Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dreams of Homeownership Run Deep

Juan Bonilla has lived in the same one-bedroom Buckingham Village apartment on N. 4th Street for 10 years with his wife, the past four years with their children. After months of attending meetings to save affordable housing and the neighborhood of people who come with it, he is wondering if he will be able to buy one of the two- or three-bedroom apartments in the condominium that will be created on the Village 3 property.

Juan Bonilla and his wife Maria Sanchez hope to buy a three-bedroom apartment in a Buckingham Village 3 condominium. They rent a one-bedroom apartment with heir children Eugenia, 4, and Joana, 10 months. (Click to enlarge the image.)

Right now, the rules say no.

Mr. Bonilla is a “rod-man” for the Miller-Long construction company, helping place the steel reinforcement bar in the huge columns that keep high-rises vertical. In that job, he makes about $25 per hour, up near $50,000 a year. And that’s just not enough according to the current rules that county staff, Telesis Corporation, and that company’s management partners are considering for home ownership in the condominium.

The current rules say that the total income of residents in the unit must be 60 to 80 percent of the Area Median Income. The AMI is set by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. Mr. Bonilla would need to make about $61,000 a year to qualify.

Still, there is some hope.

The county board OKed an affordable housing program for Buckingham Village 3 at its meeting Tuesday night. It opens the process of creating a 48-unit condominium in five buildings along N. Pershing Drive between N. George Mason Drive and N. Thomas Street. However, the board left open many of the details of what the condominium finances would look like and who would be able to buy.

“I think I can qualify,” Mr. Bonilla said from a chair in his living room one recent afternoon. He said he has a high credit rating and savings. Plus, the rules dictate the total household income, not one person’s. Perhaps a relative of his would be interested in sharing the mortgage and sleeping in one of the rooms.

His daughters are growing older. Joana is 10 months (and already walking), and Eugenia will turn five in October and will go to the pre-school program at K.W. Barrett Elementary School this fall. It might take a couple years before the units are ready for sale.

“We don’t know when this is coming, so my wife could work too,” in time to qualify, he said. His wife, Maria Sanchez, has been staying home with their children.

Lois Athey and others at the county board meeting urged the board to consider lowering the standard for owner-qualifications. She is a long-time representative of BU-GATA, a tenants’ association in the neighborhood.

“Some of these people will qualify with good credit scores and savings…you’d be surprised,” she told the board.

Mr. Bonilla addressed the county board, saying, "I ask that you approve this program so that we can stay in Arlington." (Click to enlarge the image.)

The question of what income level to serve was discussed at length in the Buckingham Village 3 Working Group, a group set up at the direction of Ron Carlee, the county manager. It is a group of all the stakeholders involved including Telesis Corporation (the new owners of the Village 3 complex), tenants, county staff and others.

“We didn’t come to a complete consensus” on that issue, said Reshma Holla, an assistant project manager with Telesis. Her company will develop and manage the property with the National Housing Trust and other partners.

County staff, she said, got nervous at the level of subsidy when the income level dropped. Currently, the county subsidy is expected to be about $140,000 per unit. If the subsidy has to increase in order to help people at the lower income level, the price rises to about $200,000, she said.

“Ultimately that means we’d be asking for more county subsidy,” she said, adding that county staff just wasn’t comfortable with that number.

It is not just the subsidy but the idea that this level of help has not been done in the county for homeownership before.

“The 60 to 80 percent [of AMI] is consistent with what we’ve done elsewhere,” said David Cristeal, a lead county planner on the project. It is a “nuanced answer” but the county has to be careful to avoid a precedent it cannot keep.

But there still is the possibility that the 50 percent AMI level can be reached, Ms. Holla said.

“The goal is we’d still like to reach that lower income level,” she said. They will be looking to other sources, maybe private sources, for the money.

At the board meeting Tuesday night, Jose Castellon, an 18-year Village 3 resident, told the board to put the emphasis on “a variety of income ranges.”

After the meeting he said, “I’m happy” that the board passed the affordable housing plan. But he still hopes to be able to buy.

“I got good credit,” he said, adding later, “I don’t want to go away.”

He has two children who will be in high school next year. “I don’t want to pull my kids out of school.”

In Mr. Bonilla’s living room, he said he likes the access to Metro, the Glebe Market, the good schools.

“I like the neighborhood. It’s a very good neighborhood,” he said. If he can’t buy, he said he would not move away, but would most likely rent a two-bedroom unit. His daughters can share a room.

“They’re two girls, they can live in one bedroom,” he said.

But would he resent not being able to buy, despite his work on the Buckingham Village 3 working group?

“I wouldn’t be disillusioned because someone from my community would be getting the benefits,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Lois Athey, a long-time activist with BU-GATA, the tenants’ association in the neighborhood, translated the interview with Mr. Bonilla in his living room. --ST

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