Catholics for Housing Makes 'Decent Homes' Affordable

Christopher Johnston (pictured at right), executive director of Catholics for Housing, invites builders, bankers, plumbers and computer gurus to share their skills with CFH to alleviate the shortage of affordable housing in Northern Virginia. Johnston coordinates the 23-year-old non-profit’s efforts to provide a basic human need — a home — for low- and moderate-income families, the disabled and the elderly. In response to the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1975 Pastoral Letter, "The Right to a Decent Home," Father Gerry Creedon, current pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Arlington, led concerned laity in founding Catholics for Housing in 1979. CFH’s mission since then has been to "preserve, renew and expand the supply of decent, safe affordable housing in Northern Virginia." Johnston, who has served as executive director since January 2001, has come full-circle. As a graduate student, he worked as an intern with CFH under Father Creedon’s supervision. Johnston and program coordinator Bonnie Mampe run CFH from an office in Alexandria. Volunteer board members serve on a site development committee, write a column for the CFH newsletter, resolve zoning issues or arrange financing for projects. "The only way we get anything done is together," said Johnston, who is looking to form a CFH advisory board. "One of the goals of CFH is to become the technical and educational resource for affordable housing in the diocese," he said. Calling it CFH’s first success story, Johnston holds up Briarcliff, a multifamily rental project near Vienna that provides homes for 30 individuals and families of limited income. CFH has been a managing partner of Briarcliff since its construction almost 20 years ago. Since the 1990s, major renovations have taken place, including replacement of the roof, exterior siding, refrigerators and exterior doors and the installation of privacy fences and two new playgrounds. In an effort to provide a computer learning center at the Briarcliff project, tenant Tom Vaught is working out a partnership with the Christian Assembly Church next door, which has the room for the center and would like a computer learning center for their elementary school students. Fairfax County Office of Human Services donated 19 Dell computers toward the project. This is just one way of working creatively to meet needs of low-income people, Johnston said. Briarcliff town homes will continue as a source of affordable housing for years to come thanks to CFH efforts. For two years, CFH board members and staff worked to find a partner to buy the property whose HUD Housing Assistance contract was to expire in September 2001. Without a new partner, chances were this prime Tysons Corner area real estate would have been sold, buildings razed and a new, high-priced development built in its place, Johnston said. The partner CFH found, National Housing Trust/Enterprise Preservation Co., whose work is the acquisition and preservation of affordable housing, agreed to form a new non-profit corporation, Briarcliff LLC. NHT is now 51 percent owner and CFH a 49 percent owner in Briarcliff. A recent picnic, attended by local politicians, celebrated Briarcliff’s rededication and the safeguarding of this affordable housing. Johnston pointed out the importance of a home in creating productive citizens and yet noted how difficult it is for low-income families to afford the average $1,000 a month rent for a one-bedroom apartment and the added burden of a security deposit. Through the Edie Streett Security Grant Program, CFH provides a one-time security deposit grant of $200 to help qualified households make the move from homelessness or transitional housing to stable, affordable housing. Private donors fund the grants. When tenants move on to other housing, the security deposit is returned to CFH for another family’s use. CFH president and board member Bob Sheehan, who has worked in the building industry for more than 40 years, says that government has to get more involved in funding for affordable housing. Johnston welcomes any parish interested in providing financial support for the Edie Streett Program or other CFH projects. CFH is always looking for contributions of time also, whether they are confirmation students working on service projects or builders and bankers willing to serve on CFH’s advisory board. "I’d be glad to show them what we do," Johnston said. While Johnston discussed CFH, he received two phone inquiries about housing and had to tell each that client referrals must come from a county human services agency or parish social ministry before CFH can act. One example of creative cooperation is the Southbridge development in Prince William County. The Drees Co., a builder, had a few dozen lots left to sell at the end of a planned community construction project. Drees decided to sell the last 33 town homes to CFH. On the outside, these town homes looked like all the others Drees had constructed, but inside, vinyl, carpeting and cabinetry were downgraded to lower the cost to $107,000 per home. This allowed Drees to wrap up their project and for CFH to have affordable town homes to offer prospective homeowners. "We would love to be able to replicate that again and again," Johnston said. A project in the conceptual stage, Johnston said, is the development of more than 14 acres in Bristow. CFH "placed a purchase contract" on the land, which is owned by the Benedictine Sisters. Johnston hopes that CFH can close on that property by January. "We intend to put a development of homes there that will be a lot like Southbridge … a combination of single family and town homes," Johnston said. Profits from the single family homes will subsidize the town homes, he said. Other CFH successes have included Hatfield Square, a Centreville town home owned and maintained by CFH to provide transitional housing for homeless families, and Castellani Meadows, 24 Centreville town homes leased to moderate-income households. Johnston says it is possible to provide affordable housing even in the current tight housing market where land prices can be shocking. It is just a matter of being creative. "The need goes on," Johnston said. For information on Catholics for Housing, contact Christopher Johnston at 703/931-5075. 

Copyright ?2002 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2002