Affordable housing project revitalizes local church

Affordable housing project revitalizes local church
Church of the Resurrection leaders plan to build affordable housing units and a new church (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott |

When a local church found itself in financial difficulty, there was one thing its congregation could agree on: the way to save the church was to scale back and pair a smaller church with an affordable housing complex.

The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Alexandria’s West End is in the final stages of a project that has been years in the works. If all goes according to plan, by 2021 the church will be demolished and replaced with more than 100 multifamily affordable units on its property at 2280 N. Beauregard St.

There is overwhelming support within Church of the Resurrection for the project, as three votes established that 86 to 96 percent of parishioners back the project.

“Anytime you have a church where that many percent of the people support it, there’s something going on,” said the Rev. Jo Belser, rector of the church. She joked there was less disaccord over this major shift in the church’s future size and mission than there usually is over lesser matters like what color the carpet should be or whether a light bulb should be changed.

The Rev. Jo Belser poses
in front of a bulletin board at the Church of the Resurrection that
outlines details of its affordable housing project. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

When Belser became the church’s rector in 2012, she noticed dwindling attendance at services. The congregation began seeking ways to “save themselves,” and their ideas ranged from very small steps like no longer printing church bulletins on Sunday to the radical idea of redeveloping the property.

“We had a lot of an aging population and not a lot of people living right near us that would be likely to come to an Episcopal church,” Belser said. “The demographic and location here isn’t a real good fit long term.”

The project proposal as it stands now involves demolishing the existing Church of the Resurrection, building an affordable housing complex with 113 units and rebuilding a new smaller church. The residential building will be mostly composed of multifamily units, the rent for which will range from 40 to 60 percent of the area median income, according to Belser.

The project was conceptualized five years ago as a way to earn cash flow through the property lease and to get a new church, but Belser said the emphasis changed somewhere along the way.

“We started out with this thinking that we’d save us, and long ago, we realized that’s not a really good reason to do this,” she said. “The whole idea of seriously finding our mission and figuring out a way to help others and get beyond ourselves has secured our future and sort of revitalized our energy.”

Once the idea had been decided upon, the next step was to create a plan to carry it out.

“That’s a really daunting idea,” Belser said. “How do we redevelop a property and build a church? So we started with who – who can we get to do this for us?”

In their search for a “who,” leaders at the Church of the Resurrection interviewed several developers, both for-profit and nonprofit. They ultimately chose AHC Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to providing affordable housing to low- and moderate-income families. AHC began in 1975 as the Arlington Housing Corporation and has since expanded to serve communities throughout Northern Virginia and Maryland. They began working with the Church of the Resurrection in fall 2014.

“They had a really, really, incredibly impressive … residential services component that is widely known,” Belser said. “The properties they develop, they also manage.”

What began as a congregation’s brainstorm soon evolved into a collaborative effort between the church, AHC and the City of Alexandria.

“The city’s been really excited about seeing additional affordable housing and the church partnering with nonprofits to do that,” said Robert Kerns, division chief of development for the Department of Planning & Zoning.

An aerial rendering of the
proposed housing complex and the new church building. (Courtesy Image)

Alexandria City Council approved and provided the project a predevelopment loan of $400,000 in June 2014, according to Alexandria Director of Housing Helen McIlvaine. About a year ago, AHC brought early concept plans to the city to begin the development review process. Since then, AHC has been working with the city to ensure the project meets various development requirements regarding design, utilities and parking.

Kerns said the Beauregard Design Advisory Committee endorsed the project’s preliminary plan in late October of this year. It is ready to move forward to a public hearing in January, when AHC will present the proposal to the planning commission and seek approval from city council.

The city has been instrumental in helping move the project along with funding. City council agreed to set aside $4.3 million for the project in the FY2018 budget should it earn approval. An additional $4.1 million from the Housing Trust Fund account will also be provided, according to McIlvaine. AHC is projecting to invest $500,000 of its own money, according to one of the company’s vice presidents, John Welsh.

Assuming the project earns city council’s approvalfor its proposed land use application and loan request in January, its next step is to apply for low-income housing tax credits through the Virginia Housing Development Authority in March. The tax credits provide private equity for the project. AHC will also privately finance first trust mortgage debt as part of the project’s full funding package, according to McIlvaine.

“Without the low income tax credit, this project won’t succeed. That’s the funding mechanism that we envision for it,” Belser said.

