A leak from the kitchen imperils a room where card players and potential pool sharks still occasionally congregate. The concrete-block walls exhale seven decades of cigar and cigarette smoke. The basement bar, built to accommodate more than two dozen, is never full — “On a good day, I might have five or six customers,” bartender Doris McNeil said.
So the Legion’s board decided it was time to sell the building, located on 1.4 grassy acres close to George Mason University in Arlington, Va. Developers pitched high-end, high-rise condos and housing for law students at nearby George Mason University.
But the old soldiers, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen decided to sell to a local affordable housing agency, drawn to the possibility of a modernized Legion post that will be built as part of the project and of providing much-needed apartments for struggling vets.
It is an approach much like the one taken by religious organizations in the past dozen years to convert under-used space into low-cost housing in return for a new, smaller worship space and the moral satisfaction that they are living their faith.
The sale of American Legion Post 139, however — which will result in 160 new apartments, half set aside for military veterans — may be the first collaboration between a veterans organization and an affordable housing agency, experts say.
“I have not come across a similar project,” said Deborah Burkart, who is on the board of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and founded the national “Bring them HOMES” initiative. Given the thousands of such facilities nationwide, she said, “This could be an example others follow.”
The Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing paid about $6 million for the Legion post’s site along Washington Boulevard. It plans to replace the building with a seven-story structure, using $3 million it still has to raise from donors, a $20.5 million mortgage from the state, almost $10 million from the county’s revolving affordable housing loan funds and an expected $34 million in tax credits. The total cost of the project is expected to reach $72 million by the time it opens in 2020.
The Legion post will create a new headquarters on the first floor. In an effort to draw in younger veterans, the post will include computer labs and rooms for counseling and medical screening. The bar will be drastically downsized. Smoking will be banned.
The set-aside apartments could benefit veterans like Cyndi Bendt, 68, who left the Army as a lieutenant in 1978 and found herself homeless in Northern Virginia decades later, after years of teaching and counseling on Indian reservations in New Mexico and Arizona.
She mostly lived in her truck, until the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network found her an apartment in an APAH complex in 2015.
“I was thrilled there were three locks — one on the main door and two on my apartment door — because I had not felt safe for some time,” Bendt said in a recent interview. “To have a toilet that flushes and a hot-water shower? And then they brought me a new, queen-size bed! All I could say was thank you, God.”
An estimated 400 veterans in the region are homeless, Veterans Data Central reports say.
Legion officials say there is also a significant need for housing for vets who get out of the service and discover their civilian salaries are inadequate for paying rent in the high-cost Washington area.
In addition, currently enlisted personnel based at Arlington’s own Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, many of whom now commute long distances to find affordable neighborhoods, will qualify for the new apartments if they have served a minimum number of years, APAH chief executive Nina Janopaul said.
Finding land to build affordable residential complexes, even with significant taxpayer help, is extremely difficult in expensive urban areas. That is why the trend of churches, synagogues and other faith-based groups working with affordable housing developers has become so important.
About 30 houses of worship in the Mid-Atlantic region are working with Enterprise Community Partners, which helps finance and plan affordable housing, company Vice President David Bowers said. Civic groups like the American Legion, which has 222 posts in Virginia alone, could be a similar source of land, he said.
After Bob Romano was installed as commander of Post 139 in 2014, his wife told him she would never go back into that building again.
“The downstairs is still a smoke-filled, raunchy, smelly place,” Romano said. “Our membership is very old. . . . When I looked at the budget, I said, ‘In five years, we’re not going to be here.’ ”
Of the 300 people on the membership rolls, half do not live in the area anymore, post leaders say. A dance group rents the upstairs ballroom each night. The commercial kitchen is rented to a lobster truck entrepreneur.
It was festive and cheery on Veterans Day, as several dozen vets and their families gathered to eat and listen to the “Arlingtones” barbershop chorus sing World War I-era songs.
“I’m not sentimental about this building, probably because I don’t spend much time here,” said Gary Wagner, who comes to the post once or twice a year.
Roger O’Dell, 82, who had lunch and a beer with his friend Jim Sheehan, 75, declared the affordable housing project “a great idea. I’m all for it.”
“This post is about dead,” he said. “Downstairs is depressing, dirty and dark, full of old guys like me.”
The time for a large Legion post had passed, he and others at the long buffet tables agreed, especially because young veterans have either opted not to join or formed their own service-specific groups.
“All the posts are losing members,” said Leroy Nance, historian of Dorie Miller American Legion Post 194, which has seen membership fall from 85 to 50. The post, named for an African American war hero, meets at a community center in South Arlington and is exploring whether to rent space from Post 139 once the new complex is built.
Ben Sims, 94, sat at a table wearing his American Legion campaign cap. He said he believes he is Post 139’s last living World War II veteran. When the current building went up in the early 1950s, Sims was on the post’s board.
It was a different world back then, he said, and everyone had to make their own entertainment.
“We had Christmas parties and one big fellow who played Santa Claus,” he recalled. “The ladies’ auxiliary would wrap up presents, and we’d always have a big feed.”
For him, the idea of a new building evokes mixed emotions.
“I feel like the World War I veterans, who didn’t understand when we went to build this,” he said. “We didn’t need their guidance; we were busting out of the old place. We were real proud of this place . . . but I’m sure [the current board members] are doing what they think we should do.”
Earlier versions of this article misspelled the last name of Deborah Burkart. The article has been corrected.