Affordable Housing Gets a Makeover

For Apartments section feature on the Fisher House in Arlington.Maribel Martinelli with her children Marco and Melissa on their front walk.
For Apartments section feature on the Fisher House in Arlington.Maribel Martinelli with her children Marco and Melissa on their front walk. (Susan Straight for The Washington Post)
By Susan Straight
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 31, 2008

When the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing renovated the Fisher House apartments last year, the developer took care to see that the property's lush old linden trees survived the construction.

"We had an arborist come in," said Nina Janopaul, the partnership's executive director. Dumpsters had been sitting on the trees' roots, and the organization wanted to make sure the lindens weren't damaged. "We had to give them special fertilizer," she added.

The magnificent trees look healthy now, towering over the four two-story red-brick buildings of Fisher House, which sit on the south side of Washington Boulevard about a half-mile east of the Westover Shopping Center.

The property, the partnership's first purchase, is named for former Arlington County Board chairman and congressman Joseph L. Fisher, who worked for affordable housing for Arlington County residents. It is an affordable rental community, meaning that residents who earn 60 percent or less of the Washington area's median income, which is $99,000 for a family of four, can qualify for the below-market-rate rents. One-bedroom units rent for $1,015 a month. Two-bedroom units cost as much as $1,206 a month, and three bedrooms as much as $1,374 a month.

In the Westover neighborhood, where homes sell for the upper six figures and more, the lower rent at Fisher House's 33 units gives an economic diversity to the neighborhood that it otherwise wouldn't have.

One resident, Prem Chand, said he has been making the dough at Mario's pizzeria on Wilson Boulevard for 30 years. He came to the D.C. area from India in the late 1970s. He shares a two-bedroom with his uncle and aunt and their two sons.

Chand uses public transportation to do errands and get to work. "I take the bus to the Metro" at Ballston, he said.

Other residents also get by without a car. Maribel Martinelli said her children can walk to their schools, just a few blocks away: Swanson Middle School and the preschool at the church at Washington Boulevard and Patrick Henry Drive.

There is also Westover Park, just a block south of the property. The park stretches four square blocks, from Interstate 66 to 11th Street North and from North Kentucky Street to North Kennebec. "We go to the park all the time, every afternoon," Martinelli said.

The property lies within the Westover historic district, which allowed the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to receive federal historic tax credits for the $9.4 million project, which it bought in 1991. Other funds included a $2.8 million low-income housing tax credit, $688,000 in federal historic tax credit equity, $775,000 in historic tax credits from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, a $2.7 million loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority and $795,000 from Arlington County.

All units were upgraded with energy-efficient appliances and heating and cooling systems, new fixtures, flooring and windows. In addition, about half of the units were increased in size with "bump-outs" on the back of the buildings. This allowed for more two-bedroom, two-bath units, as well as two three-bedroom units, to house more families.

Martinelli discovered the property through her father, who lived in the building next door. "The thing I like the best is the kitchen and the bright light in the apartment," she said.

She also praised the new bathroom, with its smooth white and Nantucket blue tiles. "The bathroom is gorgeous. When the children are difficult, I just love to take a bath," she said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company