The Legion of Room: Hope and Housing in Arlington, Virginia
Rising above the neo-modern concrete jungle of urban Arlington County, just outside the nation’s capital, sits a larger-than-life American flag mural two stories high on American Legion Post 139’s back wall, facing out to Washington Boulevard.
Here under Old Glory is where the Legion and the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH) are joining forces and setting an example for cities around the country as they contend with the ongoing national housing affordability crisis. APAH is partnering with the Legion in a win-win deal under which APAH is purchasing the Legion’s incredibly valuable land for use in the creation of new affordable housing and in exchange, APAH will update and expand what had become an outdated and little-used post.
The deal centers on APAH’s plans to build 160 units of affordable housing specifically targeting veterans and their families, as well as expanding and upgrading the Legion’s post and incorporating it on the first floor of the new project.
“We have been in the community for about 30 years now,” says Nina Janopaul, CEO of APAH. “Like many housing non-profits, we were founded as a faith commitment by people in the local community.”
Since 1989, APAH has been working to build and manage apartments that are affordable in the D.C. metro area, one of the tightest housing markets in America. It develops affordable properties as a non-profit, and work with a for-profit company to manage the units. It currently serves more than 3,000 individuals in the area across 16 properties.
It’s Janopaul’s hope that the Legion site will provide a seventeenth, this one specifically dedicated to housing veterans.
“We have really found a great partner in Arlington County,” Janopaul said, “From rezoning for more density to mortgage financing, we have a really supportive community from our elected officials right on down.”
That good relationship, driven by APAH’s mission and their partnerships, is now leveraged again in their efforts to help northern Virginia veterans. They provide a great example of how other cities can help build more rental housing amid a national crunch on apartment supply.
Surgical Precision on Vets Services
“We have a wonderful interior designer; she’s a veteran herself,” said Janopaul, “She’s helping us think through what would be especially attractive to that population. We’re working on things like a fitness center, entertainment programming for vets and their families, George Mason’s Law School is even partnering with the Legion on a program for providing legal aid to veterans. It’s all pretty exciting.”
APAH’s partnerships focus uniquely on a holistic, whole-health model when planning new affordable communities. “Suburban affordable housing groups often focus on school enrichment programs to help close achievement gaps between higher and lower income youth,” said Janopaul, who has been directing projects like this for years. “Inner-city affordable housing groups in many cases focus more on parents, family stability and workforce development, as well. That’s great, too. Our focus, in contrast, is more on health, wellness and the social determinants of health in our residents. Lower-income people face a range of heightened risks of health challenges, so we are organized to help enrich the whole lives of our residents, not just their housing situation.”
Janopaul is hopeful that these efforts can be replicated elsewhere. Partnerships between affordable housing associations like APAH and local civic organizations like the American Legion, the Moose Club, Kiwanis, the Lions Club and others offer a unique combination of opportunities.
Groups like these, which are historical staples in many if not most areas of the country, are experiencing ebbing membership numbers and are faced with daunting infrastructure maintenance needs. While they are challenged to find the resources to maintain their various meeting places, those same buildings are becoming extremely valuable purely for their locations.
“Some of these groups find themselves with an aging membership, a declining attendance and the central question of how they could remain relevant resources in their communities. I think the Legion model could be a great idea for them,” said Janopaul, “I can’t tell you the number of people who I meet that say, ‘My father was in an AL post!’.”
Not Just Here, Everywhere
Being able to serve the northern Virginia veterans’ population is just as important to APAH as it is to the American Legion, which was founded in 1919, and boasts a membership near 2 million, divided into over 12,000 posts nationwide.
“Virginia is one of the first states to effectively eliminate veteran homelessness; now that means that every veteran identified as homeless has been offered housing, not that they have it,” said Janopaul. “There’s a parallel problem emerging within the housing crisis with our vets. Many of them are disabled, they’re under-credentialed and they’re not finding the employment that will allow them to get by, especially in high-income places like Arlington, and they can fall through the cracks.
“This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality around the issues they face was driving veterans out of the area. That’s a big focus in all of our efforts, not just this one; to think about not just who’s in the community today who needs affordable housing, but to think about those who may not even be invited to the table yet.”
From their partnership with local businesses, community groups and governments to their keen eye toward underserved communities and housing affordability, APAH’s model provides valuable proof-of-concept not just in the affluent avenues of Arlington, but something that could be widely and effectively deployed.
Early in 2020, APAH will begin building those bridges to veterans in the community by tearing down the current Legion post, and they plan to begin accepting applicants on a first-come-basis in summer 2022.
And about that impressive flag mural? The Legion will be contacting the original artist with plans to paint a new one onsite. So if you’re driving through Arlington in 2022, keep an eye out for that big, beautiful star-spangled banner.