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Washington, D.C. Builds Transitional Housing in the Southwest Waterfront Neighborhood

Night view of lighted seven-story residential building with cars parked in front.
Stepped residential building with large windows.
Ziggurat-shaped residential building next to a street with parked cars.
Aerial view drawing of several city blocks with a small triangular parcel (the Aya) emphasized in the center.
Four single beds in a brightly colored bedroom with windows providing natural light.
Hallway with brightly colored checkered floor and doors on both sides.
Large community room with seating areas and tall windows on multiple sides providing views of the city, including the U.S. Capitol building.
A reception area with desk and chairs facing glass entry doors and "The AYA" printed on one wall.


Home > Case Studies > Washington, D.C. Builds Transitional Housing in the Southwest Waterfront Neighborhood


Washington, D.C. Builds Transitional Housing in the Southwest Waterfront Neighborhood


The Aya is a supportive housing development in Washington, D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront neighborhood. Opened in 2020, the Aya is one of eight such developments the District built in the wake of a major shelter closure. All 50 units serve as transitional housing for people experiencing, or on the verge of experiencing, homelessness. The residents, mostly families with small children, have access to onsite amenities and support services, including a community clinic on the ground floor. The building's intentional design fosters interaction among residents and complements the surrounding community. In 2022, the Aya won an Excellence in Affordable Housing Award from the American Institute of Architects for its creative design and extensive community engagement process.

Decentralized Approach to Combating Homelessness

In 2015, Mayor Muriel Bowser released Homeward DC, a vision to end long-term homelessness in the District of Columbia. In 2018, the District closed a large citywide homeless shelter in the former District of Columbia General Hospital, which was often criticized for poor living conditions, serious safety concerns, and a lack of nearby supportive services. In its place, the District developed a network of short-term emergency housing facilities, one in each of the city's eight political wards. The replacement facilities offer modern amenities and onsite services, and, because they are distributed throughout the city, they are more accessible to potential clients than the original citywide shelter.

The development in Ward 6, the Aya, was constructed on a small, District-owned vacant parcel in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood. The District fully financed this $24 million development through bond issuances. In 2018, the city's Department of General Services (DGS) awarded a contract to design the Aya to the Studio Twenty Seven Architecture/Leo A. Daly joint venture. As with the other seven projects, the community played a significant role in designing the building. A special-purpose advisory team consisting of members from the city government, civic groups, homeless service providers, and the local elementary school served as the primary community liaison throughout the development process. Community members could attend monthly meetings with the architects to collaborate on the design. Participants toured the site and learned its history. John Burke, a principal at Studio Twenty Seven Architecture, said that these community meetings "responded to the concerns and desires that the neighbors and the community had for how the building should be massed and operated and respond to the street." After a 2-year design and construction process, the Aya opened in March 2020. DGS continues to manage the property through contractors, and DGS helps fund maintenance, utilities, and resident programming.

An Innovative Design

Although the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-certified building, at seven stories, is slightly taller than the zoning ordinance allows, many community members favored a higher building with a smaller footprint to preserve more green space, and their support helped DGS obtain a zoning variance. In addition, the structure's distinct façades complement the surrounding neighborhood and reflect the community's desire for a building without an institutional feel. Because the public-serving clinic and the residential lobby are on opposite sides of the building, the structure has no clear front or back, and the resulting foot traffic ensures that neither side seems deserted. Meanwhile, the building's unusual ziggurat shape and floor-to-ceiling windows on every floor enhance access to sunlight and allow unobstructed views of the U.S. Capitol Building. A small garden terrace on each level visually suggests a front lawn.

The Apartments

The Aya's two-, three-, and four-bedroom apartments are fully furnished and have free wireless internet service. All units are reserved for families experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, homelessness. The average tenure for households is between 30 and 90 days, although no set limit exists. Many of the occupants are families with young children.

Each floor has 7 to 10 apartments; a community room with an outdoor, semi-enclosed children's play area; and laundry facilities. The common areas on each floor are restricted to that floor's residents, allowing each level to function as its own "neighborhood." According to Burke, "[T]he major idea was to color-code the floors and give each one a little bit of a different identity so that you begin to recognize the people that are on your floor and associate a certain floor with the other folks that live there." The ground-level common areas, which feature computer rooms, a dining area, a conference room, and a public health clinic, are open to all residents.

Residents of the Aya are within a 10-minute walk of a grocery store, a library, a park, and a recreation center. The Wharf and Navy Yard mixed-use neighborhoods, both with a wide selection of dining and retail, are within a mile of the property. The Aya's proximity to the National Mall offers families free access to world-class museums and monuments. With a Metrorail station a half-mile away, residents of the Aya have access to jobs, services, and amenities throughout the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Support Services

Onsite supportive services are a key part of the Aya's design. Unity Health Care operates a Federally Qualified Health Center on the ground floor. The Southwest Health Center, which previously had been on this site, provides primary and behavioral health care and social services to residents of the Aya and the surrounding community. Adult residents of the Aya can take advantage of educational opportunities through onsite computer labs. Support staff connect residents to job counseling, budget management counseling, employment services, permanent housing search assistance, and other wraparound services.

Future Prospects for Residents

Families generally live at the Aya for only a few months, after which most residents move to permanent housing. In addition to the housing search assistance support staff provide, the building's tight-knit, communal atmosphere has helped residents transition to more permanent housing. Burke said that many households form friendships with other families on their floor and decide to move into a new home together, allowing them to share costs that might have been prohibitive for a single family. These interactions illustrate a success of the building's design, particularly the distinct floors with their own shared amenities.



The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.