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Keeping apartments affordable
County Board aims to help Buchanan Gardens residents remain in their homes

By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

As tall cranes line Columbia Pike and development plans offer the Arlington County neighborhood a new future, lawmakers, developers and nonprofit groups agree that the ability of Buchanan Gardens residents to remain in the area is at risk. They are the face of affordable housing, and they are the people who history shows are the first to be bought out when attractive buildings and shops are ushered in.

The Arlington County Board voted Nov. 14 to protect some of these residents. In a unanimous decision, the board approved a $7.1 million loan to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing for the purchase of Buchanan Gardens. As part of the deal, APAH, a nonprofit group, pledged to keep 66 of the complex's 111 units affordable for the next 60 years.

"This is a rare opportunity for the county to help preserve and improve affordable housing suitable for families close to Columbia Pike," said County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D). "The county's investment in Buchanan Gardens underscores its commitment to aggressively seeking opportunities to preserve affordable housing as development pressures intensify."

More than 90 percent of housing around Columbia Pike is considered affordable. Development plans for the area could change that in a few years. To brace for the change, board members have begun strategizing how to keep the area's diverse population intact. The money for the loan came from the county's Affordable Housing Investment Fund.

Favola said she hopes to see not only the preservation but also the improvement of affordable housing along the pike. "I have consistently asked staff to talk to building owners and explain to them opportunities for investing in properties," she said. "The last thing I want is market-affordable housing to be bought by developers and made into luxury apartments. Affordable housing doesn't mean old, run-down buildings. It can mean a family-friendly building."

Nina Janopaul, president and chief executive of APAH, said her organization plans to renovate Buchanan Gardens. The buildings, at 914-934 S. Buchanan St., date to 1949 and need repairs for major code violations and safety hazards, county officials said. Monthly rents range from $835 to $1,395.

Janopaul said her organization plans to add bedrooms to some of the units and make some accessible to people with disabilities. Once complete, she said, the renovated apartment complex will include 55 one-bedroom apartments, 49 two-bedroom units and seven three-bedroom units. Janopaul said APAH also plans to create a building office as well as a community space, which will include a playground.

"Our fear is that properties like this are more likely to be torn down," she said. "We don't want to lose the character of the neighborhood."

Despite these plans, about 6,500 apartments along Columbia Pike or nearby remain at risk of becoming unaffordable. The market determines the rent in these apartments.

Favola said she hopes to see more developments become committed to affordable housing initiatives but understands the challenges that the future holds.

"It's going to be a struggle," she said.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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