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Norfolk, Virginia: Building Sustainable Affordable Housing
The Retreat at Harbor Pointe is a 246-unit affordable apartment development on the Elizabeth River waterfront in the historic port city of Norfolk, Virginia. The Retreat, completed in 2021, reflects Norfolk’s determination to overcome the challenges posed by climate change, sea level rise, and the demand for affordable housing for low-income residents.
Efforts to revitalize the city’s declining neighborhoods and provide affordable housing began in earnest more than 70 years ago, when Norfolk was one of the nation’s first cities to receive funding through the Housing Act of 1949. Since then, the city and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) have led extensive housing and redevelopment programs to address several challenges. Two-thirds of Norfolk’s housing stock was built before 1963, and the area’s tight affordable housing market, attributable in part to Norfolk’s large military population, is exacerbated by the city’s large percentage of low-income residents: 17.4 percent of the city’s population earned incomes below the federal poverty level in 2021. Norfolk is also grappling with new challenges driven by climate change; sea level rise and land subsidence have exacerbated the frequency and severity of flooding in the city’s vulnerable coastal areas. Guided by Norfolk’s adopted resilience strategy and the city’s 2004 Strategic Plan for Southside, the city and NRHA worked with a developer to deliver a project that provides affordable low-income housing on a site that has been engineered to withstand continued sea level rise. This development won a 2021 Best Affordable Housing Development Award from the National Association of Home Builders for developments with at least 100 units.
Development of Affordable Waterfront Apartments
The Retreat at Harbor Pointe is in Norfolk’s Campostella Heights neighborhood, approximately 2 miles from downtown. Approximately 90 percent of residents in the Campostella Heights census tract are African-American, and more than 35 percent of neighborhood residents earn incomes below the federal poverty level. NRHA has designated Campostella Heights as a conservation area; the site chosen for the Retreat was one of the city’s few remaining undeveloped waterfront properties. Lawson Companies acquired the site, which was previously home to an open-air grocery store but abandoned for decades.
The 96 three-bedroom and 150 two-bedroom apartments are in 7 four-story buildings. Fifty of the units are supported with project-based Section 8 housing choice vouchers for those who earn less than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI), and the remaining apartments are reserved for residents earning less than 60 percent of AMI. Thirteen units are accessible for residents with physical or mental disabilities. Each apartment features two bathrooms as well as granite countertops and vinyl plank flooring. The Retreat offers several shared amenities, including a business center, fitness center, lounge, clubhouse with a kitchen, resort-style pool with a sun deck and pergola, and a community garden. Consistent with the strategic plan’s goal of enhancing pedestrian connections to the waterfront, Lawson partnered with the city to construct an accessible, elevated boardwalk along the river. The city plans to connect the boardwalk to the existing Elizabeth River Trail.
The development cost approximately $56 million. More than $21 million came from low-income housing tax credit equity, and an additional $28 million came from tax-exempt bonds from the Virginia Housing Development Authority.
Norfolk’s low elevation and proximity to tidal waterways have always made the city vulnerable to storm and tidal flooding. Over time, major storms have become increasingly frequent, sea levels have risen, and portions of the shoreline have subsided. Recognizing that climate change was threatening the city’s economy and public safety, community leaders developed the Norfolk Resilience Strategy in 2014 to guide the development of a sustainable coastal city of the future. Some of the policy concepts outlined in the strategy are being implemented through new development standards.
The Retreat incorporates many of the practices that emerged from the coastal resilience planning effort. Most notably, the developer raised portions of the site with up to 6 feet of fill to meet or exceed the city’s base flood elevation requirements. The project also incorporated extensive measures to protect nearby wetlands and restore the shoreline. In collaboration with the city’s environmental services department, the team removed sediment and debris from the bottom of the adjacent Elizabeth River, installed more than 800 wick drains to dry the soil, installed a pile foundation system to ensure structural stability, and added riprap along the riverbank to prevent erosion, in accordance with the resilience strategy's goals. The developer also installed oyster castles under the boardwalk to take advantage of the oysters’ ability to cleanse the river. Lawson has organized multiple waterfront cleanup efforts with support from the city’s Keep Norfolk Beautiful program, which has provided supplies and loaned tools. With the help of resident and employee volunteers, Lawson has removed nearly 3,500 pounds of trash and debris from the riverfront. The Elizabeth River Project recognized the Retreat as a River Star Business for its conservation and cleanup efforts.
The energy-efficient buildings are EarthCraft certified. The buildings’ design enhances indoor air quality and minimizes residents’ exposure to airborne toxins and pollutants. Lawson incorporated low-maintenance, durable, recyclable, and renewable materials into the buildings’ construction. The Retreat also features energy-efficient appliances, heating, and cooling systems, which reduce residents’ utility costs.
In 2018, after Lawson submitted the development application for the Retreat, the city implemented stricter resiliency standards. New developments must meet additional requirements to reduce flood risks, manage stormwater, and conserve energy. The city recently approved several high-quality affordable housing developments similar to the Retreat. Lawson recently finished construction of Market Heights, an affordable housing project in Norfolk’s Saint Paul District that is currently leasing. In 2022, the city approved another large and sustainable affordable housing development 2 miles from the Retreat. Developers of the new Tidewater Gardens, which sits on the site of a former public housing project, are combating flooding with a 26-acre “resilience park” that slows stormwater runoff.