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At Kingsley Commons, a Welcome and a Helping Hand

Jose Cantara has lived at Kingsley Commons for three months and already has recommended the complex to friends.
Jose Cantara has lived at Kingsley Commons for three months and already has recommended the complex to friends. (By Susan Straight For The Washington Post)
By Susan Straight
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 8, 2006

Rental townhouses are rare inside the Beltway, but Kingsley Commons in Fairfax County offers 400 of them, mostly at below-market rates to people who qualify for affordable and subsidized Section 8 housing.

Built in the 1940s, the two- and three-bedroom brick townhouses are home to many newcomers to the country, as well as some Washington area natives.

Aside from the large banner advertising perpetual rental specials to traffic on U.S. Route 50, the most noticeable thing about the property is its neat, uniform landscaping. Privately owned Kingsley Commons' lush grass, wooden fences, shrubs and flowers stand in contrast to the patchy lawns and exposed dumpsters of the adjacent public housing owned and managed by the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority. That property, known as Kingsley Park, appears to have once been part of the same construction as Kingsley Commons, though Kingsley Commons has added some external cosmetic details to its units.

"One thing that turned me on about [the community] was the landscaping," Khadijah Boyd said. She discovered the community when driving past it on Route 50 about six years ago. Now she and her son find that it is convenient to live across the street from and next to strip malls, as well as close to Tysons Corner Center.

The property is across the street from Loehmann's Plaza, which is being renovated to add a grocery store to what is already a wide variety of shops, restaurants, services and a gym. Also within walking distance are the Thomas Jefferson branch of the Fairfax County Library, Graham Road Elementary, Luther Jackson Middle School and Falls Church High School.

The community has 235 children of elementary school age who attend Graham Road Elementary, according to Sharyn Franck, Kingsley Commons' first community services coordinator. Franck was hired by Jefferson Village Associates, a limited partnership that owns the property, about a year ago to provide guidance to residents and their children. Franck has lived nearby since 1981, raised three children through the same schools attended by Kingsley Commons residents and has long been active in community organizing efforts.

Franck's role was created in response to the need for acculturation for the many residents who come to the community with no English language skills and no experience with American life. "They don't know what the process is to be involved in the community. It's so different from where they come from," Franck said. She helps the ethnic array of residents -- Hispanic, Vietnamese, Filipino and Kurdish among them -- apply for jobs, find transportation, improve their English, learn computer skills, and enroll their kids in school and camp.

The community provides activities for the children, including a computer lab, sports teams and 4-H Club. About 30 of the elementary schoolers participate in 4-H, which recently planted a vegetable garden. Neat rows of lush lettuce, green tomatoes and hopeful green cornstalks show off the club's work.

Last year when the community sponsored a soccer team with a paid coach for seventh- to ninth-grade boys, they won the championship of the Little River Soccer League. "It was like a movie," Franck said. "I raised three kids, and none played soccer. But I got to be a soccer mom for that team of 15 kids." Kingsley Commons even paid for their cleats and uniforms.

Property manager Edith Carreras speaks Spanish fluently, enabling her to communicate with the 70 percent of residents who are Spanish-speaking. Jose Cantara is one of them; he moved to Kingsley Commons three months ago with a friend. "It's pretty," he said. "I like the townhouse. I like the location." Since moving, he has recommended the place to friends.

Kingsley Commons publishes a monthly newsletter in both Spanish and English. It includes a calendar of community events, including computer classes, 4-H Club meetings, beginning and intermediate English, and mentoring.

Stephanie Hidalgo and her parents and sister speak both Spanish and English. They discovered the community while driving past about 3 1/2 years ago. When Hidalgo graduated from high school, she moved out, but she now lives nearby and visits her family often. She jokes that she wishes the renovations of Loehmann's Plaza had happened while she lived there. "It's supposed to be nice," she said. "I had to drive to the grocery store. Now you'll be able to walk."

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