Condominium Project Lets Families Construct Their Futures

(Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Adolai Aldulkader lives with his wife, three children and mother-in-law in a one-bedroom apartment in Falls Church.

Khadija Moharan, forced from a decaying rental house, now lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Fairfax with her husband, two children and father.

Meliha Hamiddouche has also been living in a small Falls Church apartment with her 7-year-old son.

Soon, though, these families and nine others will move into new, much larger apartments that they are helping to build just outside Fairfax City. It is part of Habitat for Humanity's first local foray into condominium construction, as the organization strives to provide affordable housing in an increasingly unaffordable county.

Habitat has been building single-family homes around the country for years, finding needy families who are willing to put in the "sweat equity" to help construct them, and then finding them 7 percent mortgages.

But in Fairfax, not only are housing prices high and mortgages tough to come by, but there is little cheap open land, said Karen Cleveland, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia.

"We learned a long time ago we needed to build what fit into the community," Cleveland said. "It made more sense to serve more folks" with an apartment building.

The concept has been tried in San Francisco, another notoriously tough real estate market, and Cleveland said there were two more apartment developments in progress elsewhere. But the 12-unit building just off Lee Highway near Waples Mill Road, in the Westbrook Forest development, is the first in this region. It will have eight four-bedroom and four two-bedroom apartments and parking garages for all of the units.

Some of the steps toward launching the project followed Habitat's standard model.

It finds and purchases suitable land and designs housing that's compatible with its surroundings. The new building looks almost identical to nearby apartments.

Then, Habitat finds potential tenant-owners who have shown an ability to make rent or mortgage payments over sustained periods, are employed and lead stable lives. Those tenants are extensively screened, required to take classes in responsible homeowner skills, and then they have to help build their new homes.

That's the standard Habitat route. And at most construction projects, volunteers and future owners are involved from the start, literally raising the walls and framing the rooms. But this being a new type of project for Habitat in Northern Virginia -- multiple dwellings in one building -- "we were advised to use professionals to build the superstructure," Cleveland said, so amateurs were not immediately involved after the groundbreaking in December.

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