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The St. James Plaza Affordable Apartments Provide a Lasting Legacy for a Faith Community in Alexandria, Virginia

Photograph of a five-story apartment building with surrounding greenspace.Opened in spring 2018, the 93-unit St. James Plaza is an affordable apartment building with an onsite preschool operated by local education nonprofit the Campagna Center. Credit: AHC, Inc.

By 2013, the congregation of the St. James United Methodist Church had resolved to relocate from their large property in the Beauregard neighborhood of western Alexandria, Virginia, to a smaller site in the city’s downtown. Rather than simply sell the property to the highest bidder and move on — a very feasible prospect in the expensive Washington, DC suburb, where land is scarce and demand high — the church decided to use the property to provide affordable housing, ensuring that the move would create a lasting positive impact in the community. St. James ultimately sold the land to local nonprofit developer AHC Inc., which in turn sold half of the parcel to a market-rate townhome developer and used the proceeds from this sale to subsidize the construction of an affordable 93-unit apartment building. The $33.1 million St. James Plaza Apartments opened in spring 2018, along with an onsite preschool run by local education nonprofit the Campagna Center.

Producing Affordable Housing in an Expensive Market

In Alexandria, a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, housing has become increasingly expensive since the turn of the century. According to the city’s Office of Housing, the number of naturally affordable rental units in Alexandria declined by 90 percent between 2000 and 2017. AHC, originally called the Arlington Housing Corporation, was established in 1975 with the mission of expanding housing affordability in the metropolitan Washington area.

When the leadership of the St. James United Methodist Church decided to relocate following a decline in membership, they were well aware of the area’s acute need for affordable housing. Located just across the street from a Northern Virginia Community College campus and close to the Beauregard Small Area Plan redevelopment district, they were also aware of the desirable location of their longtime home. The congregation decided to create a lasting legacy in the neighborhood they had called home since the 1960s and selected AHC as the buyer, selling the 3-acre parcel to the nonprofit developer in October 2015 for $8.4 million.

AHC worked closely with the city of Alexandria to obtain appropriate zoning and plan a project that would voluntarily meet the standards of the nearby redevelopment district. Early in the process, AHC subdivided the property into two portions, reserving one for the construction of St. James Plaza and eventually selling the other. Although AHC initially proposed the construction of a 160-unit market-rate apartment building on the newly split half, this planned building proved too small to be financially feasible for the area’s market-rate developers. After exploring several land use configurations, AHC determined that a townhouse development of ownership units would return the appropriate value without unduly increasing the neighborhood’s density, and the nonprofit sold the land to market-rate townhome developer Craftmark. The sale pleased neighborhood residents, who appreciated the reduced density of the planned 31-unit townhome addition over the initially proposed apartment building, and provided an additional $6.6 million in additional funding for the affordable building. Site preparation began in 2015, and construction on St. James Plaza began in the summer of 2016.

St. James Plaza opened in 2018 with a waiting list of more than 2,000 households. The five-story building was constructed in a contemporary style, with a façade of red brick and contrasting light grey paneling. The development includes 3 efficiency, 12 one-bedroom, 66 two-bedroom, and 12 three-bedroom units. There are 10 fully accessible units, two of which are equipped specifically for people with auditory or visual handicaps. The building received EarthCraft Platinum certification and all units feature ENERGY STAR® appliances. Eligible tenants must earn no more than 60 percent of the area median income per year.

Photograph a group of people attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony for St. James Plaza.St. James Plaza sits on 1.5 acres of landscaped greenspace and features a playground, fitness room, and community room. Credit: AHC, Inc.

The total development cost of St. James Plaza was $33,104,330. The bulk of this funding, $20.5 million, came from the low-income housing tax credits. The city of Alexandria provided a $5.7 million loan, and AHC obtained an additional $5.3 million loan from Capital One. AHC loaned the project an additional $400,000 and deferred more than $1 million of their developer fee. At the 2018 Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference, St. James Plaza won an award in the category of Best Affordable Housing Development.

The building’s amenities include underground parking, a fitness room, and a community room. The community room can be used for socializing or programming, and residents can rent it for events such as birthday parties. AHC’s management division, AHC Management, LLC, manages the property. The onsite management staff work to connect residents with local resources and occasional workshops on various topics.

