Town hears case for apartments

The Washington Town Council Monday night (Nov. 12) postponed any action on a proposal to repurpose the Old Washington School as affordable housing, pending a market study by People, Inc., the community action organization that would buy the property from the Child Care & Learning Center (CCLC) to add up to nine apartments to the four existing units that front on Mount Salem Avenue.

“We think this a good idea,” People, Inc. lead architect Michael Rush told the council and the 30 citizens who attended the council’s monthly meeting – which was about two dozen more citizens than usual. “But we will only proceed with it if it’s something the town also wants to do.”

The old school, part of which CCLC converted to apartment units, has been largely empty for at least that long, its large central hall occasionally rented for special events. Rush told the council the organization would turn the site into an affordable-housing development for county residents.

The council’s hearing Monday was meant to allow members of the community, and the council (minus absent members Alice Butler and Patrick O’Connell) to ask questions and voice opinions on the proposal. Mayor John Sullivan repeatedly reminded the crowd that the council hadn’t reached a final decision and likely wouldn’t for months.

“This will not be the last hearing on the matter,” Sullivan assured those present.

Rush began the nearly three-hour talk by explaining that People, Inc. is a “mission-based community development agency.” It is a nonprofit organization with about 300 employees and specializes in community service.

According to Rush, who had agreed People, Inc. would conduct the market survey before the council voted to table the matter, the community organization is appealing to the council for a special-use permit for “adaptive repurposing of an existing structure.” The transfer of ownership from CCLC to People, Inc. is contingent on the issuance of the permit. Rush said People, Inc. has converted several structures into low-income housing in other areas of the state; its largest apartment block consists of 85 apartments and is located in Woodstock.

If issued, the permit would allow the installation of nine new apartments; they would be an as-yet-undetermined combination of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. The apartments would likely be available, Rush said, to anyone making less than half of the county’s area median income, which is $74,300. So potential tenants would need to make less than $37,150 annually to qualify for the housing, he said, though the exact qualifying threshold on who is eligible to rent is not set in stone.

“There’s not a lot of profit here,” Rush said. “But there is a lot of good.”

John Lesinski, speaking on behalf of CCLC, said CCLC sought out People, Inc. and that this potential arrangement with them was in “keeping with [previous owner William] Carrigan’s spirit.” Carrigan left the school property to CCLC, and his adjacent Avon Hall estate (also still empty) to the town.

When the floor was opened to public comment, Jennie Fitzhugh, of Old Hollow Road, asked if there was a need for such housing in Rappahannock County. According to County Administrator John McCarthy, the “demand [for affordable housing] is dramatic,” though he admitted most of the evidence for it is “opinion-driven and . . . anecdotal.”

Rush said even People, Inc. was unsure of the need, which is why they were willing to do a market study to determine, in concrete figures, whether there was a need for low- or middle-income housing. It would also determine whether the project was worth People, Inc.’s time; in essence, if not enough people needed or wanted it, the organization would likely spend its resources elsewhere.

Council member Daniel Spethmann agreed that a market study was a good idea, but expressed some concern about the upkeep of the building, and questioned how previous People, Inc. projects “fit” with the neighborhoods in which they’re located.

“We have to make sure this is consistent with the town’s direction,” Spethmann said.

Rush responded by saying that while People, Inc. is a nonprofit organization, they need to make money in order to continue running their various projects, and potential tenants would have to meet minimum- as well as maximum-income requirements.

“We’d be looking for people who work hard but don’t make as much money as other people,” Rush said. “People housed there [in the organization’s other projects] are all well-accepted by the community.”

Concerning the upkeep of the property, Rush stressed that such agencies as the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) would be carefully monitoring the building to ensure it’s well-maintained. There would also likely be a part-time property manager, though he said that its small size meant the position would never be full-time.

Spethmann also raised the issue of a potentially increased crime-rate, noting that increased populations usually result in a higher crime rate.

The town’s current population is 133.

Lesinski said he believed the town could use some growth. “Population growth isn’t always a bad thing,” he said.

Sullivan agreed with Spethmann, noting that he thought the main issue was the number of people potentially moving into these apartments, not the apartments themselves. (Though plans call for a maximum of nine new apartments, possible configurations could house anywhere from nine to 27 people.)

Several at the hearing, including McCarthy, noted that continued non-use of the building could turn it into a “drag . . . and an issue for the town.”

“This is almost as golden an opportunity as we’ll get,” McCarthy said. “The universal response I received [when looking into People, Inc.] is that they haven’t promised anything they couldn’t deliver . . . They will be there for the long haul.”

Council member Gary Schwartz also noted that the housing seemed to be a good fit.

“Based on the town’s comprehensive plan, this seems to be a good fit,” Schwartz said. “It’s a good use of [the school] and the zoning fits well, too.”

The council debated the idea of adding restrictions to the special-use permit to address possible issues like tenants parking in the street, and noise or light disturbances. Many questions were left unanswered at the end of the night – whether there’s truly a market in Rappahannock County for such housing, exactly who would be eligible to rent and how the old school’s immediate Mount Salem Avenue neighbors (who include the council’s newest member, Spethmann) feel about the project. By the end of the night, the council, the public and the applicant seemed to agree that there were still plenty of details to iron out.