Welsh said the process for the VHDA 9 percent tax credit is very competitive, as only two to three projects in the collective Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax region will be funded. In addition to the Church of the Resurrection’s project, Welsh said he knew of three other projects that would potentially apply for the credits. While two will definitely be funded, one or two could be left out.

“[AHC’s] track record when we go after that, the 9 percent credits, is very strong, and I think that’s a reason too why the church picked us. Knock on wood, when we’ve applied we’ve never lost,” Welsh said.

“Not that past performance is guarantee of future outcome,” Belser said.

McIlvaine said the project must be successful at gaining city approval in order to compete for the tax credits.

Construction for the Church of the Resurrection’s new 5,000-square-foot church will begin after the affordable housing structure is built. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

“The highest scoring projects are the ones that get funded,” McIlvaine said. “If by [March] it would have its development approval, it would have its commitment to the city loan, and it would go and compete for these tax credits.”

“We’re certainly not counting any chickens yet,” Welsh said. “It’s always a very competitive environment, so we are really working hard to make this project earn a lot of the checkmarks in order to get the credits.”

Belser said so far, every benchmark has been met for the project. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and its bishops previously gave the church permission to lease a portion of the land to AHC and recently reaffirmed their support. This is the first time the greater diocese has done a project like this, Belser said.

“It’s not something that is a well-worn path for them yet. We are the path setter and it’s sort of like being the oldest child, convincing them that this is a good idea, that this methodology will work and that we’re the people to trust to do this,” she said. “There’s a lot of desire to make sure the first one goes well.”

There is a strong separation between the public housing and the new church aspects of the project, Belser said. Funding for the project will pay for the residential building’s ground lease, which will then supply enough money to build the church. The diocese established conditions when it approved the project that the ground lease must be $4.1 million for its first 65 years and that the money be used to build a new 5,000-square-foot church.

“We’re not putting money into it, we just need to be assured that the church is built,” Belser said.

While certain aspects of the project have progressed smoothly over time, others have not.

The project has faced numerous hurdles along the way, ranging from funding to utilities to neighbors. Part of the project’s review process involves a community outreach element to keep nearby residents informed.

About 100 residents from Goodwin House, a neighboring life plan community also affiliated with the Episcopal Church, have attended these outreach meetings to voice their opinions, according to Lindsay Hutter, chief strategy and marketing officer for Goodwin House Inc.

“There’s a range of views, from those who very much support the concept, to those who are not supportive of the concept for various reasons,” Hutter said.

Residents and staff at Goodwin House have been discussing concerns about the project’s architecture and parking at meetings with AHC and city staff (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

She said Goodwin House Inc. as an organization had two primary concerns with the project: its architecture and its parking proposals. Regarding architecture, Hutter said the designs did not include enough brick.

“When you have densely populated areas where buildings face each other, there’s no backside of a building,” she said. “A concern we’ve had is the percentage of brick to fiber cement on that side of affordable housing that faces Goodwin House Alexandria.”

Goodwin House is also concerned that the current project proposal does not provide enough parking. The church parking lot will have 28 parking spaces for its 140-seat chapel, and the residential building will have 84 spaces for 113 units.

“When someone lives in a housing community, their friends visit, their family visits, and you have staff, so while technically the requirement is met,” Hutter said, “the practical considerations are fairly significant that there is inadequate parking for those needs.”

AHC has been engaging in dialogue with the people from Goodwin House and working with them on some of their concerns, Welsh said.

“The NIMBY issue, I don’t think we can ever really solve that,” he said. “On the design, we’ve answered a number of critics; we’ve increased the proportion of brick, and this is really going to be a very attractive building, so we think that that should quell any issues on that.”

“We are strongly committed to providing affordable housing to working families,” Belser said. “We have a passion, you know, a heart for that, and not everybody shares that. Not every one of our neighbors shares that passion.”

City councilor John Chapman has expressed strong support for affordable housing initiatives, as he grew up in Alexandria’s public housing. Since 2000, the city has lost 90 percent of its affordable housing.

“If you have stable housing, your family can grow, you don’t have to struggle as much and you can be a lot more involved and active in the community,” Chapman said. “We’re trying to make Alexandria remain affordable because we have been an enclave for the middle class, working families, for generations.”

Belser said she was happy the project was able to tap into something important to the community beyond the church.

“We’re not doing it at this point to save us, we’re doing it for people in our community who need this, and it’s our mission, and we’re pretty strongly committed to it,” she said. “It’s kind of like demonstrating our name to ourselves and the world; resurrection – things die that have to die to get new life, and we’re just thriving in a way we haven’t thrived in a while.”