The building sits on 1.5 acres of green space that AHC calls “the mews” that features a playground and a landscaped walking path that links the affordable apartments and the adjacent townhome development. This space is open to all neighborhood residents and offers benches and shade trees. “It’s effectively a public park that connects the two types of housing, which is nice,” says Jennifer Endo, vice president of community relations at AHC. The walking path in the mews is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, with both ramps and stairs to manage elevation changes.

The Campagna Center

The building’s most distinctive amenity, the Campagna Center’s Early Learning Center, occupies approximately 3,000 square feet of the ground floor and offers preschool programming for children aged 3 to 5. The St. James Plaza location can accommodate 50 children. The Campagna Center is a longstanding local nonprofit dedicated to early childhood education for low-income families. “In addition to paying rent, we know that many families also struggle to afford quality and convenient childcare,” says Endo. AHC solicited the Campagna Center to open a site at St. James Plaza after the successful partnership between the two at another AHC apartment community, Jackson Crossing.

The Early Childhood Center charges for services on an income-based sliding scale, and, although the center accepts students from anywhere within the neighborhood, it is intended to serve children from St. James Plaza, who are given priority for admission, as well as the adjacent townhomes. “It’s really terrific for the affordable rental families and the market-rate townhome families to have a natural shared interest,” says John Welsh, director of AHC’s multifamily division. AHC offers the Campagna Center reduced rent, and the Campagna Center offers scholarships for residents.

The Early Childhood Center has four classrooms, an office, and a space to prepare snacks, all accessible through a rear entrance near the playground. The entrance opens onto the mews, emphasizing the space as a place where families from the apartments and the townhomes can come together. The preschool is also a place that connects generations, reports Endo, with the students often taking field trips to nearby senior housing facilities to visit the elders, and local seniors often volunteering to work with the children. AHC staff hope that one day, students studying early childhood education at the nearby Northern Virginia Community College campus will come to the St. James Plaza location for their internships. As of summer 2019, the Early Childhood Center had approximately 30 students.

AHC Continues Work in Alexandria

As of summer 2019, St. James Plaza is fully occupied. The adjacent Craftmark townhome development, named Fillmore Place of West Alexandria, is expected to begin sales in October 2019. AHC has partnered with another nearby faith community, the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, to purchase land for affordable housing; that project, called the Spire, is currently under construction. Once completed, this project will add 113 affordable units to Alexandria’s increasingly expensive housing market. Although AHC does not currently have any additional ongoing projects in West Alexandria, Welsh reports that the developer remains interested in delivering necessary affordable housing in this area as it continues to grow.

Source:

Interview with John Welsh, multifamily group vice president, and Jennifer Endo, community relations vice president, AHC Inc., 21 August 2019; Documents provided by John Welsh, 21 August 2019.

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Source:

City of Alexandria. 2017. “2017 Market Affordable Update.” Accessed 2 August 2019; AHC, Inc. n.d. “History.” Accessed 2 August 2019.

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Source:

Interview with John Welsh, multifamily group vice president, and Jennifer Endo, community relations vice president, AHC Inc., 21 August 2019.

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Source:

Interview with John Welsh, multifamily group vice president, and Jennifer Endo, community relations vice president, AHC Inc., 21 August 2019; Documents provided by John Welsh, 21 August 2019.

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Correspondence from John Welsh, 21 August 2019; Interview with John Welsh, multifamily group vice president, and Jennifer Endo, community relations vice president, AHC Inc., 21 August 2019; Documents provided by John Welsh, 21 August 2019.

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Documents provided by John Welsh, 21 August 2019; Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference. 2018. “Leveraging Regional Partnerships: 2018 Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference.” Accessed 23 August 2019.

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Source:

Interview with John Welsh, multifamily group vice president, and Jennifer Endo, community relations vice president, AHC Inc., 21 August 2019; Documents provided by John Welsh, 21 August 2019.

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Source:

Interview with John Welsh, multifamily group vice president, and Jennifer Endo, AHC Inc., 21 August 2019; Documents provided by John Welsh, 21 August 2019.

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The Campagna Center. n.d. “Early Childhood.” Accessed 12 August 2019; Interview with John Welsh, multifamily group vice president, and Jennifer Endo, AHC Inc., 21 August 2019.

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Interview with John Welsh and Jennifer Endo, 21 August 2019.

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Interview with John Welsh and Jennifer Endo, 21 August 2019.

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Craftmark. n.d. “Fillmore Place West Alexandria.” Accessed 4 September, 2019; Interview with John Welsh and Jennifer Endo, AHC Inc, 21 August 2019.

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