‘The Goodwyn at Union Hill’ hopes to redefine affordable housing in Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. — A historic Union Hill community center is one of five buildings being transformed into Richmond’s latest affordable housing unit. The Goodwyn at Union Hill is a Better Housing Coalition (BHC) project intended to bring affordable housing into the city.

But while rent at The Goodwyn is about 65 percent less than the average rent in Church Hill, the BHC has ensured that aesthetics and quality were not sacrificed for affordability.

A new kind of affordable housing  

Spanning the block of Venable Street between Mosby Court and 25th Street, the Goodwyn is compromised of five buildings including a historic former community center known as “The House of Happiness.”

The building, previously used primarily by church groups as a meeting space, was vacant for more than 20 years before being purchased by the BHC.. “We’ve had our eyes on it for a while and a lot of people had looked at it, it’s an attractive building,” Stacie Birchett, Director of Communications for the BHC, said.

The large brick buildings hold a total of 52 units comprised of a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartment – each building complete with front porches, secured access, and a community room.

Director of multi-family real estate John Bolton said  that with The Goodwyn, the BHC tried to challenge the traditional look of their previous developments.

“A lot of the apartments we make are more ‘garden variety’ with standard fixtures, but for this one, we wanted a more modern, sleeker look than what we would typically have,” Bolton said.

Stainless steel ceiling fans, large closets, solid-core doors, granite counter tops and islands, and wall-spanning windows contribute to The Goodwyn’s hyper-modern feel.

The complex boasts on-site parking, a nearby GRTC bus access, and a community room that includes a kitchen, TVs, couches, tables, and chairs and is adjacent to an in-house leasing office.

“We try as hard as we can to make sure that there is public transportation near our developments,” Birchett said.

Birchett said that through creating affordable housing, the BHC hoped to enable residents to become more economically stable.

“Housing is a major part of it, once you don’t have to worry about ‘how can I pay the rent every month?’ you can focus on other things like getting a better job,” she explained.

Residents of The Goodwyn will have access to the BHC’s network of programs intended to help develop skills for economic success.

“For our adult residents we have an eight-week workforce development program that they enroll in, and it’s free for them,” Birchett explained.  “And we’ve had great success with them taking the classes and learning soft skills like how to beef up their resumes, or dress for an interview.”

According to Birchett, a bulk of the work is centered around confidence building and showing residents that they have transferable skills that can be applied to a multitude of jobs.

The funding

John Bolton said that while the development is —  in part — a typical example of what the BHC does, developers worked to create units that felt more like luxury apartments than what one might envision when they hear the phrase “affordable housing.”

“It’s a project where we come in on an infill, in an urban area, that’s generally what the BHC has done over the years,” Bolton said.

BHC projects are able to offer reduced rent through a 1986 incentive called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).

Back in the 1980s, the credit was developed to encourage the development of affordable housing through the construction of new housing units, or the rehabilitation of existing ones.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program gives nearly $8 billion a year to state and local agencies that can then allocate tax credits to competing private developers in order to develop low-income housing.

In Virginia, the Virginia Housing Development Authority is the primary funding source for nonprofits like the BHC.

“On a normal market-rate deal, you may have 60 to 70 percent in a loan and the rest of it in investor equity – but a tax credit deal is basically the opposite,” Bolton said. “We’ve got maybe 30-35 percent in a loan and the rest in equity, so the tax credit program allows us to have lower debt which then let us lower our rents.”

As explained by Bolton, the quality of LIHTC projects is “on par and sometimes better than what you might find in a market rate development.”

“We certainly don’t go down on our standards of quality,” Bolton said. “The tax credits are just used for their ability to reduce rents.”

Average rent across the board at The Goodwyn is about $850, or 89 cents per square foot, according to Bolton.

“When you compare it to the greater Church Hill neighborhood, the data for the first half of the year showed that average rent in Church Hill averaged out to about $1.27 per square foot,” Bolton said. ” and if you go downtown and it’s a little over $1.50 per square foot.”

Affordable housing as nationally defined by HUD  means housing for which the occupants are paying no more than 30 percent of his or her income for gross housing costs, including utilities

Birchett said that BHC rent prices are determined by the average income of Richmond residents.

“Generally, we’re targeting for 50-60 percent of median income,” Birchett said.  “For Richmond, it’s a little over $80,000 for a family of 4, so you take half of that, or 60 percent, and then depending on the household size the income goes up or down from there.”

Graphic courtesy of BHC

The Community

Like many projects undertaken by the BHC, building and developing The Goodwyn has been a process many years in the making.

As explained by Birchett, community feedback is crucial in moving forward with affordable housing projects.

“We had over two years worth of community meetings with plans revised based on community feedback,” Birchett explained, adding that the original plan was for one large building was changed when neighbors voiced that they wanted them to be broken up into multiple smaller buildings.

“There’s a lot of fear when people hear about affordable housing coming to the neighborhood,” Birchett said. “I think in theory everyone agrees that it’s needed and that we should build more of it until you find out there’s going to be a big development in your backyard.”

Union Hill residents or anyone curious about The Goodwyn can tour the building and the BHC’s projects throughout the city by signing up online.

The first few buildings are expected to be finished by the end of November with residents moving in at the beginning of 2019.

As of late October, more than 100 people had applied to live at The Goodwyn.

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