Not to put too fine a point on it, but no one on the Washington Town Council wanted to put too fine a point Monday night on why the town has not embraced a proposal by the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC) to sell its building to the community-action organization People Inc. – which would add nine low- to moderate-income apartments to the eight market-priced units CCLC now maintains at the Old Washington School on Mount Salem Avenue.
The council found itself hosting a post-public-hearing public hearing Monday night (Dec. 11) at town hall, the often-empty pews at its regular monthly meetings filled – as they were at last month’s official public hearing – by some two dozen citizens. Most of them were clearly supporters of CCLC’s plan, though only a handful spoke.
And only about five of them were residents of the town of Washington.
The official reason the CCLC/People Inc. plan was on the council’s agenda was to hear the results of the market study People Inc. promised to conduct after last month’s session. The results were delivered in front of the council members by Rob Goldsmith, director of the Southwest Virginia-based organization for the last 30 years.
The study, based on U.S. Census data, showed a clear market for such apartments, which Goldsmith estimated would rent for $470 (one bedroom) to $820 (three bedrooms) a month. (The current eight one- and two-bedroom units at the school rent for $650 to $750 a month.) Goldsmith said the preliminary study was conducted by a research firm that People Inc. believes is reliable.
“These results are not just a wild guess – I’m not a betting man,” as Goldsmith put it.
Goldsmith said the current plan is to restrict household income to $26,000 for a one-bedroom unit and $33,350 for a three-bedroom. The more low-income units People Inc. proposes to offer, the greater the chances that it wins the Virginia Housing Authority tax credits it needs to start the project, as well as subsequent loans from Virginia Housing and Community Development and Virginia Housing and Development Authority programs.
“The survey looks to me that there are enough households eligible that we should be able to rent the units quickly, and keep them filled,” said Goldsmith, who also discussed the organization’s other housing projects in Toms Brook and in the Shenandoah Valley, and the “extensive” vetting that prospective tenants must undergo.
Mayor John Sullivan and several others asked Goldsmith questions about People Inc.’s track record and how it deals with those who illegally sublet or take on boarders.
“We try and stay on top of that kind of thing,” he said. “I’d say we are successful in running the kind of facilities that the community is happy with. The only way we feel we can be successful is if the neighbors feel this sort of project adds to the value of their properties – and we manage our properties in a way that the people already there, our neighbors, feel it should be done.”
Council member Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor of the town and county’s biggest visitor attraction, the Inn at Little Washington, said that a project of this magnitude (the apartments could add 25 residents to a street that now hosts 15 single-family-home residents and about eight apartment dwellers) could “add a certain . . . weight to the image of the town.”
The town, O’Connell said, has become more and more conscious of its historic image, and its “primitive but well-preserved beauty. And we like it as it is, and we are working hard to keep it from looking like other places.” He said any visuals Goldsmith could provide of the organization’s other projects “might be very much a help to your cause.”
Shortly after questions were opened to the public, O’Connell apologized quietly and left to attend to a pressing matter at the Inn, leaving Sullivan and council members Mary Ann Kuhn and Dan Spethmann. Absent were council members Alice Butler, Jerry Goebel and Gary Schwartz.
“Are there any other ways the property could be used?” asked Alice Catlin, one of the town’s newest residents, who lives across the street from the Washington School property.
“We care very much what happens to the property,” Sullivan said. “One of the good things about this process, separate from whether [this proposal] is a good or bad thing, is that it’s forcing everyone to think. If the town chooses to not be supportive of this particular idea, there’s an obligation for many of us to figure out how to solve the problem.”
“The town’s comprehensive plan says you encourage low-income housing,” said Hal Hunter, a longtime community organizer who founded the Rappahannock Food Pantry, which is next door to the Washington School and serves hundreds of low-income county residents. “If not here, where?”
Hunter, who lives in Amissville, said he remembers more than 30 years back when he and his wife arrived in Rappahannock on the same wave as the “hippie community,” some of whom he said wanted to build a commune next to his property.
“And now many of those same people are pillars of our community.”
“People who live in the town also live in the county,” said Bill Dietel, who (“full disclosure”) was chairman of the CCLC board when the school decided to convert the old school into apartments a decade ago. “The comprehensive plan of this county says that development should occur in the towns and villages. It seems we’re overlooking that this organization is not-for-profit – anyone should know that this organization is not here to make a fortune off the town or the county.”
Dietel said he detected an “undertow” in the town’s consideration of the proposal “that some of these people who would live in these apartments are undesirable.” Dietel said a better way to think about such a project would be as one of many ways needed to “keep young people from leaving this county.”
There are mixed views on the plan among Mount Salem’s residents, Sullivan said later. “There are some who are extremely concerned and don’t like the idea, and there’s some who are kind of concerned, but just know it’s a big deal one way or another. I don’t know if there’s anyone I would call ‘strongly in favor of it.’ ”
At the end of the meeting, Spethmann (who lives two doors down from the school on Mount Salem Avenue) said nothing further about the proposal, but did praise Dietel’s speech. “I want to be able to speak like Bill Dietel when I grow up,” he said.
People laughed. “So do we all,” someone said.
“Basically,” Spethman said by phone Wednesday, “my concern is not so much with the prospect of diversity and affordable housing. My concern is that there’s a host of issues in this transitional neighborhood – when you look at the abandoned house next door, the abandoned city property behind [Avon Hall], the Black Kettle [a long-defunct motel behind Avon Hall] and the urgency with which this is being pushed, as opposed to being viewed in the context of the whole . . . that’s my biggest problem.”
“To be faced with one alternative that has to be decided on in 30 days, and the highest bidder takes all – and we have some real concerns for the town,” Spethmann said. “Is it good or is it bad? It’s difficult to say. Is it risky? Not for those guys, but it might be for the town.”
“Everybody’s hearts are really in the right place,” Spethmann said. “But one person talks about housing and they hold an image in their head. For Bill Dietel, it’s a young scholar. Betsy Dietel has talked to me, and her vision is . . . her son. Somebody else might see . . . cars up on blocks.
“It will test our ability as a group, to see how we are able to solve the larger problems,” he said.
During the council meeting, Kuhn read aloud a letter from Harris Hollow Road resident Judy DeSarno, who addressed the letter to all the council members:
“A question was posited at the last meeting of ‘What kind of town we want this to be?’ Frankly, the question troubled me because it seemed to have racial, and more important, class overtones. But perhaps it is the correct question. Do we want a town that welcomes and respects the low income earners of the county? Those who serve us in many ways from school bus drivers, to town or county clerks, to housekeepers at the various B&Bs and in our own homes, to single people . . . now living solely on Social Security? Many of the people who have been here a long time and have helped build and maintain our community? . . . I come down with a resounding yes!”
“A further assumption seems to be made that ‘those people’ will not add to the life of the town. Who makes that judgement? Low income does not preclude work in our churches, or helping to maintain the garden at the Food Bank, to name a few examples where everyone pitches in. More people add to the vibrancy of the town.”
Sullivan said the council could make a decision on the special-use permit at its meeting in January, though that’s not certain; People Inc. would need the permit approval in hand sometime before its March deadline to apply for tax credits.