Strong Communication Efforts Essential to Mixed-Income DC-Area Project

Housing Affordability
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In today’s market, a limited supply of land, a shortage of skilled labor, and rising fees are all contributing to higher prices weighing on the housing affordability crisis. In many areas, less tangible factors such as community perceptions, expectations and demands also play an important role in determining the availability and cost of housing. A successful collaboration between Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), developer EYA and the City of Alexandria, fueled by ongoing internal and external communications efforts to address public concerns, resulted in a mixed-income project to serve multiple members of the community. Located five miles from Washington, D.C., in the historic Parker-Gray District in Alexandria, Va., Old Town Commons is a $148.3 million redevelopment of public housing into 379 town home, condominium and multifamily units. The project includes a mix of 245 units of market-rate housing and 134 public housing apartments concentrated in a five-block area. Local housing and land use policies were influential in the development of Old Town Commons. Starting in the 2000s, city leaders aimed to reduce concentrations of public housing in favor of scattered site public housing that combined market-rate units and public housing in the same block. How did they do it? The transit-accessible location in a close-in Washington D.C. suburb contributed to the high land values that were a key factor in the success of the project. The mixed-income project’s innovative financing leveraged the high land value and federal low-income housing tax credits, without the assistance of any subsidies. ARHA, in coordination with Boston Capital, secured $24.6 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credit equity for the project. Market-rate units, including 159 town homes selling up to $1 million and 86 condominiums in the mid-$300,000s – $400,000s, provided the necessary land value to offset the cost of rebuilding 134 ARHA units. Units range in size from one to four bedrooms. [caption id="attachment_14762" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Photo courtesy of Thomas Arledge[/caption] EYA, city staff and ARHA met regularly with residents and neighbors to discuss density, height, open space, parking, historic context and other areas of concern. ARHA also employed a consultant to facilitate outreach with public housing residents. Because the project is located in an historic district, the historic preservation review process was an additional consideration. Additionally, the partners met with each other to streamline communication. Brian J. (AJ) Jackson, senior vice president of EYA, shared, "The partners formed a senior-level working group to agree on what the strategy was going to be and keep the communications flowing." Design considerations were crucial in a project that:
  • Substantially increased the neighborhood density and height
  • Required approval from the Board of Architectural Review
  • Mixed single-family with multifamily units
  • Sought to ease concerns from area residents
Colorful paint schemes, pent roofs and trim details are compatible with the neighborhood’s historic character. Stacking public housing apartments in rowhouse flats helped increase density without raising the perception of increased density and assisted with community buy-in. Old Town Commons is also built to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes and/or Earthcraft specifications with features that help residents save on water, heating and cooling costs. [caption id="attachment_14761" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Photo courtesy of Thomas Arledge[/caption] A nearby community center and public parks are other key factors that created this pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented, mixed-income community. Jackson praised the community center: "With so many people moving into a new community at the same time, it is important to have 'Know your neighbor' events. That way, people learn about the neighborhood, and residents create personal relationships." As the developers in Old Town Commons learned, good communication is essential — internal as well as external. Don’t underestimate the social dimension in a mixed-income development. An integrated homeowner’s association, in which participation is encouraged among all groups, facilitates good relations for both market-rate owners and public housing. With a strong project, everyone wins. The neighborhood surrounding Old Town Commons has benefited from the development, too. With an influx in residents, there is renewed retail investment in the form of new shops, restaurants and even a new grocery store. Key Factors for Success
  • Strong housing market
  • Collaborative public-private partnership
  • Experienced developer of mixed-income communities
  • Leadership from the housing authority
  • Supportive city council
  • New community center
For more housing affordability resources, including the full case study on the Old Town Commons development, visit and the Land Use 101 toolkit at The toolkit also includes access to the full report, How Did They Do It? Discovering New Opportunities for Affordable Housing. Deborah L. Myerson, AICP — author of the How Did They Do It? Report — contributed to the content of this article. Myerson is an urban planner with 20 years of experience in housing, community development, land use and transportation policy, and urban revitalization.

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