordable housing’s importance
It’s not an exaggeration to say the city is facing an affordable housing crisis. A new report by the city’s housing office shows that market-affordable housing in buildings with 10 or more units declined by 90 percent between 2000 and 2017. It has gone from more than 19,000 to 1,749 units, which is less than six percent of the city’s overall housing stock.
“Market-affordable” in this case means that it is within the means of a household earning 60 percent of the area median income, which translates to an income of $46,380 for one person and $66,180 for a family of four. The average annual income of CLI’s tenants is even less – $38,000 for a family – a fraction of the median family-of-four income for an Alexandria household, which is $110,300.
When Community Lodgings re-opens six affordable housing apartments next month following an extensive renovation, there will be an added bonus: an additional two-bedroom unit at their 607 Notabene Drive property.
In a city where 14,000 households qualify for but are unable to attain affordable housing, what difference does one more apartment make?
Plenty, said Helen McIlvaine, director of housing for the City of Alexandria.
“Every unit is important to us. That unit is an opportunity for a family who wants
to be in this city to be here,” McIlvaine said.
She added that the unit may become home to many families over a 40-year span.
Finally, since the renovation was funded in part through a loan from the city, the repayment will allow the city to reinvest in more affordable housing projects.
A home is a refuge and should offer stability, McIlvaine continued.
“The impact on the family can’t be measured. When someone lives in a Community Lodgings property they may have moved and moved and moved because the rent just keeps going up,” she said.
“When families spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing and related costs, it impacts the children’s education, the family routine, and the overall stress level,” McIlvaine said. “Parents struggling with money have the same dreams for their children. They have the same hope and the same desire to provide.”
Executive Director Lynn Thomas, who brings 30 years of housing and grants administration experience to the job, has continued the progress started under Baxley. In the five years she has been there, Thomas has added AmeriCorps staff to the learning centers through partnering with the city’s housing and human services department.
A number of the CLI members who have been around since the early years rave about Thomas and the job she has done.
“Lynn has been there since I left,” Baxley said. “I was blown away with her.”
Tuttle also sang the praises of Thomas and CLI’s leaders.
“The staff is phenomenal. The board is full of just astounding talent. Just all of these really talented people are doing what they can,” Tuttle said.
Another invaluable staff member is Director of Operations Karina Wiggs, CLI’s longest-tenured employee at 18 years. The CLI website describes Wiggs as “the glue that holds Community Lodgings together.”
Thomas said she views CLI’s relationships with its partners in the community and the team she has assembled as her major accomplishments as executive director.
“We would not be able to do what we do without them,” Thomas said.
For example, weekends and spring break, a great time for most kids to get away from school, can prove to be a hungry time for students whose families rely on school lunches to help feed their children. CLI teams up with BB&T Bank and Capital Area Food Bank to help fill the gap.
Celebrating 30 years
Community Lodgings will mark its 30th anniversary on Sept. 19 as it celebrates the reopening of its Notabene property. A celebratory gala will also be held next February at Belle Haven Country Club.
Lewis and Roman, looking back through the years, are satisfied with what has been accomplished.
“The kind of program that Community Lodgings has is something I’ve believed in from the beginning,” Lewis said. “I’ve respected the solidity of real estate. If we didn’t own property, we probably wouldn’t be around.” “These kids showed up and didn’t speak English and now they’re buying houses and their kids are going to college. It’s amazing. It can be incredibly rewarding,” Roman said. “The ones that succeed are incredible.”