"Tenacity" led to Residences at North Hill ribbon cutting
“Tenacity” was the most repeated word by speakers at the ribbon cutting for the long-awaited Residences at North Hill, Wednesday, June 14. Many speakers beamed with joy and relief that the buildings were ready for occupancy.
The new development stretches from the Cherry Arms apartments to Dart Drive along the east side of Richmond Highway. It includes five four-story apartment buildings with 279 affordable units, including 23 senior units, as well as a cluster of 175 market-rate townhouses selling for $650,000-$700,000. The site includes a 12-acre public park at the top of the hill with a picnic shelter, pickleball courts, playground and wooded walking trails.
The apartments — a mix of one, two and three bedrooms — will be leased to people making up to 60% of area median income (AMI), or about $62,000 for an individual. Rent for a one-bedroom for that income is $1,529, according to the property management office of Pennrose, the builder and manager. Of the 279 apartments, 68 will be designated for very-low-income holders of project-based vouchers (PBV), which are granted and administered through the Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development. The holder of a PBV pays about 30% of their income in rent.
Speakers outlined the 40-year history and many obstacles overcome since the site was purchased with funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for affordable housing. They included representatives of the county, community and builders currently involved in the project, as well as those involved over four decades.
The speaker from HUD, Claudette Fernandez, observed, “This land was bought with a HUD grant the year I was born.”
Despite the project’s extraordinary timeline and complexity,
Fernandez called it a “model” for how people and institutions can work
together to get something done.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (BoS) Chairman Jeff McKay recalled riding his bike as a kid around the mobile home park that occupied North Hill in his childhood. After the unstable marine clay soil caused mobile homes to slip from their locations atop the hill, the county purchased 48 acres in 1981 with $5 million from a HUD grant and relocated the mobile homes at the bottom of the hill, leaving 33 acres for development of affordable housing. Then the long controversy began.
For a while, the BoS was uninterested in affordable housing and let the matter slide. Former Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland recalled at the ribbon cutting that a woman in the community called him — even before he was elected — and insisted the project move ahead. He said she turned out 300 people at a Fairfax County Rehabilitation and Housing Authority (FCRHA) commission meeting demanding action.
Hyland pushed the project but ran into opposition with neighbors and environmentalists who wanted to keep the hill forested. New Hope Housing and Rising Hope Methodist Church, which advocate for low-income and homeless people, pushed for affordable housing. The Mount Vernon Council of Citizens' Associations initially opposed the project but later supported it and was thanked at the ribbon cutting. The former leaders of New Hope and Rising Hope attended and were also thanked for their advocacy.
Fourteen funding sources were coordinated, including $4 million from FCRHA, various HUD grants, tax credits allocated by Virginia Housing, financing from Virginia Housing and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, and construction financing and equity investments from Bank of America and Truist Bank.
By 2016, county staff had proposed a comprehensive plan change that called for affordable apartments, market rate townhouses and a park — in roughly the current proportions. Around that time, the BoS also approved the Embark Richmond Highway plan to intensely develop the Route 1 corridor around a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
Ground was broken on the project in 2020, but the next few years saw slowdowns from Covid-19, supply chain issues and — again — trouble with the marine clay soil, which required engineering a large retaining wall to separate the park from the townhouses.
Several speakers touted the bright boxy urban design that visually breaks the long apartment buildings into sections.
“A lot of affordable housing has outdated design that just gets by,” said David Glassman, assistant director of rental housing development at Virginia Housing. “North Hill shows it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Elizabeth Lardner of the FCRHA advisory commission and a landscape architect, said, “Here we can see how a good design can elevate lives.”
Storck and others stressed the advantages of placing a large affordable housing complex in the center of the proposed Embark development, on a planned public transit line and near jobs, shops and other community amenities. One of the BRT stations will be near a pedestrian plaza in front of North Hill at Dart Drive.
The Residences at North Hill are now taking applications at ResidencesAtNorthHill.com, according to Kayla Robinson, property manager. She said they have been accepting applications for several months and will sort through the existing ones to make sure they are still active. The application includes questions about income to ensure that applicants meet the levels of 30%, 50% or 60% AMI. Applicants needing a voucher must apply through the Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development.
Asked whether many local residents have applied, Robinson said most applications were from Fairfax County, with the second highest number from the DMV (D.C./Maryland/Virginia) area, and some from out of state, many from older parents of local residents.
She said one building is open for occupancy now, and another will be soon. The other three will open in a matter of months.