Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Board OKs BV3 Affordable Housing Plan

Last night the county board OKed a plan to keep 92 rental units of Buckingham Village 3 affordable for the next 75 years, possibly longer, while creating a condominium of 48 units for sale, and resale, at below-market prices for the same period.

Jay Fissette (Click to enlarge the image.)

The meeting of the five grew mildly tense at times, when county board member Chris Zimmerman attempted to understand if the rental units and the condo units could be readied for occupancy at the same time, and board Vice Chair Jay Fissette quizzed county staff about the lack of detail concerning geothermal heat pumps as a possible green alternative heat source for the redevelopment.

In the end, the board unanimously approved the affordable housing plan—something never really in question—but will hear more about the geothermal plan during their July meeting.

This allows Telesis Corp. and National Housing Trust, the new owners (with others) of the Village 3 complex, to get their financial ducks in a row for the August 5 opening of the Virginia tax credits competition.

(Click to enlarge the image.)

The affordability of these units works best if certain federal and state tax credits are received. There is a finite amount of money in the Virginia tax credit hopper, which is doled out starting August 5, so it helps to be the first in line.

On the rental side, the county has paid about $14.9 million for the purchase of the land and will receive about $10 million back during the long-term lease with Telesis. That leaves about $4 million of county financing in the project, or about $110,000 per rental unit, reported David Cristeal, a lead county planner in the project. He said that the cost to the county for the condominium would be nearly $7 million or about $143,000 per unit. The county may receive some of this money back as the units are sold.

He said last night’s decision required the board to vote so that the company would “sufficient time to meet the time frame of early August.”

(Click to enlarge the image.)

Only one of the 10, or so, civilian speakers last night was negative. Long-time county activist Jim Hurysz wondered if the price tag of $110,000 per unit was too expensive.

“Are there better options [to purchase affordable housing] like buying old duplexes” or small apartment buildings at $50,000 per unit, he wondered aloud. He did not give an example of where or how many of those might exist in the county.

In the past, county board and staff have said they liked the idea of saving so much affordable housing all at once, in Buckingham, and of saving the community itself, allowing as many people as possible to remain in the neighborhood while renovation and redevelopment takes place.

If all goes as planned, renovation of the units—all 140 in Village 3 will be renovated—begins next spring.

Mr. Zimmerman focused on making sure the rental units and condo sales happen together since that would mean the least disruption for people who want to buy but are currently renting in Village 3. He said that developing the home ownership segment while maintaining the community is a large point of this project. If the county and Telesis get the home ownership segment moving, but the people in the neighborhood who might have bought have already left, then what is the point, he wondered.

Many of the exact details of how the home ownership would work are still to be worked out.

Mr. Cristeal said that there were site plan concerns with the condo and parking concerns along with setting up the purchasing assistance program for the potential buyers. As well, the county has to sell the section of the property that the condo will own.

“We ought to be able to expedite those,” especially the site plan and housing assistance processes, given that they are under county control, Mr. Zimmerman said.

But then there’s the problem of phased redevelopment—how does Telesis keep people in some units on the property while renovating others?

Perhaps they don’t, Mr. Zimmerman said, offering that they could move people to apartments elsewhere in Buckingham. That has happened during the renovation of The Gates of Ballston and Historic Ballston Park. Now, Buckingham Village 1 has the new Madison at Ballston Station with units that rent at affordable rates.

“One of the obstacles to getting the timing of the ownership units on line with the rental units…was the difficulty of trying to maintain people on site,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Aimee McHale of the National Housing Trust, explained, “There’s an astronomical cost with relocating people off-site. We should have said that up front.” They plan to renovate one or two buildings at a time and shuffle people around on the property as they do so.

Mr. Zimmerman wondered if perhaps some fraction could move off-site if that meant the condo renovation would keep pace with the rentals.

Scott Kline (Click to enlarge the image.)

“We will look at that. Clearly we have a lot to do with respect to phasing. We’ve been focused on the housing program so that we can be ready for the 9 percent tax-credit application that’s due on August fifth,” said Scott Kline, vice president of the National Housing Trust. “We do have a lot more work to refine our renovation plan.”

When board Vice Chair Jay Fissette had his opportunity he wondered why the plans for the use of geothermal heat pumps were conflicting and inspecific.

“[W]hen I read this, I get really mixed messages from the memo,” he said. The use of the pumps which use naturally-occurring heat deep in the earth to heat the apartments would require Historical Affairs and Landmarks Review Board approval, and might interfere with old-growth trees which might have to be removed, and the initial installation is expensive.

But the use of the heat-pumps might still be worth it if it meant that the people who lived in the units would have much lower utilities bills long into the future, Mr. Fissette said.

“We can’t always being thinking about affordable housing without thinking about the context of affordable living,” Mr. Fissette said. He couched his argument for the geothermal heat pump in the idea that people should only be encouraged to buy and rent units if they can also afford to live there long-term. Lowering utilities bills would help that, he said.

In the end, he was willing to draft the motion to approve the affordable housing program while asking for more information about the geothermal program at next month’s meeting.

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I have claimed in the past, publically, that the County Board/HALRB use the historic process as a tool to push a specific agenda and that they can't have their cake and eat it too. Mr. Zimmerman directly responded to my comment saying I was wrong. But here we are again. The County is considering putting in geothermal heat pumps because it would be good for the apartments. But the County would need the HALRB to approve installing heat pumps on the historic property and it could/would result in the cutting down of beautiful, old-growth trees many of us cherish in Buckingham. Let me clarify, "historic" property that was so important to save and designate as such but now the County wants to renovate the buildings and cut down the trees. Let's just assume the HALRB approves it. (I'm actually willing to bet money on this for anyone interested...) After the HALRB approves this, how can they explain to me why they shot down the developer planning new buildings at the unappealing intersection of N Pershing and N Glebe Rd. I think some comments were that the new buildings didn't look "Buckingham enough." Let me guess, geothermal heat pumps are very Buckingham 2010.

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